Focus on the Family

Disciplining Adopted Children

by Sandra Lundberg

. . . do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
—Ephesians 6:4

Karen is almost finished preparing dinner. "Russell," she calls out to her 8-year-old adopted son, "turn off the TV and put your toys away. It's time to wash up and come to the table. It's almost time to eat." Russell does not move. Karen wonders if he hears her over the television. She calls out to him again, but this time her voice is slightly irritated. Russell squirms but does not move.

Karen's frustration is mounting. She walks over to Russell and stands between him and the TV. "Russell, I've told you to get ready for dinner and you are not even starting to clean up. Look at me when I am talking to you." Russell makes eye contact with his mother, then averts his gaze. Karen interprets Russell's behavior as disrespectful and defiant. Russell has already begun to tune Karen out as she says something about going to his room "by the count of three." When he remains frozen in his seat, Karen grabs him by the arm and pulls him down the hall to his room. She puts him on his bed and pulls the door closed behind her. As she walks down the hall she calls to Russell, "Stay there until I come back for you."

Does this sound like a scene from your own home? You may identify with Karen, or you may believe that she was overreacting to Russell. This article series will help clarify some of the unique challenges of disciplining children who have been adopted, discipline methods that may or may not be effective, handling differences in discipline among siblings and the essential component of coming to agreement as parents.

Let me begin by saying that committing to personal prayer and having a support network of people praying for you and supporting you in tangible ways is key throughout parenting. Many people are tempted to isolate themselves when they run into difficulties in childrearing.This can be true in adoptive families due to a perceived lack of understanding, interest or desire to help. But instead of isolating yourself and your family during difficult times, run to God, through prayer and Bible reading, and run to your friends and family. Pursue professional help if needed. And know that along the way, you and your spouse will continue to learn and grow when it comes to nurture and discipline for your family. A lot of patience and grace will go a long way in maintaining important relationships throughout the journey.

The goal in balancing discipline and nurture is helping your child mature into an emotionally, spiritually and physically healthy individual. If you only focus on behavior change, you will not raise a healthy individual. You must initiate and develop a deep and abiding connection with your child. Keep in mind that children need to learn to assess situations and take action considering the likely outcome. To do this, a child needs to learn to respond immediately to parental imperatives, choose an option from those given by a parent and make mistakes that can be corrected in the safety of home and family.

Consider the relationship God wants to have with us. As humans, we respond to His love for us by loving and wanting to please Him in return — not because we have to but because we choose to.

You must reach through your child's hurt and see beyond those behaviors intended to distance you. Remember that the behaviors that frustrate you are very often intended to keep him safe (or to make him feel safe). Be patient and stay focused on the long-term goals of connection and relationship. As you do, you will be presenting a model of God's patience and love for us. Sometimes your child will be able to articulate why he disobeyed or misbehaved and other times he may not know or cannot explain it to you. In either case, it is up to you to nurture the connection and help your child to grow in the right direction.

Understanding the reasons for your child's behavior and responses is important, but the truth is that some adoptive parents may never know the full extent of their child's underlying problems for a number of reasons (e.g., the child being too young at the time of any abuse to put the experience into words or the child having a sparse history due to adoption from overseas or multiple placements).

However, be encouraged that neither parents nor children need to understand or know everything that has happened in the child's past or inside the child in the present in order for there to be healing and attachment. Now, let's look at some of the challenges you might run into when dealing with discipline.

Unique Challenges

Children who are adopted when they're older or who have more complicated histories are not likely to respond well to some traditional discipline methods.

by Sandra Lundberg

Disciplining a child who has been adopted presents a number of unique challenges.

You may feel that others are evaluating you as a person and as a parent as you establish your own family rules and expectations. Many parents find it difficult negotiating this balance between themselves and are even more frustrated trying to explain their decisions to family and friends.

Another challenge is the fact that children with multiple broken attachments and abuse often do not respond well to traditional methods of discipline, such as "time outs," corporal punishment, grounding or a demand to make eye contact and immediately obey their parents. In fact, these methods may actually escalate conflict with the child.

And still another challenge to parents in disciplining their adopted child is that the child may bring pain from his past into the new family. The new family then experiences pain they neither caused nor expected. Many parents become discouraged and confused when this happens.

