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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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things 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. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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