This Isn’t Real Life, This Isn’t Fantasy – To Those Who Think We Aren’t Preparing Them For the Real World

In 2013, my husband won custody of his children (my stepson, “Little,” age six; my stepdaughter, “Middle,” age 7). Before they came to live with us, they endured a lot of early-childhood trauma and neglect, and they were soon diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).

The most important part of their treatment plan involves therapeutic parenting. We use the SPACE model, which stands for “safety, supervision, structure, support … playful, accepting, curious, and empathetic.” We do enforce consequences, but from an outsider’s perspective I’m sure it looks like we don’t because therapeutic consequences are extremely understated. They aren’t rooted in fear, shame, or guilt, and most consequences aren’t rewards-based. So, for example, if Little was throwing cars at the wall, I wouldn’t take his cars away. Instead, I would grab softer, more appropriate things to throw at the wall and say, “My, it sure does feel good to throw things when we’re mad, huh?” Later, he would patch the holes.

Some things require rewards-based consequences, and we try to be neutral when those come up. For example, if they have a horrible day full of meltdowns, they lose the right to stay up until bedtime and must go to bed early. To make it therapeutic, we avoid saying things like, “You’re going to bed an hour early because your behavior is awful! Maybe you will remember this before you decide to throw a huge fit!” Rather, we try to say something like,  “Oh, it’s time for bed now. You are so tired. I want to make sure you have a good day tomorrow so you need a little extra rest!”

I don’t like parenting this way. It’s hard and tedious and exhausting, and I’m not very good at it. It’s hard not to lose my cool when my kid uses a paper clip to rip holes in her school clothes for the umpteenth time. Most days, every fiber of my being screams, “Punish them for this bad behavior, because the real world certainly will!”

Sometimes, I listen to those fibers and dole out a punitive consequence. But I try my best to stay therapeutic through even the most awful behaviors.

Recently, after explaining some misdeed of Middle’s and my response to her behavior, someone remarked, “It just seems like you’re not preparing them for the real world.”

And it’s true. Therapeutic parenting does not prepare our kids for the real world.

So, why do we parent this way when we know we aren’t preparing them for the real world? I mean, isn’t that the whole point of parenting?!

First, we have tried typical parenting methods and know they do not work. Sticker and reward charts are useless… Middle figures out how to manipulate them with amazing competence, and Little doesn’t seem to care whether or not he gets stickers or rewards. Giving them positive attention and compliments only encourages them to act out, and punishing them by yelling or taking away toys seems to have no impact (I once removed every single item from the kids’ room and told them they had to earn their things back. This did not faze them. In fact, they enthusiastically helped me empty out their bedroom).

Second, we know why typical parenting methods don’t work. The trauma and neglect they encountered before they came to live with us actually altered their brains and brain chemistry. Enforcing punitive consequences isn’t going to rewire their brains because they aren’t lacking in a knowledge of right and wrong… They lack a secure attachment and this prevents them from understanding and building healthy interpersonal relationships which are an essential part of being a functional human being. The only way to fix these issues is for us, as parents, to foster a healthy attachment bond with the children.

Building up a healthy attachment in my kids with a traumatic background is paramount in parenting them. They will not stop engaging in the negative behaviors associated with RAD until they develop empathy and feel safe in their environment, and the best way to help kids from traumatic backgrounds develop empathy is to use therapeutic, non-punitive techniques that show them they are loved and they are safe. These techniques, of course, do little to prepare kids for the harsh reality of the real world… But here’s the thing. If we stick with it and do our best, if a healthy attachment builds and becomes secure, eventually the kids will be able to handle more typical parenting methods and we will be able to move on to methods that prepare them for life outside of our home.

And I’m confident that we will get there. We’ve already seen so many improvements in my step-children since we started parenting with SPACE, and they heal a little more with every passing day. In fact, Middle recently made me a rainbow-colored bracelet that reads, “I love you.”

And I never take it off. Ever.

So, to everyone who gets confused by our parenting methods or worries that the kids will leave our home and buckle under the reality of life, I advise you to relax. We’ll prepare them for the real world eventually, but right now, we’re working on love instead.


About the Author: Sarah Neal

Sarah Neal is a mother to three children with special needs. She writes extensively about parenting children with reactive attachment disorder on her blog, Trauma Mama Drama, where she shares resources, information, and her family’s journey through the Traumasphere. 

17 Comments

Shareen

I so hope you’ve had the chance to do Circle of Security training – it would suit your situation perfectly as it’s based it attachment theory and is designed specifically for parents and children with attachment difficulties.