Before adoption and early in the adoption process many parents believe the love they provide their child will heal any early wounds and the adopted child will respond to them like other securely attached children. However, if and when this does not happen, the parents may feel hurt and rejected. They may become angry at this unfair situation and find it difficult to respond to their new son or daughter with compassion. They may even become angry at God and with each other. And all the while their new child and any other children in the home need them to be a team — to be secure, loving and compassionate toward each other and their family.

Why some traditional methods don't work

Traditional methods of discipline can work well for children adopted at birth or without complicated attachment histories. In these situations, the parents have provided the love and nurture the children need in order to accept discipline as the loving training it is designed to be. On the other hand, children who are adopted when they are older or who have more complicated histories are not likely to respond well to some traditional methods.

Why is this? For one reason, an adopted child with a history of multiple placements and abuse often feels threatened by giving control to parents. This creates an impasse for both the parents and the child. Despite the child's fear and resistance, he needs to allow the parents to be in control. He needs to experience his parents' control as safe and allow them to meet his needs. These experiences help his heart heal. (See the series on attachment and bonding and the need/arousal cycle.) For this reason, parents need to nurture the child at all times — when she behaves and when she misbehaves. Building trust and attachment must take precedence over "fixing" the child's present behavior.

"Time outs," behavior charts, love withdrawal, deprivation, grounding and reacting in anger do not work with many adopted children because they often have trouble thinking consequentially, and because isolation feels safe to them (i.e., they fear relationships even though they yearn for relationship).

Remember, this is the bigger picture to keep in mind when you are frustrated by your child's behavior. Rather than fixing the behavior or understanding your child's underlying problems based on his history, you need to create safety and security so that she can experience emotional connectedness and healing.

Let's take a closer look at what can go wrong when using traditional discipline methods and some possible alternatives:

Time Outs. "Time outs" are ineffective because adopted children need "time ins." They need ongoing interaction with the people who love them. Sending a child to be alone with instructions to calm down, think about what she has done and not come back until she's ready to behave makes no sense. A securely attached child responds to a time out from a position of wanting to please his parents and be in their presence. An adopted child with attachment issues may not yet even have this desire. And she often cannot calm herself without help. Before she came to your family, she may never have received the parental comforting she needed that would enable her to internalize that model and calm herself. Time with the parent when she is misbehaving can teach her to calm down and also to engage with people appropriately.

So if your adopted preschooler pokes your dog in the eye, do not send him to another room for a time out. Gently, but firmly, take his hand in yours, possibly look him in the face or have him sit in your lap, and say, "Gentle touches. We don't use hands to hurt." Then help him form an appropriate behavior. For example, if you feel confident he is mad at you for not letting him watch more TV and the dog was safe and easy to hurt, you may tell him, "Say, 'Mom, I'm mad at you,'" with an appropriate scowl on your face. He may react inappropriately again, but he will learn in time that it will not result in you not loving him anymore or sending him away from you. Instead, he'll get increased physical contact with you and emotional connectedness — the very things he needs though he likely does not want.

When might time apart be appropriate? Consider another example. If your teenage son curses at you and slaps you across the face, do not respond in kind. It may feel correct to slap him back, send him to his room and ground him for life. However, any of these responses will likely provoke further verbal and physical aggression. (Depending on the severity of the situation, recruiting outside help may be necessary.)

In this type of circumstance, it is wise to first remove yourself from the situation until you have both calmed down or you are calm enough to help him calm down. This is most easily done by walking out of the room and not saying any last words. If your child follows you, still trying to provoke you, then you may need to go into a room and lock the door. Although you are not staying with him through the physical and emotional arousal, he will likely calm down with a bit of isolation. Remember, he wants that distance.

When you are ready to re-engage, don't try to immediately talk through what just happened; instead, if possible, do an activity together. He knows what he did was wrong. A lecture won't help at that moment. Later, you can tell him what the consequence of his action will be. (Make sure it is something that requires more time together.)

Behavior Charts. Behavior charts are problematic for adopted children for two reasons. The first is that it seems nonsensical to be rewarded for behaviors that are not exceptional. For example, making the bed, not having a tantrum in a store, taking out the trash — these are behaviors that are reasonable to expect. They are not behaviors that require rewards. The second reason behavior charts do not typically work with these children is that they often have a poor ability to understand time. A goal of earning points all week may seem impossible. The adopted child may perceive this as an expectation of him to be perfect forever. Because this is too much pressure, he will intentionally not earn the reward.

