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Therapeutic parenting & the brain: choosing connection and support, not control and consequences.


Gregory Nicolau is a consultant psychologist, skilled in crisis intervention, and the founder of the Australian Childhood Trauma Group. Gregory shares his insights into parenting therapeutically and offers practical solutions and strategies that can be applied in the real world. Gregory highlights the importance of assessing where your child is at developmentally when they first come into your care, so that you can give thought everyday to how you progress them, whether by connecting with them and giving them help in stressful situations or by offering them the right supports (art/speech/occupational or other therapies or psychologists or psychiatrists). This he highlights is the difference between a carer and a therapeutic carer: the therapeutic carer is always looking at how to support and progress the child He explains the brain and its components: the reptilian and thinking brain and how we need to fill up the child's mind by continuing to respond to their stressors with calm and connection. Those stressors are often seen in their behaviours, which should always be seen as communication, not as good or bad, and not as something that requires consequences or control. The Aboriginal practice of Dadirri is a model we can aspire to, rather than a model where we look to control a situation. Dadirri involves controlling ourselves and our own inner thoughts: breathe, listen deeply, connect and wait for change. And repeat, repeat, repeat. Gregory highlights how this works in a typical situation commonly experienced with siblings quarrelling, putting down or hitting out. He also offers a unique and thought provoking consideration into how we approach self care and respite. He might just have the perfect solution! Gregory has a wealth of information and offers real strategies and solutions: practical advice that can be implemented straight away.

00:00 - Start 01:04 - Gregory: psychologist, entrepreneur, clinician and founder of the Australian Childhood Trauma Group 02:08 - The importance of tracking progress to create a therapeutic environment 05:27 - The brain and the mind and the importance of developing the thinking mind: responding in ways that children continue to get what they need 14:25 - Change is not as simple as telling a child what they should be doing 16:34 - Feeling good inside, felt safety, is critical to moving away from a stressed state 21:20 - Behaviour is communication and we need to be in control of our internal state, not in control of the situation. We have to lean in not away. 23:38 - Dadirri is an Aboriginal model that underpins what we need to do in therapeutic parenting: breathe, listen, connect and wait. Stay with the child in their stressed state. 32:55 - What to do where one child is hitting and picking on a sibling: fill each child's vase up 44:08 - We need a mirror family and a village rather than respite care 50:20 - Secondary trauma and fatigue and why we need to role model self care 53:42 - This work is hard: the road less travelled 57:27 - Be evidence informed: the latest research is open to new insights!


This is Sonia Wagner, representing PCA Families in one of our recordings that capture lived experience and best practice evidence- based learning that assist kinship, permanent and adoptive parents/carers in supporting young people. PCA Families has a zero tolerance of child abuse. I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay respect to elders past and present and express our intention to move together to a place of justice and partnership.

Being able to learn from peers and connect with those who may help us is particularly important. Today we are discussing trauma informed parenting, the brain and many other matters with Gregory.

Gregory is a consultant psychologist, experienced entrepreneur and CEO with a demonstrated history of working in the mental health care industry. He is the founder of the Australian Childhood Trauma Group and a wellbeing app called Ripple. Skilled in crisis interventions and clinical supervision with a psychology background.

01:04 Did you want to introduce yourself also?

When you said entrepreneur I thought people would be going oh what does that mean? Has he got a second Amazon or something? I like the idea because I want to work with young people I thought the best thing was to setup my own organisation. It grew organically. I was a consultant psychologist and I got more and more training so I thought if I want to survive long term, or even thrive in this world, I needed to bring more people into this organisation and it just grew organically over time.

02:08 I realised we need to track adverse childhood experiences so we can know how they have progressed.

The other thing that happened is that more and more I worked in this field I realised that we are not really good with children that have had adverse childhood experiences. Tracking their progress developmentally and physically, psychologically and spiritually through care and then leaving care. Whether they are in permanent care, adoptive or kinship care families, I got into this to track how they transition through. For those in hospital they get a graph with details about how they are tracking. Children with ACC also need to be tracked and if they are behind we need to intervene and do something and give them the support. We don’t do that well at the moment. The most important question to ask when they leave care is are they better off than when they first came in. Often people cant answer that for me. I hope I don’t offend anyone. 

