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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Today was an ending and a beginning. My darling girl finished year 12. The final year at school is tough enough, but this year was seismic. Our teens have moved through this year with the most outstanding courage and grace and strength, and now it is time for them to rest and play. My gosh they deserve it. 

It is true that this is a time of celebration, but it can also be an intense time of self-reflection for our teens. (I can remember the same feelings when my gorgeous boy finished so many years ago!) My daughter has described it as, ‘I feel as though I’ve outgrown myself but my new self isn’t ready yet.’ This just makes so much sense. 

There is a beautifully fertile void that is waiting for whatever comes next for each of them, but that void is still a void. At different times it might feel exciting, overwhelming, or brutal in its emptiness.

We also have to remember that this is a time of letting go, and there might be grief that comes with that. Before they can grab on to their next big adventure, they have to let go of the guard rails. This means gently adjusting their hold on the world they have known for the last 12+ years, with its places and routines and people that have felt like home on so many days. There will be redirects and shiftings, and through it all the things that need to stay will stay, and the things that need to adjust will adjust. 

To my darling girl, your loved incredible friends, and the teens who make our world what it is - you are the beautiful  thinkers, the big feelers, the creators, the change makers, and the ones who will craft and grow a better world. However you might feel now, the lights are waiting to shine for you and because of you. The world beyond school is opening its arms to you. That opening might happen quickly, or gently, or smoothly or chaotically, but it will happen. This world needs every one of you - your voices, your spirits, your fire, your softness, your strength and your power. You are world-ready, and we are so glad you are here xxx
When our kids or teens are in high emotion, their words might sound anxious, angry, inconsolable, jealous, defiant. As messy as the words might be, they have a good reason for being there. Big feelings surge as a way to influence the environment to meet a need. Of course, sometimes the fallout from this can be nuclear.
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Wherever there is a big emotion, there will always be an important need behind it - safety, comfort, attention, food, rest, connection. The need will always be valid, even if the way they’re going about meeting it is a little rough. As with so many difficult parenting moments, there will be gold in the middle of the mess if we know where to look. 
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There will be times for shaping the behaviour into a healthier response, but in the middle of a big feeling is not one of those times. Big feelings are NOT a sign of dysfunction, bad kids or bad parenting. They are a part of being human, and they bring rich opportunities for wisdom, learning and growth. .
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Parenting isn’t about stopping the emotional storms, but about moving through the storm and reaching the other side in a way that preserves the opportunity for our kids and teens to learn and grow from the experience - and they will always learn best from experience. 
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To calm a big feeling, name what you see, ‘I can see you’re disappointed. I know how much you wanted that’, or, ‘I can see this feels big for you,’ or, ‘You’re angry at me about .. aren’t you. I understand that. I would be mad too if I had to […],’ or ‘It sounds like today has been a really hard day.’ 
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When we connect with the emotion, we help soothe the nervous system. The emotion has done its job, found support, and can start to ease. 
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When they ‘let go’ they’re letting us in on their deepest and most honest emotional selves. We don’t need to change that. What we need to do is meet them where they and gently guide them from there. When they feel seen and understood, their trust in us and their connection to us will deepen, opening the way for our influence.
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When they are at that line, deciding whether to retreat to safety or move forward into brave, there will be a part of them that will know they have what it takes to be brave. It might be pale, or quiet, or a little tumbled by the noise from anxiety, but it will be there. And it will be magical. Our job as their flight crew is to clear the way for this magical part of them to rise. ‘I can see this feels scary for you - and I know you can do this.’ 
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When our kids or teens are struggling, it can be hard to know what they need. It can also be hard for them to say. It can be this way for all of us - we don't always know what we need from the people around us. It might be space, or distraction, or silence, or maybe acknowledging and being there is enough. Sometimes we might need to know that the people we love aren't taking our need for space, or our confusion or anger or sadness personally, and that they are still there within reach.
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What can be easier is thinking about what other people might need. Asking this when they are calm can invite a different perspective and can give you some insight into what they need to hear when they are going through similar. Don't worry if you just get a shrug, or a disheartened, 'I don't know'. They don't need to know, and neither do we. The question in itself might be enough to open a new way through any sense of 'stuckness' or helplessness they might be feeling.
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Give them space to talk but you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to, but the answers are in them, not us. Sometimes the answer will be to feel it out, or push for change, or feel the futility of it all so the feeling can let go, knowing it’s done it’s job - it’s recruited support, or raised awareness that something isn’t right.

Sometimes the feelings might be seismic but the words might be gone for a while. That’s okay too. Do they want to start with whatever words are there? Or talk about something else? Or go for a walk with you? Watch a movie with you? Or do a spontaneous, unnecessary drive thru with you just because you can - no words, no need to explain - just you and them and car music for the next 20 minutes. 

The more you can validate what they’re feeling (maybe, ‘Today was big for you wasn’t it’) and give them space to feel, the more they can feel the feeling, understand the need that’s fuelling it, and experiment with ways to deal with it. Sometimes, ‘dealing with it’ might mean acknowledging that there is something that feels big or important and a little out of reach right now, and feeling the fullness and futility of that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days are rubbish, and that sometimes those days last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. But the learning comes from experience.

I wish our kids never felt pain, but we don’t get to decide that. We don’t get to decide how our children grow, but we do get to decide how much space and support we give them for this growth. We can love them through it but we can’t love them out of it. I wish we could but we can’t.

So instead of feeling the need to silence their pain, make space for it. In the end we have no choice. Sometimes all the love in the world won’t be enough to put the wrong things right, but it can help them feel held while they move through the pain enough to find their out breath, and the strength that comes with that.♥️

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