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

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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The move towards brave doesn’t have to be a leap. It can be a shuffle - lots of brave tiny steps, each one more brave than before. What’s important isn’t the size of the step but the direction.

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You know who I love? (Not counting every food delivery person who has delivered takeaway to my home. Or the person who puts the little slots in the sides of the soy sauce packets to make them easier to open. Not counting those people.) You know who? Adolescents. I just love them. 
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Today I spoke with two big groups of secondary school students about managing anxiety. In each talk, as there are in all of my talks with teens, there were questions. Big, open-hearted, thoughtful questions that go right to the heart of it all. 
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Some of the questions they asked were:
- What can I do to help my friend who is feeling big anxiety?
- What can I do to help an adult who has anxiety?
- How can I start the conversation about anxiety with my parents?

Our teens have big, beautiful, open hearts. They won’t always show us that, but they do. They want to be there for their friends and for the adults in their lives. They want to be able to come to us and talk about the things that matter, but sometimes they don’t know how to start. They want to step up and be there for their important people, including their parents, but sometimes they don’t know how. They want to be connected to us, but they don’t want to be controlled, or trapped in conversations that won’t end once they begin. 

Our teens need to know that the way to us is open. The more they can feel their important adults holding on to them - not controlling them - the better. Let them know you won’t cramp them, or intrude, or ask too many questions they don’t want you to ask. Let them know that when they want the conversation to stop, it will stop. But above all else, let them know you’re there. Tell them they don’t need to have all the words. They don’t need to have any words at all. Tell them that if they let you know they want to chat, you can handle anything that comes from there - even if it’s silence, or messy words, or big feelings - you can handle all of it. Our teens are extraordinary and they need us during adolescence more than ever, but this will have to be more on their terms for a while.  They love you and they need you. They won’t always show it, but I promise you, they do.♥️
Sometimes silence means 'I don't have anything to say.' Sometimes it means, 'I have plenty to say but I don't want to share it right here and right now.' We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety are thoughtful, observant and insightful, and their wisdom will always have the potential to add something important to the world for all of us.

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Rather than talking to them about what they can’t do (and they’ll probably want to talk about this a lot - that’s what anxiety does), ask them what they can do. It doesn’t matter how small the step is, as long as it’s forward.
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The idea is to gradually and gently expose them to the things that feel frightening. This is the only way to re-teach the amygdala that it’s safe. Let them know you understand it feels scary - they need to know you feel what they feel and that you get it. This will make your belief in them and your refusal to support avoidance more meaningful. Then move them towards brave.
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This can be tough. To move our children towards the things that are causing them distress pushes fiercely against our instincts as a parent - but - supporting avoidance, overprotecting, over-reassuring, the things we do that unintentionally accommodate anxiety over brave behaviour will only feed anxiety and make it more resistant to change. (And as a parent I’ve done all of these things at some time - we’re parents, not perfect, and parental love has a way of drawing us all in to unhelpful behaviours in the name of protecting our kiddos). .
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The point is, moving our children towards brave behaviour can feel awful, but it’s so important. When they focus on the fear and what they can’t do, try, ‘Okay, I know this feels scary. I really do. I also know you can do this. I understand this step feels too big, so what little step can you take towards it? What can you do that is braver than last time?’

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We can’t decide the lessons our children learn and we can’t decide when they learn them, but we can create the space that invites the discovery. We can do this by making it safe for them to speak, and to wander around their own experiences so the lessons and wisdom can emerge.
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