I’m not hard on carers and so forth but I am strong in my belief and will challenge them to say you need to think every day is this child better today and if not what do I need to do to progress them. Likening carers to the nursing staff in the hospital. The child should never know but that is the type of attention you need to pay to the child if you want to provide a therapeutic environment.

05:27 So I wanted to start off by talking about the brain. It strikes me that parents are given very little information about the brain and how it works, yet it’s the secret to raising a child.  You wouldn’t buy a car without understanding where the petrol goes and what type of petrol is necessary. Can you tell us about the brain, its components and how it works.

Gregory to respond

I certainly can. Hopefully you are not buying a car with petrol!

The thing about the brain and any good training and instruction should focus on how do I translate that theory into practice.

The brain is essentially made up of two parts. The physical part the grey matter. And the mind that resides in the physical stuff in the brain. The brain allows the body to work and the mind allows the body to innovate and create sense of the world and to understand feelings and so forth. When we work with children with adverse experiences, we want to develop their mind because it is the mind that will determine their long-term outcomes.

I ask the question does where the child has come from determine who they become. Yes unless you help them develop their mind so that those adverse experiences just become a part of their history and not all of who they are. We see it overrepresented in homelessness, mental health facilities, domestic violence, alcohol and substance abuse and the youth justice system.

You will find I rant on but I wanted to say is that in the physical part of the brain it develops from the bottom up before it gets to the last part of the brain which is the prefrontal cortex and the thinking mind. The lower parts of the brain I call the reptilian brain. And it makes sense as with babies in the womb, to survive, it needs its heart beating and then take the nutrients through the umbilical world and it needs the stem higher up to develop the brain. Once the child comes into the world the brain goes this is now about survival. When the child crys they communicate what they need: food, sleep, soothing. Cries mean different things. Parents, biological or non-biological, pick up on that. That process continues throughout our lives and we become more sophisticated at letting the world know what we need.

Interestingly children with adverse experiences, as they grow, when the child is in a stressful situation, how they manage that stressful situation will be an indicator of where they are developmentally. For example, if a 5yo cries like an infant that tells me they are like an infant. Sometimes that happens in adults 40 years old. So as carers we have to keep this in mind that part of our work in assessing where the child is at when they are under stress, we need to look for how are they responding to it. We all expect a toddler once they have access to language to tell us what they need. The brain is allowing us first in a reptilian way to say I need something, by crying, and then as we develop up higher in the brain and we use our mind with conscious thought and with someone helping us and responding, our brain goes oh that’s nice, someone is helping me and giving me an apple after we cry for food.  Children with adverse consequences can also give up: after adverse consequences with no one responding they might go oh what’s the point of crying because no one comes, so they try and find other ways but sometimes they just give up.  About 15 years ago we had the example of the Romanian orphans with this. The Romanian orphans included kids up to the age of 10 and they were sitting in their cribs, rocking self-soothing. They had given up on reaching out. If we don’t meet the needs of these kids with adverse circumstances, they will try and find their own way to resolve it, but often because they haven’t go the skill set they might fix it in ways that might be problematic.

14:25 So is this really about self-talk that they need to redirect or rearrange?

Unconscious processes and things we can’t access being thoughts and meanings and motivations. People often talk about willpower where people have a choice. If a child has been through neglect, or been torn away from biological parents without knowing why choice is a difficult thing. They have only been in survival mode. If you haven’t had something how do you make a choice that is good for you and someone else. As you get older you want to get more than just enough so you can thrive rather than survive.  What I’m saying is that when we are creating change its just not about telling a child what they should be doing. The idea that they go thanks so much that’s a terrible thing for me to do. If their brain is down in reptilian mode and my sister wants to get the one apple, I’m going to get it before her.

16:34 We often talk about felt safety as the way of moving upwards from the reptilian brain.  As part of brain development, children need felt safety to thrive. That means, they need to feel safe and secure above everything else.  It is fundamental to their wellbeing. When they have been removed from their original caregivers, this impacts directly on their felt safety. Similarly, the pandemic has impacted on felt safety: children are feeling anxious and confused, and we are seeing growing mental health issues like eating disorders, self-harming or removal from school due to self-regulation challenges.  What are some things that can be done to turn that around?

