When people talk about therapeutic parenting, they often talk about the PACE model of parenting.
Children that have experienced trauma and instability throughout their lives often suffer from attachment issues, meaning it is difficult for them to form healthy attachments with the people around them, which can lead to various challenging behaviours.
In these situations, traditional parenting methods, like conditional parenting, can be less ineffective. In some cases, they do more bad than good for the child.
The PACE model of parenting, developed by psychologist Dan Hughes, is designed to provide a framework for caregivers whose children may require a different parenting approach. PACE parenting is especially effective for supporting children that lack secure emotional bases, meaning it is ideal for foster carers.
What is PACE?
PACE therapeutic parenting is a holistic approach to parenting that involves thinking, feeling, communicating, and behaving in a manner that cultivates feelings of safety and security for your child. More than just a technique, PACE is often described as a ‘way of being’, influencing the way you relate to your child on multiple levels.
Based on the way caregivers interact with very young infants, this style of parenting encourages parents and carers to focus on the whole of the child, not just their behaviour. PACE invites caregivers to consider the ‘inner life’ of the child as well as the external.
Its four principles of communication – playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy – facilitate the building of healthy, secure attachments between caregiver and child. PACE asks caregivers to pay close attention to how different communication styles deliver different messages to their children, encouraging them to maintain a calm and measured approach.
Playfulness encourages caregivers to maintain a level of playfulness when interacting with their child. This means keeping communication fun; try using a light tone, like the one you might use when telling a story. Refraining from using a harsh tone or lecturing enables your child to maintain a sense of security, while defusing tense or difficult situations.
Adopting a playful stance doesn’t mean being funny all the time, though, and it certainly doesn’t mean making jokes when a child is sad. Rather, using a light, playful communication style when appropriate helps children to be more open.
Being playful together encourages the growth of a healthy bond, showing the child that it is okay to have fun with their caregiver, promoting a positive connection to them. It also creates a safe, engaging environment that invites closeness without asking too much of your child, signaling to them that their presence in your life is positive.
Acceptance means validating your child’s experiences and emotions, rather than trying to change or censor how they are feeling. You might not agree with their interpretation of a situation, or the way they are expressing themselves, but you accept them, nonetheless.
You can show your child it is okay to feel the way they are by actively communicating your understanding. When your child says something like ‘everyone hates me,’ you might feel like telling them that isn’t true, or they shouldn’t say things like that. However, responses like this might invalidate their experience and make them feel unheard or misunderstood.
Instead, a PACE approach would mean answering with something along the lines of ‘I’m sorry you think that everyone hates you, that must be upsetting’ or ‘I didn’t realise you felt like that, no wonder you are angry.’ These responses not only accept their emotions, but also help to reduce any feelings of shame.
Curiosity invites you to ask yourself questions about why your child is feeling or acting the way they are, without placing judgement or blame.
Ask yourself questions, like what is important in your child’s life? What are their strengths? How can you bring out the best in them? Approaching your child with an air of curiosity means wondering about the experience of your child and using this to better your understanding of them.
When a child is acting out or is expressing their emotions in a certain manner, avoid asking them questions like ‘why did you do that?’. Children often do not know why they are behaving in a certain way. They may not have the right words to express their feelings.
Instead, try approaching these situations with curiosity and the goal of understanding. A PACE parent might say something like ‘what do you think that was about?’ or ‘you seem upset, I wonder if you might be a bit tired?’. These questions help to diffuse tension, all while conveying to your child that your intensions are to understand them, not punish them.
Empathy reminds you to always approach difficult situations through your child’s eyes, whether or not they are behaving in a way you condone.
Being empathetic is not about reassuring the child or trying to make their problem’s go away. Rather, empathy means being present for your child in the moment, helping them feel less alone in their emotions, sitting with them and providing support and comfort. By feeling the same upset or distress your child is feeling, and communicating this to them, you are helping them to feel seen and understood.
With empathy, you can demonstrate to your child that they are not alone in their experiences. That, together, you will get through this. Taking an empathetic approach and feeling your child’s emotions with them will help to lay the foundation for deeper connection, enabling you to establish a more trusting relationship.
How can PACE be put into practice?
PACEful responses can often be more appropriate for resolving conflict between you and your child. In many situations, your response will vary between Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy. You might also wish to use a combination of these approaches.
Below are a few examples of situations in which a PACE parenting approach might be more effective.
Peter has homework that he does not want to do. He is crawling under the table, drawing on his homework and cannot sit still in his chair. He says he can’t do it and he hates the work, his school and you.
Some typical responses might look like:
• ‘If you don’t do your homework, you can’t watch TV later.’
• ‘That’s not a nice way to speak about me or the school.’
• ‘You’re wasting time when you could be getting on with it.’
In this situation, using the PACE parenting model might help to diffuse the tension in this situation and lead to an overall better outcome.
A Playful response might sound like: ‘Wow! Look at that homework! It looks like a dog has tried to have it for dinner! Do you feel okay, Peter? You seem quite upset. Let’s put our heads together and see if we can figure this out together.’
An Accepting response might sound like: ‘It can be really difficult when you feel like you can’t do something. Its not nice when you feel rubbish, but it’s okay to feel like that. I’m sorry that you feel like you hate the work and your school.’
A Curious response might sound like: ‘You usually enjoy doing your homework. I wonder what has changed today? Is there something else that is making this tricky? I wonder if you are feeling quite tired today. Do you think that is what’s upsetting you?’
An Empathetic response might sound like: ‘You seem to be really upset and frustrated right now. Is that right? I know how that feels, especially when you don’t want to do something. Why don’t we work through these feelings together?’
Lucy’s caregiver has organised a fun art activity for her. They have spent a long time preparing it, using her favourite colours and buying special materials. However, Lucy doesn’t want to do the activity right now, and says she thinks it looks boring and rubbish.
Some typical responses might look like:
• ‘That’s a really rude thing to say, Lucy.’
• ‘I spent a long time making you that.’
• ‘Why did you say that?’
A PACEful response might use a combination of Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy to approach this situation.
This might sound something like:
‘You usually really enjoy this kind of activity, I’m wondering if you can help me understand what is different today? You seem to be having a hard time settling down. Maybe you have something on your mind? I find it difficult to relax and switch off sometimes too. It can be hard to get excited about something when you are worried or upset or tired.’
As with anything in life, practice makes perfect. Being PACEful in your interactions with your child isn’t easy, and you won’t get it right all the time. When things don’t go to plan, its important to take time to reflect on what happened, what was said, and what can be done differently the next time.
It can be useful to plan ahead for certain recurring situations that you know can cause difficulty for your child, such as getting ready for school, bath time, or bed time. By considering what tasks might be challenging for you and your child, and anticipating how they might react, you can plan PACEful responses that you can use to diffuse those situations.
At Compass, we provide 24/7 support for all our carers. Our carers receive essential training that prepares them for all kinds of therapeutic parenting, including PACE. We also offer additional therapeutic care and support for our children, alongside specialised education plans that are aimed at supporting our young people and ensuring they achieve the best outcomes possible.
If you think you could make a difference to the life of a child by becoming a foster carer, you can get in touch with us here.