Parenting Adopted Children From Hard Backgrounds

Do you have any practical help for the adoptive parents of a child who comes from very difficult circumstances? We recently brought into our family a 7-year-old girl who’s been in and out of five different foster homes over the past three years. She was abused emotionally and physically by her birth parents, both of whom are currently serving sentences for drug-related offenses. She’s been with us about a month now, and we haven't been able to get past the emotional and relational barriers she’s put up against us. When she isn’t acting out violently, she’s sullen, withdrawn, and silent. Is there anything we can do to reverse this pattern?

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We commend you for taking this child into your home. It may be difficult to deal with the issues you outlined, but we want to encourage you that there is hope for change. Just keep in mind that the process is often slow and takes a good deal of patience with your child – and yourself. And it may require you to approach parenting differently than you’re used to.

What parenting approach is best when a child comes from a hard place?

When children are exposed to difficult circumstances before, during, or after birth – or they experience trauma during childhood – we counsel parents to use a therapeutic parenting style instead of a traditional parenting style. Our recommendation is based on a couple of factors:

  • A child whose brain is wounded by trauma has difficulty responding positively to traditional parenting methods. This is especially important to remember when your daughter behaves violently and irrationally or withdraws sullenly into a corner.

    The more you try to force her to change her behavior, the more frustrated you will become. That’s because her acting out is due to her brain being in a “reactive” mode that stems from emotions such as fear, anger, and hurt.

  • Therapeutic parenting is geared toward identifying “reactive” patterns inside your child’s brain and how they influence behavior. Once you gain a good understanding of her brain functioning, you can address problematic issues at that level before dealing directly with her actions. Your aim is to help her transition to a “responsive” mode where she can make a conscious choice to engage in acceptable behavior.

    Remember, too, the expectations you have at the outset are going to be very different from the ones that will be possible later on. You will be working along a continuum of healing that requires an average of one month for each year of your child’s age. When this process is completed, you will be in a better position to return to traditional parenting tactics.

Where can we find more information about therapeutic parenting?

  • One of the therapeutic parenting models we’ve seen successfully work with families is the late Dr. Karyn Purvis’ TBRI (Trust Based Relational Intervention). We recommend that you visit the webpage of TCU’s Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development, which has a free one-hour presentation designed to help parents understand their child’s brain development.
  • We’d also encourage you to get Dr. Purvis’ books on the subject: The Connected Child and Pocket Guide. It’s a good idea to read both of these resources cover to cover once a month throughout the entire timeframe of your therapeutic parenting experience.
  • If you don’t start seeing results within four weeks of starting TBRI with your daughter, we suggest you seek the assistance of a TBRI-trained therapist who can provide you with the personal attention and counsel you need.

Will therapeutic parenting work with teens, too?

Therapeutic parenting can be extremely beneficial for parents of teens. This approach helps mom and dad get a feel for the best way to interact with their teenager and establish appropriate boundaries in the relationship. Teenagers need adults to pursue relationship with them without pressuring them into it.

  • In general, reactive teens are not very skilled at using their words. TBRI teaches them better ways to communicate. When they’ve learned how to get their needs met appropriately, their brains perceive “safety,” and this perception builds trust.
  • TBRI is also a great option for overly strong-willed, reactive, or defiant teenagers. For maximum benefits, we recommend that parents use this method in conjunction with the guidance in Tim Sanford’s book Losing Control and Liking It. You can find this resource in our online store.

One last thought: As you set out on this journey toward healing for your child, it’s vital that you and your spouse take time for yourselves to re-energize for the task. Find options for periodic respite care that provide downtime and the refreshment of your marriage relationship. If these safeguards for your own health and well-being aren’t in place, the chance of burnout greatly increases.

If you’d like to discuss the challenges you’re facing, don’t hesitate to give us a call. Our counselors would be more than happy to speak with you over the phone. They can also provide referrals to qualified Christian therapists practicing in your area.


Losing Control and Liking It

Fostering or Adopting Children From Difficult Backgrounds (resource list)

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