Attachment Disorders Series #2: Parenting Reactive Children or Youth

Last month we shared an overview about parenting a child with attachment issues. And we touched on Trust-Based Relational Intervention® (TBRI) as a part of therapeutic parenting. (Therapeutic parenting is different from traditional parenting in that you learn to parent your child’s brain in addition to their behavior.)

There are four parts to successfully parenting reactive children or youth using TBRI: connecting, empowering, calming, and correcting. And they all come back to the do-over.

A do-over is redoing an action or restating a conversation — this time with appropriate behavior or words. A do-over reprograms pathways in your child’s brain and increases the chances that positive behavior will happen more quickly next time.


The purpose of connecting is to disarm anxiety, fear, or lack of trust. Connecting begins with a child’s perception of feeling safe environmentally, emotionally, and physically.

Physically connect with a young child. Get down on their eye level. Talk in a calm, up-beat voice. Your child learns best in a playful fun setting where they don’t feel threatened. The same is true for adolescents, so if possible, touch a hand or shoulder when talking to a reactive preteen or teen. But don’t force it.

If your child or adolescent can connect with you, give them time to calm down. Then, have them do a do-over.


If your child can’t connect with you or isn’t able to calm down, empower them. Give them a choice between two acceptable options. By doing this, they’ll feel less scared and defensive in the interaction. (You’re allowing them to have some control over the situation while keeping your rightful control as the parent.)

If your child can make a choice between the two options you presented and follow through, then you can connect with them and have them do a do-over. If they can’t? Work at calming them.


Meet the sensory processing needs of your child. For young children, this could include fidget toys, a weighted blanket, or dim lights. For a reactive adolescent, soothing music and soft pillows might work well.

The calming process can be the most time-consuming part of therapeutic parenting — and that’s OK. Once your child is calm and can use their words appropriately, connect with them and have them do a do-over.


Once you’ve connected with your child and they’re calm and feel safe, you redirect (correct) their behavior with a do-over. Focus on the desired action and language even if you don’t see an appropriate attitude. You can address the attitude behind the behavior or language once the pattern of reactivity has lessened.

Learn more

Therapeutic parenting is the preferred approach when dealing with your child’s tantrums or adolescent’s emotional outbursts. But it takes extra time, patience, and intentionality because you’re helping their brain to heal. Read our complete article Parenting Reactive Children or Youth for a deeper look and examples of how to connect, empower, calm, and correct. You’ll also find a list of recommended resources.