Developmental Re-Parenting

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Ideally, the child's capacity to love and trust is strengthened through his reciprocal interactions with his parents and through the stability of his placement in a healthy home environment. If the child is too severely damaged to live in his adoptive family, then placement with therapeutic parents who practice "tough love" may be necessary. Tight environmental controls and developmental re-parenting help to teach the child to "give back" to the significant adults in his life. Requiring him to do chores for his foster or adoptive parents and teaching him the behaviors necessary for him to be fun to be around are only two of the components in his treatment plan in a therapeutic home. If the child has been "stuck" in a maladaptive pattern of behavior for an extended period of time, developmental re-parenting can allow the child to be successful by adapting the parenting style of the child's care taker to his developmental age and needs. In addition, developmental re-parenting provides many bonding opportunities for the child while interacting with his parents in a manner that is designed to be constructive and therapeutic for the child.

So what is developmental re-parenting? As referred to here, developmental, re-parenting at its most basic level involves adjusting the parenting style to the developmental age or need of the child. If a child was abused or abandoned during the first year of life, for example, that child can be expected to have major issues regarding trust and dependency. He may express these issues by being "lucky", whiny, overly dependent, prone to gorge on sweets, being overly demanding of the parent figure, etc. Under the therapist's direction, developmental re-parenting would allow the parent to begin by essentially treating the child as though he was still an infant. The child would be bathed and fed by the parent and would spend a great deal of time interacting with the mother figure, just as real infants do. In time, this would enable the infant to "fill up" on his mom's love so that he could begin to interact in more reciprocal ways.

An important fringe benefit of developmental re-parenting, if done properly, is that it provides a natural incentive for the child to resolve his most basic difficulties and to mature to the next level. Since each developmental level provides the foundation for the next level, each level successfully achieved allows a graduation to the next level, which always brings greater freedom and autonomy for the child. This also helps structure the environment to protect the child while encouraging maturation and a sense of personal responsibility and integrity. (Some families hold "birthday parties for the heart" every time the child moves into the next level of emotional maturity.)

It is easy for parents to learn and provides many shared learning experiences that can be fun for both the child and his parents. Because it takes some of the "guess-work" out of parenting the attachment disordered child, it also promotes the parents' sense of mastery at being able to effectively parent their attachment-disordered child. This in turn enhances the parents' self-esteem, which has often taken a beating from well-intentioned family members, and even unaware therapists, who keep telling the parents to just "love the child more." Thus, developmental re-parenting can be a powerful adjunct to traditional attachment therapy.

Credits: Sharon D. Gary, M.S.

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