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Alana

Oh, I disagree with those people who say you aren’t preparing them for the real world. You are creating a safe environment where they can learn to internalise the lessons you are teaching them, this will mean they’ll be able to draw from within instead of needing to be told what to do or not to do constantly in the real world. I think you’re doing a wonderful job!

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Linda

This is fantastic! It seems that “Little” and “Middle” had already experienced Real Life pain before they came to live with you and their dad. Isn’t healing also one part of Real Life? Congratulations to all of you for your victories!

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Wilma

Hi Sarah

Thank you for sharing your experiences. You are offering an amazing gift to Little and Middle. I hope you and your hubby are getting lots of back up support. I am a social worker and over the past years I have encouraged and supported (foster) parents to use therapeutic parenting to help their children recover from trauma and feel safe enough to to form an attachment bond with safe adults. Of course many (foster)parents tell me I can’t know what it is really like, because I don’t have to do it 24 x 7 like they do, especially when they feel low and run down. So your blog will be invaluable for all those people giving their children the gift of therapeutic parenting if and when they need it. Wilma

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Jayna Coppedge

Thank you for your honesty. I do believe that you are right in your approach and once your children’s brains are rewired to understand love and acceptance, the training for the “real world” will happen so much more easily. I shared this post in a parenting group because your writing style made the concepts so much more understandable.

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Sarah Neal

Thank you for sharing!

I’ve noticed that more and more often, people are recommending this style of parenting. Maybe soon, empathetic parenting methods like the one we use (Daniel Hughes’s PACE method) won’t be seen as allowing the kids to “win” or “get away with bad behavior,” but will instead be viewed as a collaborative approach to helping kids grow into empathetic and kind individuals! 🙂

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Lois Olson

I suggest looking into Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson. It is much like “therapeutic parenting”. It does not suggest the use of rewards and punishments and rather than consequences, invites the child to be part of the solution with the use of problem solving.
Please don’t ever go back to the old ways!

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Meg

I remember kicking a hole in a cabinet just because my 2-year-old was whining and mouthing off in his high chair and making me batty. How trivial of me. How blessed am I? The patience you possess (or force yourself to muster) is beyond heroic. The honesty you display in admitting you don’t like that parenting style but embrace it for the good of your kids is so refreshing. I salute you and know these kids will find their way.

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Sarah Neal

Oh, I certainly have had my fair share of those days, too. 🙂

Our goal is therapeutic parenting because it works so well when we manage to do it… Though we’re getting better at it every day, there are many days where we don’t quite make it!

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Lisa Gami

Beautiful article. So nicely written. Your kids see you and your husband’s empathy, patience (or struggle which is ok too) and creative problem- solving besides all the other lessons they’re learning (ie. please, thank you, don’t hit). Keep up the endless, good work Mama.

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Livia

This is great! I just finished reading “Discipline Without Damage” by Vanessa Lapointe and it echoes a lot of these principles for parenting that affirms parent-child connection so that children can put aside any subconscious worry about that connection, allowing their brains and bodies to direct all their energy to healthy development. I think preparing kids for “the real world” is as much about building a strong, safe haven in the family environment as it is helping them understand consequences, etc. Thanks for the great real-life example!

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k

Great article. I disagree with the people who say you aren’t preparing them for real life. When is the last time your boss/friend/etc actually punished you? In real life, what serves us best is empathy for what people are going through & understanding that emotions are a real part of life.

IMO you’re one of the few parents ACTUALLY preparing them for real life…

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Shiree

I love your article and applaud your patience with your children and your candor with your readers! I would also add that I have learned to apply many of these same parenting strategies with my typical kids, and I believe that in kindness and patience I am preparing them beautifully for the real world. Yelling is NEVER a good parenting strategy for any child. Kids with RAD need extra patience and extra kindness so I definitely acknowledge the differences. I also firmly believe that punitive parenting sets kids of all types up for shame, guilt, and anger that hinders their abilities to effectively navigate “the real world.” Blessings to you as you continue to parent reactive kids in patience and kindness! It’s not an easy job!! I hope others notice what you’re doing and recognize its value for all kinds of kids. Kindness counts!

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Pam

Hi Sarah, It is people like you who will save this world. I can’t even imagine the patience it takes to do this and you are a very brave and wonderful person. Hang in there, when times get tough, walk away for a few minutes and give yourself a little timeout before you react. And remember you are saving lives, and I for one, am rooting for you! I’d be standing in my seat cheering if it wasn’t a desk chair on wheels! 🙂 God Bless!

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Sarah Neal

Oh, man! I always find it so hard to take that pause between behavior and my reaction. Working on it daily here. Thank you for the kind words!

Reply

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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