In terms of behaviour, when children act out, it is really about communication. We are simplistic in how we approach behaviour in society. We define behaviour as good or bad.  We reward good and punish bad. I say to people I want you to forget good or bad behaviour.  I want you to look at behaviour as communication style. If they feel good about their internal working model, their vase of sense of self, self-esteem, the world gives me value and I get things from it, they will walk into school and smile and respond and will be open to learning and communicating. If they don’t feel good about themselves inside or are experiencing shame, its unlikely that they will walk into the classroom and engage. They are going to walk into the classroom and go who do I need to get today before they get me. If I disrupt the classroom early the teacher will kick me out and I’ll get to the principal’s office and avoid the maths I’m not good at.

When children are communicating a stress we need to respond in a way to reduce their stress level. That includes eating disorders, self-harm, disruptive behaviour, kids withdrawing and being quiet. If they could say instead of cutting I’m just overwhelmed and need some release we would go great lets talk about it. But if they cut and we say don’t cut, and stop them, that doesn’t help them develop the skills to get the relief, then they have no way of getting relief. So I say understand what they are communicating. Help the child develop another way of getting relief, whether that’s bouncing on a trampoline, bouncing a ball, walking, running up and down or doing yoga or tai chi or breathing. Then start working on removal of that behaviour for that child because that’s going to damage their skin and create other shame etc.

21:20 Its important as parents and carers to see that as communication and lean in with nurture and communicate and help them. Sometimes as parents and carers we sometimes feel at a loss to lean in and understand what’s underlying it so we can help them unpack it. How do we help them understand it?

I like the term lean in as if you think about wind, if you lean back from a wind you get blown over. If you lean in you will probably walk through it and get to the other side. So your right its important to lean into the child.

You don’t want to be controlling of the situation. You want to be in control of your own internal state. For people that are controlling, that tells me they are a little anxious inside and want to do, do, do and solve every problem. The only time for acting from our own reptilian brains is life and death, and it’s very rare, like a kid running out on the road. We just react. 

But often what happens is that all children’s behaviour, particularly when a worker or carer has deemed it bad, everyone is operating on life or death mode.  What happens then is the child’s need is not met. So you have to understand the child’s need. 

23:38 Consider this model from Dr. Miriam Rose that the Aboriginal have known of for years

Miriam Rose and her foundation and the aboriginal people have known about this for years. She has a video talking about Dadirri. Its about a quiet inner spiritual awareness and awakening. We cannot hurry the river. We need to move with its current, wait for the rain to fill it.

There are four things I’ve taken from this video on Dadirri:

  1. Breathe: say to your brain I don’t want you to use your brain to think about it. Be in control of your breathing, to give your brain a message that you are in control, its not life and death, and your mind then engages to work out what’s the best thing to do now. (consider Stephen Odgers Polyvagal theory).
  2. Listening Deeply: its not just listening to others, its about what is going on inside you that get in the way of you staying in the front of your mind. As an example, if I listen to myself and anxiety about something that sounds stupid, that noise, would get away and create a mess for me. If we can stay in our mind and listen inside and outside.
  3. Connect: A child telling me they are stressed is seeking connection. If a child is lying on the ground crying throwing a tantrum and you send them away to their room, what you are saying is that when you are distressed, I don’t want to know you so go into your room and calm down. A 5yo in a room doesn’t go oh I need to give this some serious thought in my room and oh sorry mummy and daddy I am calm now it was inappropriate of me.  The child in distress needs you to stay present and to be in control. Freud talks about transference and other psychologists talk about energy transference. If you don’t stay in control there is no captain of the ship or driver of the bus. There are different ways to connect. Sometimes using words when a child is having a tantrum doesn’t work. Sometimes its about creating two contact circles apart (two arm lengths). Depending on the age of the child its also about lowering yourself to their level so your energy given off isn’t that of a giant affecting their survival brain. Bring it down to their level, but only if you can get back up again! Then breathe, listen and be quiet. With little kids they will then kind of stop and go what are you doing. You can tell them you are breathing and it helps me feel more settled when I’m in control of my breathing, do you want to try it? Maybe we could do it together. And I just keep breathing, rather than responding to them and telling them something. They will be looking to sometimes push one of your buttons.  And you don’t want to thrash out a tantrum with them but role model what you want from them so that they will come towards us over time. With a child in adolescence they will gravitate towards the safest person in the room. The one that is quiet and breathing.
  4. Waiting quietly and peacefully as change takes time: providing time to grow and show control. Over time they will come to us as the safest person in the room. There is nothing else to hurry for. Be still.

