20 Therapeutic Parenting Tips for Success: A Mini Primer for Foster and Adoptive Parents

Parents of attachment challenged, traumatized children often need a cheat sheet to help them remember the basics of therapeutic parenting when the chips are down and the stress is through the roof.  Never fear. Here are 20 Therapeutic Parenting Tips for Foster and Adoptive Parents.  That’s you, right?

Here we go:


1. Always, always, always show soft eyes, sweet face, gentle tone of voice, and kindness. Remember somebody precious lives in there.






2. Your child’s brain is different.  It needs special therapeutic care from you all the time, not just sometimes.








3. Never yell, threaten, swear at or hit your child.  Never. Let’s be honest; it happens. If you do, apologize as soon as you come to your senses, and be sure not to say, …But you were being really bad, annoying, horrible, mean, or hateful—that’s why I did it.  If you hit your child, you were dysregulated.  That’s why you did it.  Get help to regulate your emotions.  Get it now before you find yourself in the lap of Child Protective Services or, worse, in the land of no trust forever with your child.

4. Teach regulation by regulating in front of your children. Breathe, take space, use your words, identify out loud your feelings, sit down, take a time in or out, do something active, meditate, pray, laugh out loud, get a grip, shake it off, refocus, redo, and come back regulated to make it right.


5. Ask yourself what is the need behind the behavior.  For example, my child is annoying every minute and that pulls for my ire.  What is the need behind the behavior?  She wants my attention?  Of-course.  He wants to control me?  Maybe.  She wants me to abuse her?  Not really.  Your job is to guess (not inquire) at the need, and then meet it.  If you think she needs attention, help her learn the skill of seeking attention in a positive way and give it to her. If you think, He wants to control me, assume it is a deep seated need to keep himself safe; then give him structure and assure him he is safe with you.  If you think, She wants me to abuse her, realize that she has been abused and thinks of that as love or she feels she is bad and seeks to prove it or reinforce her feelings. Give her unconditional love and teach her how to seek it in a positive way–practice often.



6. If you do not want to be lied to,do not ask your child, Why. Our kids don’t know why they do the nonsensical things they do; so why ask why?  They will just make something up and you will be angry that they lied to you.




7. Star Charts and Sticker Charts don’t work for our kids for very long, so don’t let some helpful social worker/therapist/friend set you and your child up for failure by being talked into creating one.  Our kids feel bad inside (that is their “go to” internal working model), so unconsciously they can only let a reward chart succeed for so long before there is an impulse to sabotage the good and return to the more comfortable bad working model.  All unconscious, of course.





8. Sending a previously abandoned child to a separate room for a time out is triggering to one who has already been rejected so thoroughly by a biological parent (and maybe many other foster care parents).  Therapeutic parents do not reject, banish, shut out, close out, or abandon children as a consequence. The magnitude of the internal pain inflicted by such is hugely disproportionate to any childhood transgression that could have occurred.




9. Punishment does not teach a child anything except that the punisher is more powerful and maybe even mean. Unrelated consequences make no sense to a child.  A natural consequence is the only way to teach that ever desired cause and effect thinking.  If I go to school without my coat, I get cold. That natural consequence is the natural teacher, not shaming, blaming, lecturing, consequencing, punishing, or withholding privileges. Of-course, if it were snowing outside, letting your child go to school without a coat would be cruel and abusive; so natural consequences need to be guided by empathy.






10. Long parental talks make children effectively deaf or near senile.  Be short and sweet (literally).






11. Making a child apologize does not make a child sorry.  Encourage your child to “show sorrow” by making things right by doing something kind, restorative, or healing.











12. Routines are key.  Surprises are overwhelming.  Keep to a schedule.  When you change it up, consider the child and give a bit of advanced warning. In 10 minutes we are going to go to the grocery store.  I will remind you when it is time to put your shoes on.



13. Listen up:  Too much advanced notice will create high anxiety, so your child may emotionally melt down, sabotage, badger, or question you to death.  Telling your child about the Disney trip a month in advance will surely cause enough anxiety to make you not want to go when the month is up. If you created the advanced notice anxiety, go on vacation no ma
tter how tiring the shenanigans.  Excitement anxiety is not your child’s fault.



14. Too much big praise is too much.  It could tip your child over into mistrust or dismissiveness of your words.  Show low key interest in things your child produces or does.  Keep praise for appearance or accomplishments to a quick fact of, That dress brings out the pretty blue of your eyes or Your painting has beautiful bright colors.



15. Always separate your child from their behavior.  Lose this sentence, I don’t like you when you act like that. Be very sure about the cause of their difficulties so you have enough empathy to give the necessary messages to grow a positive sense of self.  For example, I know you have a loving heart, so pinching your best friend surprised me or I know you are a careful person, so seeing you run with those scissors scared me.








16. Say what you mean thoughtfully, empathically, playfully, and devoid of all sarcasm. Sarcasm and putdown-teasing is mean to do to a hurting child (and possibly to anyone).


17. Caring through empathy is the way. Personalizing your child’s behavior is misguided.  Behavior is around you, not about you. Empathy is the antidote to shame and makes you a safe parent.


18. Playful engagement is the language of children.  If you are not playing every day with your child, you are speaking a foreign language and missing out on the primary ingredient of attachment glue.



19. Listen to the feelings beneath your child’s negative habituated reaction; give appropriate words and language for feelings so your child can learn to talk them out instead of acting them out.



20. Finally, my dear parents, care as much for yourself as you do for your child.  Care as much for your child as you do for yourself. How you care for yourself is how you care for your child.  How you care for your child is how you care for yourself.  Wrap your brain around that and you will go right now to arrange respite care. Parents of traumatized, attachment challenged children without respite are rarely therapeutic for long. That’s a fact.


It is possible to have a life worth living with children from difficult beginnings. Give these a try and go to https://attachplace.com/category/wisdom-for-adoptive-parents to sign up for regular tips from someone who really gets it.

Remember, even when it is hard to keep your marbles in the bag and and your lid screwed on, your love matters.


Ce Eshelman, LMFT is the author of Drowning With My Hair On Fire: Insanity Relief for Adoptive Parents and the founder of The Attach Place Center for Strengthening Relationships LLC in Sacramento, CA.  She is an attachment therapist and parent of five children–two step, two adopted and one foster.

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