If your elementary-aged child does not throw a tantrum in the store, you can tell his stuffed animals, "Andy did well not yelling in the store." The praise is appropriate to the behavior, not overdone, and given indirectly so the child can overhear the praise without having to "do something" with it. This is the path of least resistance for a child who needs to undermine his achievements or disagree with Mom and Dad. If the child has no problem accepting positive feedback then, of course, address the child directly. Again, keep it low key and appropriate to the behavior. Not yelling may be excellent progress for Andy; however, it is within normal expectations.

Love Withdrawal. Love withdrawal occurs when parents withdraw emotionally and physically to change a child's behavior. This rarely works well as a form of discipline even with well-attached children. It will not work as a form of discipline for adopted children.

The adopted child has already experienced the greatest loss possible when she lost her biological parents. Trying to wait until she demonstrates loving behavior toward you before you show love to her will not work. Because of her previous loss, she can certainly hold out longer than you can. Worse yet, withholding expressions of love only reinforces her belief that she is not lovable, that she cannot be loved and that love is painful. In the meantime, no healing is taking place and she is not getting any closer to claiming you as her parent.

All children need to know that their parents' love for them is unconditional. This may not always be easy, but unconditional love modeled by the parents then provides a path to understanding God's unconditional love for us.

Deprivation. Depriving a child of things may be a popular way to change behavior but it does not reach the heart. As you can well imagine, the child may begin to work the system. For example, he may begin to think, If I feed the dog then I get my computer back. In this instance, we would want the child to begin to experience some empathy for the hungry dog and possibly desire to please Mom and Dad. However, this is only going to happen over time as the child allows himself to attach to the dog and the parents. In the short term, it's all about the child's wants.

Depriving a child of things seldom works with a previously abused child because the child rarely truly needs whatever is being taken away. He will tell you he didn't want it anyway. In fact, he would rather have control than things any day. Your child needs time interacting with his parents, not with things.

So if your adolescent makes a mess in the family room, don't just tell him, "No more Xbox till you've put everything else away," and expect him to clean up by himself. Instead, say, "I see there is a mess in the family room. Let's clean up together, and then we can have some game time together." The joint effort enhances connection and takes the power struggle out of the interaction.

Grounding. Parents who use grounding as a method of discipline are also working at a disadvantage. The child may be used to doing whatever he wants without getting permission. If he's not grounded he assumes he can still do anything that hasn't been specifically ruled out. Instead, parents need to be the ones who give permission because the child needs limits to be safe. Thus, parents need to be asked on a regular basis for permission to participate in activities. This control may need to last longer for some children than others. For example, a child who has experienced trauma will need to experience the safety of his parents' control in his life, and establishing this sense of safety will take time.

Corporal Punishment. This articles series on nurture and discipline would not be complete without a discussion of spanking. Parents who have ongoing relationships with the adoption agency or social services will need to abide by the agency rules when it comes to spanking. If you have the freedom to make this decision without agency dictates, the following are issues you need to consider when deciding the appropriateness of spanking your adopted child: your primary goal in parenting, your definition of spanking, your guidelines for when to spank and when not to spank, and how your adopted child's age and individual history inform this decision.

Remember, your primary goal is to establish an environment that will encourage attachment and trust. Therefore, consider what your definition of a spanking is and when you believe it is appropriate. For the sake of this discussion, a spank will be defined as a swat with an open palm to the fleshy part of a clothed bottom. A spanking of one to three swats should sting just enough to get the child's attention in order to redirect the child. Spanking should occur infrequently after the age of five and be phased out by 10 years old in favor of other disciplinary skills.1 A spank is to be used only to shape predetermined behaviors that pose immediate danger to the child or to someone else, or when the child directly, willfully disobeys you.

In light of this, parents should never spank an infant (age range 0-18 months). It is the parents' responsibility to keep the baby safe by maintaining a safe environment. An infant is not being defiant by squirming when having diapers changed or making a mess when being fed. An infant is exploring his environment. Provide distraction while changing diapers so you can get the job done. And plan on cleaning up the kitchen too many times to count.

