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!

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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