Parents in crisis can’t parent therapeutically – so stop expecting us to.

My teenaged son called this evening to explain that he’d cursed his teacher out and thrown his desk across the classroom. He was upset because he’d lost his school issued Chrome book because he’d taken it home (not allowed, and not his first time) and had pornography on it. I listened patiently without judgement. He explained how his elopement from school ended in an entanglement in a pricker bush and contact with a concrete culvert which scratched up his arms and legs. He was covered with bloody scratches and scrapes. I expressed empathy as I sipped my coffee. I offered encouragement when he said he was going to try to earn back the Chromebook and even said I’d talk to the school to ask for a clear plan to work towards that goal. I told him I was proud of this choice to make tomorrow a new day.

Today I was a therapeutic parent superstar and here’s why:

Had this situation happened when my son was still living at home, I would have gone nuts. I would have been throwing out consequences and yelling. My anxiety would have been through the roof. I would have been angry, embarrassed, frustrated, and overwhelmed.

Back when my son was living at home, our family was in crisis. The situation had grown toxic. It took several years of his being in treatment programs, and my being in therapy and educating myself, to begin to find a positive way forward.

Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. Adoptive and foster parents aren’t prepared for the early childhood trauma most kids coming into our families have experienced. We usually reach a crisis point before we learn about therapeutic parenting. By that time, we’ve become desperate and demoralized. Our mental and physical health is so degraded that we are barely surviving. Our kids are out of control. Our life is out of control. We can’t even manage to brush our hair in the morning much less use a calm and kind voice after our child spits in our face.

No doubt, our children need us to be that calm and steady, therapeutic parent, but at that point, we simply don’t have the capacity to do it. And given the our current relationship with our kids, it’s likely we aren’t even the best person to do it. Though few dare tell the shameful truth – we likely have come to a point where we really don’t like our kid. It’s a struggle to be nice to them. It’s difficult to not feel adversarial towards them. If we’re really being honest, some days we’re as out of control as our kids.

Unfortunately, few therapists understand this. They usually underestimate our child’s extreme behaviors and the level of crisis our family is in. They assume we have the ability to parent therapeutically and shame us if we don’t. For our families to heal and thrive, this is something that must be recognized and addressed.

The only clinician I know who is talking about this and teaching other clinicians about this is Forrest Lien of Lifespan Trauma Consulting. (If you are a parent, please follow him on social media to support his efforts on our behalf.)

Families in crisis do not have the capacity to parent therapeutically. This is why we must:

1) Get help to families before they are in crisis (this means pre-adoption training and post-adoption support),

2) Support parents and families in a holistic way. Help us get to a place where we can parent therapeutically.

3) Surround families who are in crisis with supports. Stop shaming us for being broken and demoralized. Give us a hand up.

Parents must be healthy and educated to parent therapeutically.


A note about therapeutic parenting:

There are no perfect treatments for developmental trauma. My son hasn’t been able to access the highly specialized treatment he needs. My response to his phone call today doesn’t solve the problem – I realize that. However, consequences, though perhaps “deserved” won’t work, and will only further escalate my son. What I must do is choose the response that is most likely to move the ball forward. My goal is for him to remain in school and to not get kicked out of the group home. My goal is to de-escalate the situation. I highly recommend A to Z Therapeutic Parenting for practical information on therapeutic parenting.

A to Z of Therapeutic Parenting

The a-z Of Therapeutic Parenting, Sarah Naish

My Rating: 5/5

We can’t always be therapeutic, no matter how hard we try, but we just need to be as therapeutic as we can, whenever we can. After all, we are only human!

– Sarah naish, adoptive parent and author

The a-z Of Therapeutic Parenting has real strategies and solutions for kids with developmental trauma. Enough said. Seriously, for most adoptive parents I could end my review here. That’s how incredibly rare it is to find practical strategies that make sense.

But let me explain more… Sarah Naish is the adoptive parent of 5 children and fostered for years. She speaks from experience and that’s clear. Her book isn’t full of platitudes or theory. It’s practical which is what parents like myself are desperate for.

The book begins with general information on developmental trauma and strategic approaches. This is well written and helpful in making the paradigm shift from traditional parenting to therapeutic parenting. However, what makes this a 5-coffee review is PART 2: A-Z OF BEHAVIORS AND CHALLENGES WITH SOLUTIONS which is an indexed guide of behaviors with strategies to address each of them.

