P.A.C.E parenting

When my children were younger, I recall the deluge of parenting advice – opinions that often seemed to contradict, confuse and even shame. As a new mother, I felt vulnerable and scared of ‘doing the wrong thing’. I researched different styles of parenting and wrestled over which routines to implement. It was exhausting and as much as I wanted to follow my ‘maternal instinct’, I did not have the confidence to rely on this alone. 


Now when I reflect on some of my parenting choices, I wince – wishing that I had known then at least some of what I know now. Fast forward a few years and it had become apparent that my son was neurodiverse. It had also become apparent that both my children had experienced significant traumas. I instinctively knew that the traditional tried and tested parenting methods (behaviour management, reward charts, time outs, rigid bedtime routines) did not feel safe for my children. 

This is when I discovered the concept of therapeutic parenting and my new journey began. The P.A.C.E Model (developed by Dan Hughes) offers a way of parenting focused on a relational rather than a behavioural framework. P.A.C.E stands for playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy. The principles of relating in this way promote a feeling of safety and connection. 

In a lot of my reading and training, the focus seemed to be primarily on therapeutic parenting for children who were fostered or adopted – children who have come from home environments that had not consistently met their needs and who had endured trauma and broken attachments. In my experience and of course, the experience of many others, children who have remained within birth families can and do experience developmental trauma and broken attachments; developing complex behaviours and ways of communicating that require huge patience and understanding.

Examples of early years trauma:

  • parental mental/physical health concerns
  • parental substance misuse
  • neglect
  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • bereavement

Therapeutic parenting techniques can promote a feeling of safety for your child. It helps nurture secure attachments and allows children to reflect on their thoughts and behaviours without feeling judged. 

P.A.C.E parenting is a secure and reflective approach that concentrates on the whole child, not just the child’s behaviour. Therapeutic parenting acknowledges that all behaviour is a form of communication. I have worked with young people in numerous different settings and have lost count of the times I have heard behaviour described as ‘attention seeking’ or ‘needy’. I encourage people to reframe their understanding and instead see the behaviour as ‘proximity seeking’ or communication of ‘unmet needs’.

Bruce Perry describes using a bottom-up approach using 3 R’s - Regulate, Relate, Reason.

1. I have heard the amygdala described as the ‘basement brain’ – the first developmental building block. A dysregulated child cannot relate or reason – their fight/flight/freeze system is activated and they are focused solely on safety. We need to help them to regulate. I find the analogy of a ‘thermostat’ helpful; imagine that the child’s thermostat is broken – they cannot control how hot or cold they are and rely instead on your thermostat to control temperature. Over time, if given a growth-promoting environment, their thermostat will mend and they will be able to regulate, but until then we need to co-regulate.

2. We need to connect emotionally, from the right brain to the right brain. We need to focus on felt safety and attunement. Then, once they are more in control and receptive, we can bring in the left-brain learning and reasoning.

3. Once a young person feels that you have connected with their level of emotion, they can stop showing you through their behaviour. Once they feel regulated and at least on some level in a relationship with you, they can enter their ‘upstairs brain.’

Regulate, connect and redirect using P.A.C.E

Some time ago I came across a helpful visual demonstration of how the P.A.C.E model works:

  • An open hand represents the brain and an activated fight/flight system.
  • A folded thumb (with four fingers pointing upwards) represents the amygdala. Each finger, as it folds inwards, represents being playful, accepting, curious and empathic.
  • Bringing these conditions around a young person will calm the amygdala.

Curiosity is like the mind, connected to thinking. Empathy is like the heart, focused on the feeling. Acceptance is the link that allows the heart and mind to work together. Playfulness surrounds all three.


It is important to find your authentic way of being playful – a hyper-vigilant child will sense any inauthentic communication. It is a light-hearted and relaxed attitude, helping the young person to feel connected to you. It helps the young person to experience fun and love; a felt experience of comfort and joy releases positive hormones and helps to rebuild brain connections. Playfulness also communicates that the relationship is bigger than any conflict between you. 

In my experience, a playful stance, if pitched wrong, can be dysregulating. So, it needs to be offered in whatever way is appropriate for each child. Take time to discover how they individually experience/tune into fun and be alert to moment-by-moment changes.

Playfully mirroring behaviour can be appropriate but needs to be done in a way that could never be experienced as ‘teasing’. Ultimately playfulness is a 'way of being' and not simply a behaviour. It is not about what we are doing but how we are doing it. Spontaneous small moments of play will lead to small moments of hope – building new pathways for sustained moments of joy.

