Therapeutic Parenting in adoption

19 November 2020

For Adoption Week Scotland this year, Fiona Aitken, Director of Adoption UK Scotland, looks at why therapeutic parenting is so important for children who have been adopted.

A parent reading with their child

There is sometimes a misconception that adoption somehow wipes a slate clean for those involved, and that the ‘new beginning’ of the new family environment offered by the adoptive family overrides any traumatic early experiences. This can be recognised in the gaps in availability of support for adopted children: their peers who remain within the care system are entitled to ongoing access to services and automatic assessment of educational and support needs, while they are not.

We know that adoption offers very positive outcomes for babies, children and young people, and, for many, creates the supportive family environment that children need to thrive. However, without acknowledgment of early experiences, and supporting difficulties arising from these, children are not being given their best chance to thrive.

When Adoption Week comes along we often talk about the need to know more about adoption - the impact of children’s early experiences, both prenatal and early years, the circumstances that may have led them to enter the care system, and the way in which they may have navigated through it. We also hold events and share resources about the processes: how to identify an agency to engage with, the preparation groups, the process of assessment and approval. Family finding and matching areas are two important parts of the process that are crucial to the outcome of finding families for children.

However, what is more important for the children who are joining families is what comes beyond the process of paperwork and legalities: the parenting.

This year, Adoption UK Scotland is focusing on several themes: the importance of brother and sister relationships, the reality of living with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) due to prenatal alcohol exposure, and the need for therapeutic parenting in adoption. While the first of these themes is fairly self-explanatory in its conversation within the adoption system, FASD is just beginning to become better understood as to how prevalent it is for children in the care system and it can affect children and families. Similarly, the concept of therapeutic parenting can also be ambiguous for many.

So, what is therapeutic parenting, and why is it so important for children who have been adopted?

Therapeutic parenting is a parenting approach that is trauma informed and attachment aware – it is nurturing, empathetic and characterised by providing a sense of safety and security for any child suffering from attachment difficulties and trauma. It offers acceptance and care, and lacks judgement and punitive or shame inducing consequences, while providing safe, clear boundaries.

To understand why it is so necessary we need to first acknowledge some uncomfortable truths about adoption. One of the emerging aspects of adoption that is becoming more widely acknowledged is that, despite it offering a permanence that many children will need, for a lot of children adoption itself is traumatic.

Every adopted child suffers the loss of their birth family, which is a traumatic experience itself. The stark truth is that over 80% of children who enter the care system in the first place have experienced abuse, trauma or neglect in their early lives. We are increasingly aware of the impact of prenatal trauma, as well as the impact of alcohol use during pregnancy, which has been shown to affect a disproportionately high number of care experienced children and young people.

As part of our development of resources for Adoption Week Scotland we have been working with adoptive parents and adopted teens and adults to create a series of podcasts. Every conversation with parents touches on chosen parenting styles. The discussions inevitably led to the parents (both mothers and fathers) acknowledging that their initial use of ‘traditional’ parenting styles emphatically did not work with their children, for a variety of reasons. In our conversation with Rose, an adoptive mum talking about the benefits of therapeutic parenting, she describes her journey to acceptance that her son needed more than her and her husband’s own experience of ‘traditional’ parenting. This led to them seeking out other adoptive parents within supportive online communities who had similar experiences and learning more about therapeutic parenting techniques including co-regulation, connection, and understanding the communication that lies behind behaviour. This shift in parenting, that acknowledges the impact of their son’s prenatal and early experiences, has led to a better relationship and family environment.

A preparation manual co-created by Adoption UK Scotland and AFA Scotland for prospective and early adopters, published in 2019, details the early adoption process and highlights the ‘twists and turns’ which need the anchoring of therapeutic parenting. This information is crucial to support adoptive parents to best support their children.

Adoption is a transformative life process and can be overwhelmingly positive for all involved. With the right information, preparation and support, parents can better fulfil the role of a therapeutic parent that their child needs.

More information about free Adoption Week Scotland events are available on

View Scottish Adoption Therapeutic Parenting Factsheet:

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders. 

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