Each behavior (Lying, Food Issues, Brushing Teeth, Charming, and so many more!) has its own entry. Let’s take “Lying” as an example since that’s a hard one to deal with. Here’s a taste:

  • WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE– This section includes descriptions of how the behavior may manifest in your home. The entry for lying includes: blatant lying, habitual lying for not reason, stalwart sticking to the lie…
  • WHY IT MIGHT HAPPEN – This is one of the best parts of each entry because it’s honest. It doesn’t assume all kids have exactly the same motive. Instead it allows for the fact that some kids may be more willful than others. The entry for lying includes: avoiding shame, lack of cause-and-effect thinking, dysregulation, momentary hatred of parent…
  • REALITY CHECK – Here’s where all adoptive and foster parents can connect. Naish gets personal and doesn’t gloss over how these behaviors can drive parents crazy. We’re only human after all! The entry for lying includes: the struggle parents feel over letting a child ‘get away’ with lying and the frustration we feel…
  • USEFUL STRATEGIES – This is the information we are desperate for. The entry for lying has 6 bullet pointed suggestions to try. They’re not all going to work for every child – and because Naish is a fellow parent – she gets that. The strategies are varied, practical, realistic, and useful. I won’t give them away. Go pick up a copy of the book

My Bottom Line
The a-z Of Therapeutic Parenting is practical and comprehensive help for foster and adoptive parents who are looking for parenting strategies. It’s obviously written from the trenches, not the desk of an academic. I can’t recommend this book enough- in fact, I’d add a dollop of whipped cream to my 5-coffee rating if I could!

Consider too joining the Therapeutic Parenting facebook group founded by author Sarah Naish. Be sure to let them know you heard about them from @RasingDevon.


How to Discipline a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)

It’s the million-dollar question. How do we manage the behavior of children with RAD?

Therapeutic approaches can seem scarily permissive. Meanwhile, traditional parenting approaches backfire spectacularly.

At the root, most behaviors children with RAD engage in are intended for self-preservation – by sabotaging relationships and controlling their environments. It’s unlikely, however, that they’re introspective enough to be consciously doing this. These underlying motivations are etched like scars on their psyche.

Most likely, the in-your-face motivations of these kids are far more concrete. For example, our kids may be arguing incessantly because:

  • it’s a habit like biting their nails or spinning a pencil
  • they want to test our boundaries to see how flexible the rules are
  • they don’t really care about anyone else’s feelings or needs
  • they love to push our buttons and get a reaction

When we’re in the trenches trying to manage these behaviors it’s sometimes difficult to embrace therapeutic parenting approaches because they seem to discount these in-your-face motivations entirely. Instead, they focus completely on the underlying, unconscious motivations.

[bctt tweet=”I’ve had therapists tell me that my son has no control over his behaviors – as if they’re as involuntary as a sneeze. I sure know that’s not the case.” username=”RaisingDevon”]

Yes, in the real-world of RAD parenting, we know the in-your-face motivations are every bit as real as the unconscious, underlying motivations. In fact, they’re what make the behaviors so painful to deal with emotionally. As a result, parents often focus on the in-your-face motivations and find themselves angry, frustrated, and easily triggered.

Let’s consider that in many children, both sets of motivations co-exist.

For example,

My child is arguing just because they enjoy pushing my buttons. It gives them a feeling of control which they unconsciously crave because they intrinsically believe the world is unsafe.

When we look at the motivations for the behavior more holistically like this we are able to have greater empathy, more patience, and find energy to invest in long-term approaches. Below are some resources I’ve found useful for specific strategies and approaches. Please be sure to comment and share what’s working for you.

Recommended Resources


The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting

Sara Naish’s book “The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting” it a balanced approach that’s both therapeutic and practical. She covers behaviors from Absconding to ZZZZ (sleep issues) and everything in between. For each behavior she helps us understand the broad range of reasons why a child might be doing it. She also provides strategies to prevent the behavior, to manage it in the moment, and to address it after the fact. These suggestions are refreshingly practical and obviously written by someone who has been in the trenches themselves. Read my full review or pick up a copy here: The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting.


How to Discipline a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder-2

How-to blog post

Check out this excellent post on how to discipline a child with RAD. This is one of the most complicated topics related to RAD. Most ‘discipline’ is ineffective and it can be quite risky.

How to Discipline a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder – Every Star Is Different