A note of caution… Play can only occur when basic safety needs are met – a child who exists in survival mode cannot readily experience playfulness.


My background is in person-centred theory and acceptance is akin to unconditional positive regard. In an ideal upbringing, as a parent, I will communicate an understanding of my child’s behaviour and accept them completely. Whilst I may not like what they are doing I want to convey a curiosity about why they may be doing it; I want to understand and accept their motivation and not the behaviour itself. 

Sarah Naish, a pioneer in therapeutic parenting, discusses ‘natural’ and ‘logical’ consequences. 

Natural consequences happen automatically – they are not decided or imposed by a person. For example, “If you stay on your phone all night you will be tired tomorrow.” “If you kick your drink over, it will be spilt on the floor.” Natural consequences are the best choice, when possible (not everything has a natural consequence). 

Logical consequences are imposed by a person, directly related to the ‘offence’. This is the best choice when a natural consequence is not obvious. “If you stay on your phone all night, I will not be able to top up your data any sooner”.

Natural consequences must be used with nurture. It is sometimes tempting to 'over-punish' by manipulating consequences and calling them natural. Take time to distinguish between 'natural' and 'logical' consequences.

Acceptance is ensuring that the young person is aware that it is their behaviour that is unacceptable and not them as a person. There is huge value in focusing on and accepting a young person's inner life, even though you need to place expectations on their behaviour.


Curiosity is a ‘non-judgemental wondering' – trying to understand what is going on behind the young person’s behaviour.  This can be wondering about the young person or indeed, wondering with the young person.

Examples of curious questions:

  • “Is it OK if I share my idea of what may be going on for you?" 
  • "I might be wrong, but these are my ideas.” 
  • “I wonder what…?” 

Try to be curious in an accepting tone that conveys a simple desire to understand. You may not agree with your child’s perception of the event, but curiosity reflects your interest in understanding it from their frame of reference.

Your child may not understand why they behave the way they do and it’s important to be curious about their behaviour without using an angry tone. Try using a calmer tone and instead of asking “What did you do that for?” which they may not be able to answer, try a question that will demonstrate curiosity such as “What do you think was happening to make you do that?”


Empathy is one of the most important aspects of the P.A.C.E approach. To understand a young person’s needs you must be able to “step into their shoes” and actively communicate your felt sense – this communication can be non-verbal and in many cases, this is preferable. Empathy allows you to feel their feelings and communicate that they are valid. You may not agree with the feelings and opinions, which is ok but by listening you are encouraging an open expression, which is crucial to positive mental health.

Acceptance and empathy are your ‘emotional A&E,’ they are at the heart of your child starting to feel safe.

Practical tips on being empathic:

  • Use cautious language – “I wonder if / you might be / it seems” rather than “you must be / I bet you are.”
  • Match your voice tone to their feeling.
  • Avoid direct questions – do not ask “Are you feeling angry?”
  • Talk about their feelings, not yours or another’s – do not say “Imagine how your mum/sibling/peer will feel.”

Another note of caution… traumatised children can feel very unsafe if around the vulnerability of others or if in touch with their own vulnerability. Consequently, they may have a strong aversion to ‘empathy’ because of the feelings that it can evoke. 

A useful example of this from my practice – I use animals in therapy and one of my dogs is a young, street rescue dog. I have a young client, who loves animals but hates this dog, he knows a little of her history and will not tolerate her. I have been curious about why this might be and my best guess is that he senses her vulnerability, which awakens his own – this is an uncomfortable feeling, triggering anger and antipathy.

The P.A.C.E model is a powerful way of parenting that requires consistency, patience, and practice! Take it from one who knows, there will be days where it simply doesn’t seem possible and there will be people who struggle to accept your parenting choices. Find support from like-minded parents or caregivers. 

Just as I was about to submit this article, I turned on the radio and caught the end of a phone-in on ‘gentle parenting’. Polarised views were expressed, with significant energy on both sides. It was a valuable reminder of how emotive parenting choices can be. 

You are never going to get it right all the time and your relationship with your child will never be perfect. Hold on to the words of Winnicott and strive to be a ‘good enough parent’.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Written by Mary Taylor, BA Hons MBACP (Accred)
Alton GU34

Hi I'm Mary a qualified therapist and a mother of two. I feel passionately about supporting those who perhaps find themselves struggling in their role as parent/carer. Reaching out for help is brave and so important - you have to look after you as well.

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