The decision to spank or not must also be specific to the parents and child. Spanking can escalate or exacerbate the conflict rather than correct a behavior. It must take into account the child's history (abuse, neglect, RAD, etc.). Most experts agree that it is never appropriate to spank a child who has been abused.

You must never spank out of anger. It must only be in response to a predetermined set of behaviors. Traditionally, this has been when the child is putting himself at risk or is being intentionally defiant. Therefore, it is not appropriate to spank if you find yourself reacting to your child pushing your buttons. In this situation, it is not fostering connection and long-term health. You have just lost control and, in so doing, lost your ability to provide safety and security.

Responding to an adopted child in anger or disciplining him while you are angry will not result in the healing and change of behavior that you desire. Indeed, previously abused children are comfortable with you becoming angry. Anger keeps the emotional distance between you.

If the child was adopted as an infant, then the child may respond to a spanking as another well-attached child would. However, keep in mind that even an adopted infant will grieve his birthmother's voice and heartbeat and can struggle with attachment issues later. The older the child is at the time of adoption and the more complicated his history, however, the more likely he should never be spanked. You may feel that the older child may be the child who could most benefit from spanking; however, that is least likely to be the case and points to anger that is unresolved in you. (If you find yourself struggling in this area, seek professional help from a licensed therapist specializing in adoption issues.)

1Paul Reisser, M.D., Focus on the Family Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2007), 274.

Healthy Discipline for Adopted Children

When you discipline your adopted child, you need to consider her chronological age as well as her emotional age.

by Sandra Lundberg

If possible, understanding any past injuries (emotional or physical) unique to your child will help you as you seek healthy discipline methods. Keep in mind that healthy methods of discipline should account for the child's age and personality and the parents' and the child's needs for control, safety, proximity and consistency in order to create a new environment where attachment and trust can grow.

Parents often think of their child in terms of her chronological age. When you think of your adopted child, you need to consider her chronological age and her emotional age. Her emotional age may be significantly younger than her chronological age. You may have a child who is 10 years old but functions as a 4-year-old. You will need to tailor your interactions with her to the level of a 4-year-old. This includes not only your expectations for her behavior, but also the words you use to describe those expectations.

In addition, it means setting her boundaries in line with a lower age level. In so doing you will begin to make up for the parental care she needed but did not receive during her early development. As you interact with her according to her emotional age, she will have the chance to "catch up" and thus actually "grow up" in the progressive manner God designed. If you have a 6-year-old who functions as a 4-year-old, then you will want to set a limit such as, "You may ride your bike to the end of the cul-de-sac while I am watching." As she matures, "You may ride around the block when you have my permission."

You need to help your child out of the aroused state of fear that often comes with discipline and bring him into a calm emotional state with you. If you will decrease your child's stress level, he will have the opportunity to learn from experience, which is necessary for change.

Let's say that Jane's 4-year-old daughter picks the deli counter line to lie down on the floor and begin kicking and screaming. What should she do? This is a nightmare for most parents who would rather crawl in a hole than have their child act up in the grocery store. Although it may be very annoying if you are near the end of your shopping trip and the cart is full, your best response is likely to be picking up your child, with special attention to restrain flailing limbs, and carrying her out to the car, leaving the shopping cart for the store attendants to deal with.

Tantrums lose most of their energy without onlookers. When the tantrum is over, you may or may not choose to go back into the store. If you do choose to go back in, remind her what the rules are for grocery stores (for example: stay in the cart at all times, do not take things off the shelves and no yelling). Usually after a few times of leaving the store the child realizes she can't manipulate you with misbehavior and these outings become easier.

If you're dealing with an older child, obviously you can't keep him buckled in the cart. You can, however, require him to keep a hold of the cart with one hand, not take things off the shelves and not yell. If the hand comes off the cart, the cart stops moving until the situation is resolved. Again, usually "bad behaviors" decrease without an audience, so rapid departure, child in tow, may still be the best option. Don't start naming off consequences to be expected when you get home, as that will only escalate the arousal level for both of you.