32:55 So for us to model the behaviour that we want from the child can we talk about a specific example so we know how to apply the advice. If we have a sister hitting a brother daily and pointing out his faults, what’s the right response to help them learn and grow?

We have to be careful about control again. Sometimes we want to tear them apart and stop the fight. What we miss is what happened prior with some stirring antagonising behaviour. I do have a model around this. We have to make sure we teach them about expectations when they are in the front part of their mind. You don’t teach in the reptilian part of the mind. So when they are in the fight we cant reason and talk to them. So we have to do lots of preventative and proactive work. 

So when they first come into our care we have to do an assessment against developmental milestones in the first few weeks of them being our care. Is this child meeting needs or not? What do I expect of them as a child at this age? If they are not meeting milestones then I know what they need help with. One might be emotional literacy so I will work with them on story books if they are not at their milestone (When Im feeling angry, sad etc). I wont work on this when they are out of control with their emotions.  We can read about feelings at bed time. The child doesn’t need to know you are teaching them something.  They are having fun learning. So have fun doing it when they are in their upper brain and keep teaching those lessons over and over again.

So then in this situation of the fight, if its not life and death, our goal is to get everyone into their thinking minds, before deciding on any consequences.  Consequences is not meant to be punishment. These kids have already had consequences in being removed from family and they have felt terrible pain so going down that track is not helpful. What they need is teaching and learning and empathy and understanding. If they aren’t meeting the milestones, then we have to go back and say what else do we need to do.  Do I need more outside support and they see its about what support like art therapy, play therapist occupational therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, speech therapist or someone else? What other things they need. Sometimes we get so anxious for these children to get better and shift and change that we put such huge burdens on them rather than understand them. Change takes time. We cannot hurry the river. What are the developmental milestones and what are the most important ones now Physically (Body), Psychology (Cognition and Emotions, Brain and Mind) and Spiritually (Connection, Trust and Rely on Others and Connected to community/adults or Faith).

So with the sister hitting the brother and pointing out his faults, you first want to get them into their thinking mind then you might bring them together and say hey let’s have a think about what happened. If they are still agitated, you get them to go for a walk. You have to be completely out of the agitated state. Then ask questions like what was the feeling you had when this happened? Reflect the feelings back: yes losing doesn’t feel very good or I hear you felt ashamed when losing. They will get a sense from the way you speak to them. When you start to begin to connect feelings for them then you will create change and new neurological connections in the brain to create new connections. And you have to do this again and again and again.

So you could talk up the brother to the sister to help move her along, but this assumes the sister can hold you glorifying the brother. The sister may be going oh does that mean you love him more than me. So you may want to talk up the brother when you are alone instead. Put credit in the vase. With the sister you might want to do the same thing separately, so you might look for moments when she is nice to her brother. I noticed when you got food for your brother this morning that was so kind of you. Again giving them what they need from the adults around them. Sometimes adults don’t pay attention to what they need.

44:08 Support for carers from respite is so important with a mirror family for respite.

