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  • Writer's pictureDr Chris Moore

The A in PACE: Acceptance

Following on my post about the Playfulness aspect of Dan Hughes’s care-giving formula of PACE, this week I’m looking at the concept of Acceptance. This is perhaps the most crucial aspect of developing nurturing and healing relationships with children who have experienced trauma and loss. It communicates that our positive regard for the child is unconditional, despite what they did in the past or what they are doing in the present.

What is Acceptance?

Acceptance is fundamentally about telling the child, verbally and non-verbally, “I get it. This is a big deal for you”. We are showing that we accept the thoughts, feelings, perceptions and memories which lie underneath a particular behaviour. One of the six core principles of the nurture approach is the premise that “all behaviour is communication”. When a child refuses to follow an instruction, talks back with crude language, hits out at a peer or runs away, there’s a reason behind these actions. Acceptance is about understanding that the thoughts and feelings underneath the behaviour are not right or wrong.

This is a difficult concept when the behaviour we experience is extremely stressful and disruptive. The adult working with or caring for the child may feel embarrassed, deflated or angry when faced with such behaviour. But it’s important to know that Acceptance is not about being lenient or tolerant of an inappropriate behaviour. It also doesn’t mean that we forego setting limits or applying discipline. Acceptance is about being mindful of the child’s past and how that resulted in the behaviour we see today.

When a child has experienced abuse, neglect or loss, this has profound implications for their brain development. Unlike a typically-developing child of the same age, this child may have great difficulty in making sense of their inner experience and regulating these thoughts and feelings in socially appropriate ways. Acceptance of this experience provides the child with opportunities to safely explore and communicate what is going on behind their behaviour.

Why is Acceptance so difficult?

First of all, Acceptance is not a fast-acting remedy. Imagine you’re a teaching assistant who has been assigned to a pupil with a background of trauma and loss. Even by accepting the thoughts and feelings which the child is struggling with, he may find this to be anxiety-provoking or frustrating. The assistant may face multiple occasions of rejection over a period of time, because the child comes from a place in which he did not perceive himself as worthy of care and love. This is why self-care and supervision in schools is so crucial in preventing burn-out, by giving the staff who work with the child adequate time to vent about the difficult moments and reflect on what is positive about the child.

Acceptance goes against our natural tendency to evaluate behaviour. When a friend tells you about a plan of action which you feel is likely to backfire or cause them pain, how often do you spend time accepting how they are thinking or feeling? You might be quicker to use logic and reason to convince them of a different course of action and even argue with them when they resist your intervention. Evaluation of behaviour has much more significant implications for a child who has experienced trauma. The defensive systems within the brain’s limbic system, already over-stimulated by previous adverse experiences, will quickly fire up. This can trigger feelings of shame, which ultimately reduces the child’s willingness to engage in relationship and increases avoidance behaviours.

It can also be easy to cling to traditional views of behaviour management, such as having one-size-fits-all sanctions and punishments and expecting the child to control their behaviour in order to avoid a negative consequence. But the child’s trauma-impacted brain is ill-equipped for this level of planning, reflection and impulse control. When stress escalates, the lower regions of the brain take over and lead to fight, flight, freeze or flock responses.

Acceptance is also hard because we are keen to change behaviour, either to suit our own purposes or to discourage the child from inappropriate or unsafe behaviour. However, when a child has lacked the experience of a caregiving adult accepting and co-regulating their thoughts and feelings, the immediate attempt to change what they are doing can breed further mistrust. Acceptance provides the building blocks of safety and respect. It shows that we understand the inner experience of the child and allow this experience to influence our own response. Acceptance activates the social engagement system of the brain and decreases defensiveness.

How do we convey Acceptance?

Dan Hughes refers to a concept known as matching of affective expression. Mimicking the child’s presentation can show that we are connected to what is going on inside them. If they speak in a quiet voice, we keep our own voice quiet as we ask questions. If they are angry, we can speak in a more animated and expressive way without being angry in response.

Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson talk about the need for validation – that acknowledging and embracing emotions are a way of allowing the child to “feel felt”. Instead of jumping to judge or correct behaviour, we need to first tap into the child’s inner experience. Even if a thought or feeling seems like a minor issue to us, we are truly connecting with the child by showing that we know it’s a big deal for them.

Let’s imagine a scenario where a child is throwing lots of toys around or knocking over furniture when the rest of the class are following the tidy-up time routine. We might be inclined to raise our voice, tell them to stop or threaten a consequence. To communicate acceptance, we could first say “I can see how you feel this is unfair. You wanted to play longer”.

In a different situation, we could have a child lashing out at a friend in the playground. You’re aware that they had a falling out recently. Before we talk about how inappropriate the behaviour was, we can say “I know you were angry about what he said last time, but hitting can hurt. Let’s try talking to him about it”. Accepting the emotion behind the action reduces the potential for shame and helps the child to be more able and willing to make up for their behaviour.

One of the biggest difficulties with Acceptance is that we are containing really powerful emotions from the child. When they feel safe to project their anger or anxiety on to us, we need to accept this as well – even if we feel hurt or disappointed. So when it’s time for the child to leave an activity that they really enjoy and they struggle to regulate their emotions, we might say something like this:

“I can hear you saying that you hate me and you’re feeling really cross. I’ll still be here for you after you calm down”.

“I’m disappointed by what you did, but I know you were really upset. It doesn’t change how much I care about you”.

Above all, Acceptance shows the child that their behaviour doesn’t break the relationship which you’ve developed. It shows that you still care about them no matter what names you’ve been called. It also emphasises that you’re not going to abandon them when times are tough. When we think about what kind of messages the child may have received in the past, we can appreciate how important Acceptance is for communicating to the child that he is worthy of care, affection and respect.

Key References and Recommended Reading

· Golding, K.S. & Hughes, D.A. (2012). Creating Loving Attachments: Parenting with PACE to Nurture Confidence and Security in the Troubled Child. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

· Bomber, L.M. & Hughes, D.A. (2013). Settling to Learn. Settling Troubled Pupils to Learn: Why Relationships Matter in School. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.

· Siegel, D.J & Bryson, T.P. (2015). No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind. London: Scribe Publications.

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