Let's return to the story of Karen and Russell at the beginning of this article series. We must be aware that Karen is struggling internally because of the pain Russell has brought into her life. She is grieved because she didn't expect the adoption experience to go this way. Karen thought that her love for Russell would knock down all barriers and he would love her in return. She thought about the home where he first lived. She thought of his lengthy abuse history and multiple foster placements. She especially thought about saving him from all that. So why is Russell rejecting and disdaining her?

The key that Karen has not understood yet is that all of Russell's broken attachments and unmet needs have resulted in him feeling terribly threatened and fearful. Russell is not choosing to be defiant in order to "thank" his mom for adopting him. He simply needs different approaches to learning appropriate behavior. He needs approaches that see incremental change as successful.

So, when Karen told Russell to look at her, and he did for a few seconds, but then averted his gaze, that was a positive step for him. She can change the course of the interaction by sitting near him on the couch, taking a moment to calm herself, then saying, "Russell, let's get ready to eat." He may look at her or not and he may or may not say a word. She may then gently put her hand on his and say, "Let's turn off the TV and put the toys away." She can begin to put up the toys, modeling what she wants him to do. She should not put away everything. Russell should help. (This may take some time, so she should turn off the kitchen appliances.) After the room is reasonably clean, they can move to the sink, wash hands and sit to eat together. This will be different than she expected, but step-by-step they will connect.

It is also very important to consider your child's personality and history when you are going to be transitioning to a new activity (e.g., going somewhere, getting ready for bed, picking up toys, etc.). Some children are able to quickly shift from one activity to another. Other children need a little advance notice of what is coming. This might mean going into the room, making eye contact — or otherwise establishing that what you are saying is being heard — and then saying something like, "Russell, dinner will be ready in about 20 minutes. In about 10 minutes you'll need to start getting ready to come to the table. I'll set the timer to remind you." Timers are helpful because they are objective when we are not. You may still need to come alongside and move through the transition together, but in time it will become easier.

Each approximation is a good thing, not a failure because it did not reach the final goal. As your child's fear lessens, he will not always have an immediate fight, flight or freeze reaction. He can learn the cause and effect of his actions.

On really hard days, parents who have adopted a child with significant attachment problems need to remember that their child's rejection is not personal. Their child would reject anyone who tried to love her. She does not know what she needs. She fears letting someone else have control. She will protect herself against any further pain by denying that her new parents are important to her. Her thinking may be something like this: When they get rid of me it will be on my own terms. I made them do it and it doesn't hurt so much because I don't love them.

Remember, if you use discipline methods that heighten the stress level and physiological arousal, you will reinforce the patterns of brain activity, emotional response and behavior that you want to extinguish. If you help your child calm down and connect with you even when you are correcting his behavior, you will create an environment where he can flourish.

If your child is acting out more severely than the examples given in this article series, you will need professional help to devise a workable plan for your family. This series is not meant to provide individualized advice. It is impossible to address the numerous unique situations that parents will face. Don't hesitate to seek professional help if the situation is beyond your control.

When Children Have Been Abused

by Sandra Lundberg

For a variety of reasons, the nurture and discipline needs of children who have been verbally, emotionally, physically or sexually abused are more complicated than those of children who have not been abused. As we delve deeper into this important topic, I want to first establish the keys to nurturing and disciplining the abused child:

By following these keys, you will offer the healing experience of meeting your child's needs. Your child will begin to learn that you, as her parent, can have control and she still can be safe. In time, she can let go of some of her vigilance and attach to you.

In the following paragraphs we'll look deeper at a few of these specific methods:

Correct without shaming or breaking your emotional and physical connection. If a previously sexually abused child begins to stimulate himself while in your lap, then you need to distract the child from that activity; this could be done in several ways and would be determined by you, the parent. You might begin by simply shifting positions. If the child's sexualized behavior continues, you need to correct it verbally. Be sure not to shame your child (verbally or nonverbally) while correcting this behavior. Even if you shame the child nonverbally, the child is likely to internalize this as: There is something wrong with me. This is very confusing for the child because this activity may have been encouraged in her previous placement.

You might simply say, "Mommy (or Daddy) loves to snuggle with you. But rubbing like that is not part of snuggling. If you keep doing that you'll have to sit next to me instead of in my lap." Then continue with the story and snuggle time because that continues the nurture and emotional connection.

