By Lisa Frede, initially written for Complex Trauma Resources: complextrauma.ca
Have you noticed that “parenting as usual” seems to be backfiring with your child? Do you have a child that retaliates with rage and aggression to traditional discipline? Rather than using conventional behavior modification strategies which may trigger of rejection and shame (and the big behaviors that often accompany them), try using PACE. When paired with trauma informed interventions, the attitude of PACE is proven to be effective with children who come from the hard places of neglect and abuse and is made up of qualities that can be found in the core of every parent. Side effects include, but are not limited to: greater relaxation and reciprocal enjoyment of your child, notably “easier” parenting, an ability to let go of trying to control or predict behaviors, more effective relationship repair after shame experiences, and even an increase in FUN!
In his book Building the Bonds of Attachment, Daniel Hughes spells out an effective way of being with children and youth who’ve come from backgrounds of complex trauma and may not respond to conventional parenting. He identifies four qualities to this attitude and highlights that they are similar to the attitude that a parent has when they are in synchrony with their infant or toddler, an attitude many of these young ones have never experienced. The characteristics of the attitude are: playful, accepting, curious and empathic (PACE).
Children who have suffered abuse or neglect often benefit from close supervision and structure that keeps expectations of them within the parameters of their developmental ages rather than their chronological age. Children may understandably bristle at an increase in guidance, yet the qualities of PACE provide the extra structure with a therapeutic overtone, making it into a gift rather than a punishment. Complex Trauma Resource’s Complex Care and Intervention (CCI) program reflects Hughes’s confidence in the value of PACE: “We think that all four are necessary and that this attitude needs to become the background atmosphere, both in the family and in therapy, if the child is to begin to respond to the interventions provided.” By being playful and loving in our reactions we as caregivers can remain emotionally engaged no matter what behaviors are being displayed. Curiosity and acceptance of a child allows a parent to be open to their inner world and free to respond with genuine empathy so that their very complex needs can be met.
Playfulness communicates a sense of optimism and positive engagement, and can even provide delight and enjoyment to an interaction. This is such an important quality for children from complex trauma backgrounds to experience as they’ve often had limited exchanges with others that result in pleasant sensations. Playfulness is never conveying that their experiences are “funny” but rather it is modeled by interacting with a light, gentle, sarcasm free quality.
Acceptance demonstrates an unconditional love that is the foundation to attachment and is characteristic of healthy parent-infant relationships. It does not mean accepting all behaviors, but communicates that the inner life of thought, emotions, and wishes is always accepted. Children who have experienced trauma often have a deeply rooted sense of shame; that they are somehow broken beyond repair and unlovable. It’s imperative that interventions don’t reinforce that belief, and acceptance paves the way for them to separate their behavior from their experience.
Curiosity helps us to discover and explore the qualities that every child has that may never have been celebrated or even recognized by their caregivers. It is a nonjudgmental way of showing interest in a child’s inner life including all of their thoughts, feelings and responses. Because our curiosity can draw out information in a non-threatening way, it can assist children in understanding their present and their past, and even allow them to make the connections between early experiences of abuse and neglect and the challenging behaviors they are currently experiencing.
Empathy conveys our affective presence, and allows us to be with young people in their distress while at the same time understanding it. Empathy increases the likelihood that children will remain regulated when facing stressful events and will be more able to make sense of them. When kids experience empathy, the burden of their past won’t be as heavy.
When caught off guard by moments that make even the most skilled caregiver temporarily unable to emulate PACE, remember to take even a brief break if possible in order to take care of yourself so that one or some aspects of it can return and characterize further interaction. As mentioned briefly above, Dan Hughes acknowledges that certain behaviors do require a brief angry response and reminds caregivers in those circumstances to use I-messages which simply state, ‘I am angry with what you did,’ followed by a brief reason and then an alternative behavior. He also cautions that for such a response to be effective the parent should attempt to repair the relationship as quickly as possible as the child will be moving just as quickly towards shame, the wound we most want to heal in these children.
Keeping this attitude through the intensely challenging behaviors that children who have backgrounds of attachment injuries and other trauma display can be incredibly challenging. When PACE can be maintained however, it will actually in many ways become easier to care for these deeply wounded children.