Therapeutic parenting and authenticity

28/01/2021

Let’s be honest, sometimes parenting therapeutically is hard – really hard.

It might be that you’re tired, something in another part of your life is taking up a lot of brain space, or possibly a specific repetitive behaviour is just beginning to grate on your nerves.

There is endless good advice out there and as therapeutic parents, we can lap it up and put it into practice, but it is nigh on impossible to do 100% of the time.

In the grand scheme of things, I’m a pretty recent adopter and fairly new to all this. I try to evaluate how things are going and constantly learn, but also go easy on myself. I aim to parent therapeutically the vast bulk of the time and if I slip and raise my voice or act in a more punitive way than I’d like to, I repair.

As I learn more, both through reading and living it – there’s an element of the whole picture that has become more prominent in my mind and that is the idea of authenticity.  The Canadian physician, author and child development expert Gabor Maté writes and speaks extensively on the subject. He features in a brilliant YouTube video that explores the conflict that can occur between a child’s key attachment relationship and their authenticity. His argument goes that because children have such a large attachment need, that at times they sacrifice their authenticity, their underlying gut instinct to maintain that attachment.

For Maté, this underlying conflict between authenticity and attachment is often the root of a lot of challenges in later life and can in some cases lead to severe psychological issues or other problems such as addiction. I’ve recently been thinking about whether I’m honouring my daughter’s authenticity in how I parent her.

Authenticity and adoptive parenting

As I said at the top of this article, therapeutic parenting is hard. It can help a child process their early trauma and regulate their emotions. It can help a family achieve a way of working and it is evidentially a hugely beneficial approach within adoption. But none of that stops it being tricky to keep up sometimes when life events get in the way.

Thinking about authenticity recently has allowed me to take a step back from certain behaviours that our daughter exhibits and allow them to happen. It might be annoying that a jigsaw puzzle is flying across the living room for the third time that day or that your child has spent 45 minutes refusing to get dressed, but are they at risk of injury other harm? Is anyone else – well, no. Maté’s understanding of authenticity is a useful compliment to both a therapeutic approach and the use of non-violent resistance in parenting.

I have to admit, allowing behaviours to happen and then working on the root of them didn’t come naturally to me and it’s something I have to work on all the time. But in the moment of a particular behaviour, a blow-up for example, there is an authenticity that can’t be ignored. In that situation, it is my role to help the child come back down from where they’d got to and help them work through the emotion that triggered the behaviour. I’m increasingly finding authenticity to be a useful lens to do that.

Practice vs theory

It’s one thing reading books about therapeutic parenting and another thing entirely putting it into practice. As much as I have learnt a huge amount from reading, you’re always going to learn more on the job.

For me, it all comes back to helping the child with the root causes of their emotions. Giving them space to authentically experience the emotions they’re going through and then helping them understand those emotions. What I find hard at times is stepping back from my own instincts that the get in the way.

Another challenge that I have faced is the urge to just move on from the emotion or behaviour that is presenting. But, taking a step back and helping them through it can be really freeing and much more beneficial in the long run. For example saying “I see you’re really angry” or “I can tell this is very difficult for you” and relating in that moment rather than being purely reactive or punitive.

It’s impossible to get it right all the time, and the times that I don’t tend to replay in my head over and over. It’s always worth taking time out to consider the things that are going well and the progress the child is making. I’m happy if I’m using therapeutic techniques most of the time.

Finding your own way

Like many adopters, I’m a sponge for information and learning on adoption and therapeutic parenting. I find myself absorbing thinking from articles, podcasts, books and more – which is great, but it’s through the doing that it really starts to make sense.

Gabor Maté’s simple framing of the conflict between attachment and authenticity is something that has been in my thinking for a while. It sits there as both a conundrum and reminder to put my daughter’s authentic feelings and current reality at the heart of how I parent whenever possible. Like I said above, being tired and overwhelmed and the realities of daily life can get in the way – but as adoptive parents if we’re being therapeutic and respecting the authenticity of our children the bulk of the time, then we’re doing alright!

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