Parenting Children from Hard Backgrounds

Many Christian families are answering the call to care for orphans by exploring adoption from foster care. This is an encouraging trend, but it can also pose unique challenges because many kids come from traumatic and unstable backgrounds. Some have suffered physical or emotional abuse, resulting in numerous relational barriers with their adoptive parents. They may act out violently or become sullen, withdrawn, or silent.

Thankfully, if you have adopted a child from a traumatic background, there are steps you can take to build a stronger connection with him or her. The process can be slow, and it may require a great deal of patience as well as a willingness to parent differently than you’re used to.

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 child behaves violently and irrationally or withdraws sullenly into a corner.
  • The more you try to force a change in behavior, the more frustrated you’ll become. That’s because your child’s acting out is due to his or 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 your child’s brain functioning, you can address problematic issues at that level before dealing directly with his actions. The aim is to help your child transition to a “responsive” mode where he 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’ll 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 transition to traditional parenting tactics.

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.

If you don’t start seeing results within four weeks of starting TBRI with your child, we suggest you seek the assistance of a TBRI-trained therapist who can provide you with the personal attention and counsel you need.  Practitioners can be found through Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselor’s Network or the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development.

Finally, 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.