For Children From Hard Places, Is Love Enough to Heal?

Holt now offers classes in Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI), a parenting approach for adopted children — particularly those who have experienced early childhood trauma.

Hands3-216x160Many people believe that if they love a child enough, the child will be able to let go of all their past abuse and neglect and settle into being a loving member of the family. Now there is research that documents the alterations in the central nervous system of children who come from “hard places” — alterations that make it impossible for love and nurturing alone to heal them. It would be the equivalent of trying to cure a child of meningitis with hugs, kisses and chicken soup! We are so lucky to now have medical tests that can identify the alterations in a child’s brain and know what medical treatments can help bring their brain chemicals closer to what nature intended.

However, that is not the whole answer.

Parental interactions do have an enormous impact on a child’s healing, but it involves much more than unconditional love. The key is for parents to learn how to create felt safety in their child. This is the only way we know of to stop the “fight, flight or flee” response that has kept a child safe during their life of abuse and neglect. To create felt safety, parents must learn ways to interact with their child that will quiet and soothe this fear response until it is finally extinguished — opening their child to receive the loving care of their adoptive family.

One of the most effective tools for parents is an approach called Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI), which was developed to help children who have been adopted or are in foster care. Research has proven TBRI to be particularly effective among children who have been neglected or abused.

Through a series of books and DVDs, TBRI provides detailed instructions for how to calm the fear response and create felt safety. Several Holt social workers are also trained in TBRI and this past summer, Holt’s Oregon branch office provided its first TBRI parenting class for both parents in process and parents who have come home with their child.

During the course, we watched and discussed the TBRI Healing Family Series of DVDs. The parents loved all the new information they were learning and there were many “ah ha” moments. Particularly attention-getting was the explanation of the changes in their child’s brain and that their child’s explosive anger and outbursts of monsoon proportions were not temperament or willfulness, but rather a residual impact of early neglect and abuse. In the anonymous evaluations submitted at the end of the course, several parents shared the insights they gained about changes in their child’s brain. “I have been more objective and patient with children when they are triggered into fear overload and unable to use their logical mind to listen and respond,” wrote one participant. “I appreciated the practical lessons to apply to daily living,” another parent shared.

Another huge “ah ha” moment occurred during the section on attachment. TBRI teaches parents that their own relationship style sets the tone for their child’s ability to form a secure attachment with them. As parents digested this new information, the class became very quiet. They gained insight into how much influence they have over their child’s attachment — underscoring the importance of their role in creating a family environment that fosters attachment. TBRI not only brings the power of insight, but provides parents with the tools to become the best parents possible. “I learned that 70% of behavior change is based on the available parent and how they react,” one parent wrote on their class evaluation. “It offered hope for families,” another wrote. “Strategies in the midst of high emotional moments.” At the end of the course, many of the parents requested more classes and they all said they would recommend these classes to their friends.

There are many ways for parents to access TBRI training. In the book “The Connected Child,” Dr. Karyn Purvis outlines this parenting approach. Dr. Purvis also keeps an archive of short video clips about TBRI at Another place to access her work is at, where parents can find DVDs to purchase, articles to download, current training events and a national list of therapists trained in TBRI. Holt offers TBRI classes at our Oregon office and at Holt-Sunny Ridge, our branch in the greater Chicago area.

Abbie Smith | Director of Clinical Resources

To learn more about Trust-Based Relational Intervention, click here and here.

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