It’s an age-old balancing act: finding the right blend of structure and nurture to guide our kids to responsible adulthood. is a proponent of attachment-focused parenting, as seen in the parenting models we feature for parents and caregivers, like therapeutic parenting, TBRI™, or Collaborative Parenting. We frequently field questions about how to strike the right balance between creating healthy attachments with children while setting healthy, safe limits and enforcing structure or routine. We get it – the push-pull of it can feel confusing and frustrating. We want to get it right, but what is right?

What Do We Mean by “Structure?”

Before we offer ideas on balancing structure and nurture when raising your adopted, foster, or kinship kids, let’s unpack what structure means and why it’s critical for your kids.

Structured Routines and Home Environment

Our podcasts and articles consistently encourage parents to provide their kids a structured, regulated home environment. We know kids thrive when their worlds are predictable, consistent, and orderly.

For those raising foster, kinship, and adoptive children, this structure is even more critical to support their brain development and help them improve challenging behaviors. Kids with a history of trauma, neglect, or prenatal substance exposure feel safer when they know what to expect and when to expect it. And as we’ve said many times, a safe brain is a learning brain!

Structured Correction and Training

However, a structured environment is just one type of structure. We also speak regularly with adoptive, foster, and kinship experts who help us understand the importance of setting limits and boundaries for kids – and consistently enforcing them. When you must correct your child, your retraining will be far more effective when you handle the situations similarly every time.

Predictability and consistency offer your child safety even when they must be re-directed. They can trust you to field their challenging behaviors and problematic attitudes with the same kind-hearted corrections each time. Your efforts to correct them are equipping them for improved behaviors. They learn to trust you to help them get back on track rather than fear your punitive reactions. Your kids begin to understand – even if they cannot verbalize it – that they are precious to you, and you want to help them overcome these problematic behaviors. You aren’t in their face merely to get them to quit their annoying activities or the whining.

Why is Structure a Struggle?

Many adoptive and resource parents or kinship caregivers worry that setting firm limits and following structured disciplinary actions will derail the attachment they have worked so hard to build for their child. They also struggle to find discipline techniques that work with their child to improve behaviors. The result can often be a permissive parenting style that leaves a child feeling insecure and uncertain of what is expected and how to do it.

What is Nurture?

Webster defines nurture as a noun in this way:

“1. training, upbringing; and 3. the sum of the environmental factors influencing the behavior and traits expressed by an organism.”

When applied to our parenting, we can define nurture as what we do to influence our children’s behaviors and traits through our training. However, we must first meet their needs in an environment and in ways that they can be affected. The nurture of an adoptive, foster, or kinship child takes many different forms, and we must learn what works best for our kids. However, all nurture should have a couple things in common.

1. Safe leadership in the home.

Our kids want and need to follow our lead in learning how to behave, how to learn, and how to change. But we need to be safe to follow. When we model physical and emotional safety in our consistent, patient, and open-hearted responses, our children’s brains and bodies learn to rest in our authority. They can trust us to lead them well. They feel seen, heard, and thus safe enough to relinquish the control that often drives their most challenging behaviors.

2. Delight in their preciousness.

A pioneer in the study of trauma-informed attachment parenting, the late Dr. Karyn Purvis frequently used the word “precious” when speaking of children. She carried a tenacious belief that every child is unique and deserving of unconditional love, and we wholeheartedly agree!

When we communicate with our words, body language, facial expressions, and decisions for and about our kids that they are precious, unique, and capable of greatness, they can rise to that preciousness. Our unconditional acceptance of our children opens their hearts to receive the nurture they need.

Author Toni Morrison is famously quoted for asking,

“When a child walks in the room, your child or anybody else’s child, do your eyes light up? That’s what they’re looking for.”

Her question gets at the root of every child’s need to feel valued and to sense our delight in them.

3. Understanding of the child’s needs.

As unique and precious as each of your children are, their needs are also exceptional. We get how intimidating that might sound, especially if you have a big family. Lots of kids mean lots of individual needs. The truth is, it is, indeed, a lot of work – even in a home without kids impacted by trauma, abuse, or prenatal substance exposure.

You might have several children in one.

The added layers of your child’s history may mean you are also parenting “several children in one body.”  It’s a complex impact of trauma, but many of our kids come to us expressing several different ages at once – their actual age, their social, emotional, physical, cognitive developmental age(s), and their nurture age.

How Trauma Impacts a Child’s Development

Think of nurture age as the loving, connected care they need appropriate to their age. When a child has experienced early trauma, they can be like a newborn in their need for nurturance.

For example, you are fostering a 7-year-old who was severely neglected and has never known a safe, stable home. He doesn’t melt into you when you try to hug him. He’s primarily non-verbal and struggles to make eye contact. This precious little one will benefit from gentle, non-threatening nurture that allows you to build up to age-appropriate meeting of needs.

Start with lots of outward-facing time on your lap or playing on the floor by his side. Build toward gentle eye contact and, eventually, lap time. You could level up after a few weeks by singing softly to him while he drinks a cup of milk on your lap. Even if he remains facing outward for a long while, he’s gaining the benefit of your soft touch and warmth.

So How Do We Balance Structure and Nurture?

In one of our classic interviews with the late Dr. Purvis, she encouraged parents and caregivers to explore parenting approaches that balance firmness with kindness. We should seek to communicate safety to our kids. We also must consider our comfort with our authority — without being frightening or dominating.

The old-school discipline methods many of us experienced as kids won’t work with kids who have been abused, neglected, or spent time in orphanages. They often live in a state of fear or hypervigilance. Yelling, spanking, and lectures don’t communicate felt safety.

Get your guide to Parenting a Child Exposed to Trauma.

Here are some practical tips to help you find your balance. We’ve taken them from that classic interview and Dr. Purvis and Dr. Cross’s classic book, The Connected Child.*

Start shifting today.

You can shift and find your balance with these small changes, practiced consistently over time. Give yourself grace as you learn how to do this with your child. Be patient as you understand what each child needs the most.

  • Respond quickly to the expressed need or behavior.
  • State your expectations clearly and in words they can understand.
  • Keep the options straightforward, in age-appropriate language.
  • Tell them the outcomes of their choices – not punitively, but instead as natural outcomes.
  • Offer an immediate chance to re-do their challenging behavior.
  • Practice your new methods consistently. And allow the child to do the same.
  • Maintain physical closeness with your child while learning these new skills together.
  • Praise them up! Keep the words of encouragement and affirmation coming.

Keep learning and growing.

1. Be a student of your children.

What makes them tick? What frustrations feel impossible to them? What learning challenges are they facing? How much sleep do they need to function optimally? Do they prefer firm or light touch to re-regulate? How do you see their trauma coming out in times of stress?

These questions will help you meet them where they are, so you can speak acceptance, unconditional love, and support to them.

2. Be trauma-informed.

No matter how much you think you know about trauma and its impacts on your child, there is still more to be learned. Dive into the research by taking advantage of the resources all around you. There are podcasts, books, online courses, videos, and reputable social media accounts that will help you learn how best suits your learning style. Please share what you are learning with other parents and caregivers in your circle and take notes on what they are learning too!

3. Be connected.

Speaking of sharing what you are learning, make sure you are plugged into a network of parents and caregivers who get what you are facing. The safe space to share knowledge and connect over struggles and victories will help motivate you to keep learning and growing. Remember, a safe brain is a learning brain, not just for our kids!

How have you balanced structure and nurture? How has it changed as you and your child have grown together? Tell us about it!

Image Credits: Gustavo Fring; Kamaji Ogino; Tima Miroshnichenko

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