For single carers or with carers with 2 or 3 kids, I want them to think about the raising of children by creating a village around them. You need to interview people for the role of being in your village. There are people that may not be supportive in the first place or they may be frustrated by the child in your care or may not understand enough or supportive enough. So you need to go look for the people you need. That may be people that can come and cook food or clean the house or do the laundry. We have a thing called respite. The respite care we have doesn’t bend enough.  When kids grow up and have their cousins around, generally speaking its not at 2pm every second week we can come over to your place. What tends to happen is you get to know your cousins slowly over time, you know they are part of your family from the beginning and it may be that the Aunt and Uncle are coming over tonight because we are going out. Spontaneous. But carers sometimes don’t have that flexibility. Carers often need help here and now, not in two week’s time or once a month.   The village needs to mirror what happens in real life. That’s the risk where placements break down. When a child first comes into care there should be a mirror family that joins them, not in six months time. What the child learns is oh you cant handle me and now I am going away to strangers. The messaging is wrong. Much better messaging if the family joins and they raise the child in the village and there are spontaneous opportunities to spend time with another family. Developing a normal relationship. This also avoids using clinical terminology in front of the child. There are so many clinical terms like this is my foster or adopted child.  That creates difference.

50:20 Secondary traumatisation and caring fatigue are also aspects of caring not frequently discussed.  When things go wrong in our relationships with our children, or when we experience anxiety ourselves such as in this pandemic, this becomes even more challenging.  This work can shift our inner cognition, expectations, feelings, beliefs, self-esteem, confidence and more.

We encourage our carers to think about self-care, to be open to new information and trying new things, to focus on celebrating small wins, to be kind to themselves, but I truly think many don’t have time or can’t make time for this.  Making time for themselves seems indulgent, whimsical or nonsensical when considering the child’s needs. It also becomes overwhelming of itself - another layer of something we need to be arrange in between so many other things! 

Layer on top of that the guilt that we are somehow always at fault in one way or another – if a child is not coping, it must be something to do with how we are responding to and managing that child.  It’s a never-ending perpetual cycle with a far-away truly amazing outcome, but sometimes being in it can be simply hard. 

How can this realistically be achieved to help carers with self-care?

Absolutely yes. We need to change the way we talk about this with carers. We all know we say this to carers. What we need to say to them is you need to role model healthy behaviours. If you and your partner go out and go to the gym and you talk about those experiences with the child you are role modelling healthy behaviours. If the chid says you can’t leave me you can say actually I’m having some time for myself. When you go off to sport you have time for yourself that’s really good for you and for me too. So if you don’t do this you are not really role modelling healthy behaviours for your child.  As an organisation PCAF could be helping with this.

53:42 Is there anything else we should be talking about that is really important to adoptive or kinship or permanent carers or parents?  Is there any new research we should watch or any new ideas surfacing to consider?

I want to acknowledge that the work is hard.  Scott Peck in is book The Road Less Travelled his opening line is Life is Hard. Most people want to go down the easy road where relationships are superficial and everything is easy and beautiful. But real life and experiences are on the road less travelled. There are fewer people there but your relationships will be stronger. You will feel pain and joy more intensely.  If you face the challenges it becomes easier and you will build as you go. There is no way to short cut or sugar coat that children that have been harmed need a therapeutic space to grow and heal. And there is a difference between a therapeutic carer and a carer.  For example, the difference is the mindset of the therapeutic carer. If they are playing ball with the child, rather than thinking about what they need to do the next day and what’s for dinner, they will be looking at how they can use basketball to help with the development of the child, such as gross or fine motor skills, or how to deep breathe while shooting to help with their anger issues.  They will say hey Johnny I learnt that deep breathing while bouncing and shooting can help with taking your shot.  So Johnny will practice that for the next few weeks and then down the track when something goes wrong, Johnny can try that deep breathing which is now ingrained in his body. He can apply that learning to other situations so that he is the boss of his feelings in other situations.

57:27 Research will be replaced by new research

Research: truth is the absence of knowledge.  Truth changes with new research eg the world is flat but now round. Evidence based vs evidence informed. I prefer evidence informed as it might be true today but tomorrow there will be new research that our minds need to be open to. My truth today is this but I will keep my mind open.  And remember change takes time. It’s a marathon that you train for yourself, to help that child, not a sprint.

Thankyou Gregory

To anyone making the time to listen to this recording, thankyou for giving up your valuable time for the benefit of the young people in your life. 

If you are a kinship or permanent carer or parent needing help or support please contact PCA Families 03 9020 1833. 

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Until next time have an amazing week.



Australian Childhood Trauma Group

 Miriam Rose Foundation