How does God parent us therapeutically?

Exploring themes of therapeutic parenting in the Bible

Therapeutic parenting is a style of parenting developed for children who have had a difficult start in life. It is sometimes referred to as 're-parenting', helping to 're-wire' the brain pathways which have been affected by early trauma.

You can discover more about therapeutic parenting in this helpful video by Sarah Naish, founder of the National Association of Therapeutic Parents.

It can be tempting to view different parenting models as mere 'fads' that will come and go. But while there can sometimes be some truth to this, being too dismissive might prevent us from learning what God could be wanting to teach us through these supposedly 'secular' theories.

Because, after all, are they really so secular? The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote that there was 'nothing new under the sun' (1:9) and I find that by looking at therapeutic parenting, we see so much that is truly Biblical, so much that was ordained by God right from the start.

The PACE model of therapeutic parenting (Playfulness-Acceptance-Curiosity-Empathy) was devised by Dr Dan Hughes, and is widely used by adopters and foster carers. Using this model, let's look at where these themes occur in the Bible.

Playfulness

Adopting a fun, playful attitude as you interact with your child helps them know how much you delight in their company, wards off any sense of criticism, and reassures them that no conflict will harm your relationship.

Play is also the means by which children learn to interact with the world. Our sense of playfulness can help children discover healthy ways to deal with their emotions and relate to others.

Have you ever thought of God as playful? Think of how he created the world, full of colour and life and things that - quite frankly - only really exist for our pleasure. We don't need so many colourful flowers or varied birdsongs, but God created them out of love and delight, revelling in every plant and creature He made.

Look at Zephaniah 3:17:

The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.

This is a God who delights in us! He loves to spend time with us and know our pleasure. He is a playful God!

We see this playful attitude in Jesus, too, forever telling stories to teach his followers about the Kingdom of God. When Jesus wanted to challenge people, he didn't tell them off in a patronising way, he simply used storytelling to deliver a powerful message with a light touch.

When we use play with our children, we remember the playful God who has made us playful in His image.

Acceptance

Accepting our children is about loving them as they are, including their tantrums, fears or negative thought cycles. It doesn't mean we ignore their behaviour, but that we accept the deeper struggles, emotions or fears which are behind it, and seek to address these, rather than just the presenting behaviour.

Through Christ, God accepts us in the mess we're in and loves us anyway. As the perfect parent, He knows our behaviour is indicative of unhealthy thought patterns or attitudes, and it is these which He wants to heal:

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. (Ephesians 1:4-5)

Luke 23:40-43 tells of Jesus' interaction with a criminal when they were both facing death by crucifixion. We don't know exactly what this man had done, but clearly he'd engaged in some criminal activity.

Jesus accepted this man right at the end of his life, knowing that he wouldn't have time to change his behaviour here on earth. That didn't matter. What mattered was that this man was coming home to his heavenly Father, who would heal his wounds in His kingdom.

God doesn't invite us into a purely moralistic lifestyle, where we do the right things to look good, but instead wants to change our inner thoughts and attitudes, so that we mature as healthy disciples.

When we accept our children as they are, we realise that the 'bad behaviour' is surface level stuff, an outward representation of the complex emotions and fears going on underneath. Choosing to deal with these deeper issues may lead our children to become healthier, happier adults.

As we remember how God accepts us, we are more able to accept and love our children through their struggles.

Curiosity

Curiosity, when parenting therapeutically, can replace a snap reaction. When our child has redecorated the living room with crayons or wet themselves for the sixth time that day, we want to hit the roof. Or I do.

But if we allow curiosity to take over then we will pause, and wonder why our child has behaved in this way. We will ask questions (not 'Why did you do that?', but 'How are you feeling?') and look for body language and other signs to give us clues.

Looking at how God parents us, it might seem odd to talk about Him in terms of being 'curious'. What is there to be curious about, after all, if you know everything?

I find it intriguing, however, that despite God knowing our innermost thoughts, He is still curious to hear it from us. He asks Adam where he's hiding, Eve what she's done, Jonah whether he has a right to be angry and Saul why he is persecuting Him. Similarly, we see this in Jesus asking His disciples ‘who do you say I am?’, or ‘what things have happened?’ on the road to Emmaus.

God knows the answers, but asks the questions anyway. Why? Because He wants a two-way relationship with us. He is interested in us: he never gets bored of our conversation. He wants us to know we can trust Him with our deepest insecurities.

Curiosity, as we parent, shows our children that we're interested in them, and helps them learn to trust us - a struggle for many vulnerable children. It also reminds us of the relationship God seeks with us and our children, and urges us to pray for this.

Empathy

According to the dictionary, empathy is 'showing an ability to understand and share the feelings of another'. Perhaps some of us knew abuse or neglect as children, or we experienced a significant loss at a young age. But for many of us, we can only listen and try to understand how our children feel.

God's ability to empathise with us is somewhat greater than our ability to empathise with our children, because He really has experienced what we have. Hebrews 4:15 reminds us that "we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are".

God knows what it is like to feel alone, rejected, abused, bullied, separated, bereaved and more, because Jesus felt all these things in his life on earth. There is nothing we experience that He hasn't experienced Himself. We need never feel alone when we are walking life's journey with our Father God, because He truly understands and genuinely cares.

If God can fully empathise with all that we and our children go through, then He can give us the ability to empathise too. It's not something we can easily conjure up by ourselves, especially if our own childhoods were free of suffering, but by His Holy Spirit, God breaks our hearts with the things which have broken His, on behalf of our children.

As we seek to empathise with our children, let's pray to our perfectly-empathetic God for help in understanding and sharing our children's feelings.

***

A prayer, as we ponder these things.

Lord,

You are such a good Father to me; you delight in me, you accept me as I am, you are interested in me, you long for me to trust you wholeheartedly, and you empathise with all I've been through.

I don't find it easy to parent in this way. When I'm faced with difficult situations, please help me to pause and listen to the response that you want me to make. Please fill the gaps for my children when I don't. And please heal my children's wounds and mature them into people who love you with all their heart, soul and mind.

In Your beautiful name,

Amen

Author:
Written for Home for Good by Lucy Rycroft (LucyRycroft.com)


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