If the behavior still persists, then stop reading and get up and engage in something more active: walking around the block together, baking cookies and so on. (Some parents might choose this option first.) Consider the fact that the inappropriate behavior may seem normal to the child and it will take time to reshape the child's understanding of what is appropriate and inappropriate. Or the child may have become bored and so started to stimulate himself. Even children who have never been abused may engage in some type of self-stimulation when bored.

Of course, sometimes parents send a shame message and break the connection physically and emotionally. If this happens for you, then prepare yourself for how you'll handle that situation differently, with compassion, when the opportunity arises again. Practicing your words beforehand can be very helpful. Your child needs to learn about appropriate touch that is not sexualized. Your child also needs to understand that sexualized touching is not appropriate for children. At some point, you can talk about the fact that those people who taught her this behavior were wrong. This lays the groundwork to explain that sexualized touching is only appropriate between husband and wife.

Be specific with your expectations. Your hurt child may not understand that behavior falls on a continuum. You will need to clearly explain what the child needs to do. For example, you might use numbers when talking about expectations: 5 being the best behavior and 1 being unacceptable behavior. For a child of 8 or 10 years old, the expectations for making his bed might be 1) climbing out of bed and leaving it completely unmade; 3) pulling the sheets and blanket up and placing the pillow at the head of the bed; and 5) tucking in the sheets and blanket and smoothing out the comforter, placing the pillow at the head of the bed and putting the stuffed animals in order. Be very specific in your explanation of desired behaviors. If you want your child to make his bed with the sheets tucked in, say that. If you want the animals nicely displayed, say that.

Oftentimes we expect our children to know these things without our saying them. Also, our children may have learned to pretend they know more than they do or have more capabilities than they do. See what they are capable of, and then tailor your requests so they can build self-worth by incremental success.

Be flexible. Remember to be flexible. This is especially important when it comes to things you cannot control. Primary examples of this are eating and bodily functions.

It makes sense to accommodate when it comes to eating. The child may hoard food because she is afraid there won't be any the next time she is hungry. Or she may desire sweets all the time. Do not allow her to have a refrigerator in her room. Instead, keep a good supply of healthy snacks and offer her food throughout the day. Let her know she can ask you anytime she needs something to eat. The significant difference is that you are the one providing the food. As she learns that there is food available and that you are safe and not shaming her, this need will pass. Also, meeting these basic needs allows for bonding so that she can move beyond these needs to other, deeper ones.

For the common problem of destroying toys, do not get upset and talk about what the toy was worth or ask your child why he did it. Instead, you could respond with something like, "We can't play with that one anymore. We'll put it in the trash." Then walk to the trash can together and throw the ruined toy away. One less toy is not really a problem. You may be concerned that you'll end up throwing all the toys away. Usually that does not happen. Sometimes saying less and taking immediate action accomplishes more in this situation.

However, you know your child's maturity level best. Talking through situations may work with some children. After seeing the broken toy, you might say, "You must really be hurting; let's talk about it." An emotionally immature child is not likely to respond in a way to clarify why she destroyed the toy. She may be unable to put into words why she is angry or hurting. Again, you know your child best. Keep his maturity level in mind when deciding how to respond.

Be aware of your tone, word choice and eye contact. Remember that children who have been abused are very vigilant to read their parents' attitudes without a word being spoken. They began doing this to protect themselves, and it is likely to become a skill they sharpen for the rest of their lives. Parents need to be willing to consider what they are communicating to their children through nonverbal as well as verbal cues. This may mean being willing to take feedback from a spouse, social worker or friend about something that you were not even aware of about yourself.

Parents of children who have been abused verbally and emotionally need to be cognizant of their tone, word choice and eye contact. They may learn over time that a certain word or combination of words sets their child off because it always preceded abuse in their biological family, prior placements or orphanage. Once parents become aware of these triggers, they can creatively work around them.

While these specific methods — and others mentioned — may seem lax in teaching correct behavior, they actually are quite stringent. The focus is not on letting the child do whatever she wants, but on teaching the child in every situation that the parent is ready, willing and able to be in charge. This loving control prepares the child so she can learn correct behaviors in a meaningful way.

