One of my favourite models of interpersonal communication with children comes from Daniel Hughes who is a clinical psychologist from America who works with children who have experienced early childhood trauma and neglect. Hughes uses the acronym PACE to describe what he believes are the ideal characteristics of a loving and therapeutic relationship. PACE is an approach or what he describes as an “attitude” of four personal qualities (Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, and Empathy) which allow adults to support a child to develop their own self-awareness, emotional intelligence and resilience. Over time, and with practice, through the loving attachment with their caregiver, a child will gain strong tools to better understand and regulate their emotions.
“Playfulness” creates an atmosphere of lightness, openness and interest and involves smiling laughter and humour. It gives the message that you enjoy and delight in your child. It means learning how to use a light tone with your voice, like you might use when story-telling, rather than an irritated or lecturing tone. It’s about having fun, expressing a sense of joy and being spontaneous. “Acceptance” involves being able to see the child underneath the behaviours and creates a sense of safety and security for the child. “Curiosity” demonstrates a wanting to know and understand the child and an interest in understanding what is going on for them. Curiosity is also important for discipline to be effective.
If a child behaves inappropriately ask what they are feeling. “Empathy” allows the child to feel “understood” and shows the child that the adults caring for them are kind, strong and able to help. This involves a capacity to “sit” with the feeling, no matter how difficult and “hold” the child through it. Understanding and expressing your own feelings about the child’s experience can often be more effective than praise. For example, if a child says “you don’t care”, you can respond by saying “That must be really hard for you. I feel sad that you experience me as not caring”. This can sometimes be really tricky to do, especially when we want to rescue our children from any strong emotions.
Using PACE can reduce the level of conflict, defensiveness and withdrawal that tends to be ever present in the lives of children who have experienced trauma. This attitude of PACE can be used by any adult to validate, explore and understand children’s feelings. It is an approach which limits shame, promotes compassion and brings a sense of mutual support, strength and resilience. When an adult spends time and demonstrates an interest in a child’s inner life the adult contains and regulates the child’s emotions, eventually the child will learn to do this themselves.