Explaining Discipline Differences to Siblings

If you choose to use different methods of discipline, you may have to explain to the children already in the home why you have to discipline this child differently.

by Sandra Lundberg

Keep in mind that your other children are likely to feel stress and loss when a new child enters the home. This is true even if they have talked about wanting to adopt. The children are the barometers in the home. They will live out for you the increased stress level. Additionally, if you choose to use different methods of discipline, you may have to explain to the children already in the home why you have to discipline this child differently.

Let's take a look at how Karen might handle this with her other son John:

"Mom," John says, "do you still love me?"

Karen says, "Of course I love you, John. I'll always love you."

"But Mom, Russell gets away with all sorts of stuff, and then he still gets dessert."

"I know, John. It's not that he is getting away with stuff; it's that we have to correct him differently."

"But that's just it. You always send me to my room and you're always holding him in your lap. I want to sit in your lap. You don't love me the same."

"Oh, John, I'm sorry, I do love you. And I know it doesn't feel fair. Let's you and I have some snuggle time right now while Russell is sleeping. Would you like to do that?"


"And I'll talk with Dad about us making sure we have special time with you alone while Russell is getting adjusted to our home."


"And during those special times we spend with you, we can talk about ways we are treating you and Russell differently. We are still going to have to treat you differently, but maybe we can help you better understand why we are doing what we are doing."

Some parents may decide to completely revise their methods of discipline for children already in the home. That's okay, too. Other parents may decide to explain to the children that "Johnny gets spankings for disobeying Mommy and Daddy. Russell does not get spankings for disobedience because his birthparent hurt him and so he does not learn well when people correct him physically." Again, these decisions have to be specific to each family and to each child. And remember to use careful discretion when sharing personal information regarding your adopted child with others, including siblings.

Conversations similar to the one we saw between Karen and John foster increased understanding and sensitivity to what a child who has already been living in the home may feel. Parents must not deny that there is a difference in how the children are being treated. Don't dismiss the fact that the difference doesn't feel fair. If you deny it, your children will learn not to believe what you say. Always allow for further discussion later.

In the end, your other children may not need to understand and may not be capable of understanding why the new child gets treated differently. However, all of your children need your love, time and attention. You may feel like you have nothing more to give. On some days that may be true. Much more often, you must give more than you think you have on reserve so all the children are assured you treasure them. Remember, this will only last for a season. You do not want to regret having one child feel you sacrificed your relationship with him for your relationship with another child.

Being on the Same Page

If you are divided about what techniques to use, your child will perceive a crack in the unity between Mom and Dad and will find a way to exploit it.

by Sandra Lundberg

It is very likely that your once-stable home and family has been turned upside down during the process of adoption. You long for things to be as they once were. You also long for the desire of your heart to be met in loving, nurturing and sacrificing for your new child and having her love you in return. I submit for your consideration that you will be able to experience love given and love returned much sooner if you and your spouse take steps together to work toward your child's healing.

Just as you pursued adoption together, it is very important that you both commit to nurturing and disciplining your child using the same methods. If you are divided about what techniques to use, your child (or children) will perceive a crack in the unity between Mom and Dad and will find a way to exploit it.

You may have noticed your child giving Mom a harder time than Dad. This is especially true if Mom is the one providing the majority of the child's care. When faced with this situation, parents may disagree about how the child behaves and what needs to be done about it. However, it is vital that Mom and Dad work through these feelings together and find common ground. Having a united front and reinforcing each other's decisions is essential in successfully nurturing and disciplining your children. Those who fail to do this will, along with their children, suffer negative consequences. The worst consequences are: (1) sacrificing the primacy of the marriage and (2) delaying the child's progress to healing.

God has blessed you with this child through adoption. Now you must work together to bless this child by being the parents he so desperately needs.

A Final Thought

As you seek to discipline your adopted child in creative ways, keep in mind that the goal is rarely to win this particular battle (though that may be important at certain times). Instead, the ultimate objective is to help your child grow in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men (Luke 2:52).

Never forget that when the Bible addresses the responsibility that parents have to discipline their children, "nurture" comes before "the admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4 KJV). Disciplining with your child's heart needs in mind will bring him or her to a place of wholeness where he or she can truly obey you — and God — from a healthy heart, soul and mind.

Next Steps and Related Information

Additional resources on disciplining adopted children

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