Adoptive Family: When Kids Fear Messing Up

Illustration of a young boy hugging a book and uncertainly looking up toward his dad. One male and one female hand rest upon each of his shoulders.
Alexandra Ball

When Jeffrey's parents talked to him about his "bad" school papers, Jeffrey immediately started to cry, assuming he'd disappointed them. He repeated fearfully, "I won't do it again! I promise!"

Many children who are adopted, like Jeffrey, panic when they make mistakes or when they get into trouble. They worry, either consciously or subconsciously, that parents may stop loving them, will reject them or even regret their decision to adopt. Similar concerns about being rejected can carry over to the school setting, often causing kids to become perfectionists. They wonder if they'll ever be "good enough."

What can parents do to combat this pattern of fear and anxiety?

Be specific.

Using specifics when praising children builds their confidence. Instead of telling your son he is good, tell him why he is good. Was he compassionate? Careful? Thoughtful? Focused?

Using specifics when correcting children is also encouraging. Suggest concrete ways your daughter can improve her writing assignment. Is it lacking creativity, organization or thoroughness? Don't just tell her it's unacceptable or that she must do it over. Be helpful, not judgmental.

We empower our children when we show them how they contribute to their success or their lack thereof. For example: "Jeffrey, you earned that excellent grade because you remembered to bring your book home and asked me to explain that new word. And you managed your time well, too!"

This is especially important in an adoptive setting, where many children experience academic delays. Children often think that they are stupid and that learning will always be difficult. Specific language allows them to have confidence in who they are today. It helps put the past into perspective and positively affects their future.

Treat them as individuals.

Although children who are adopted may have things in common, they are certainly not identical. Be your child's advocate: Encourage teachers to treat every student as unique.

Children naturally try to be what they think teachers want them to be. But when teachers' expectations are not designed with them in mind, they often find it impossible to meet those expectations, and they end up feeling like failures. Then they try even harder not to disappoint, fueling their unattainable desire for perfection. Protect your children from this vicious cycle.

When children who are adopted receive the right kind of support, they will likely trust you more, gain self-confidence and be willing to take healthy risks — assured of your love and care.

Dr. Kathy Koch is the founder and president of Celebrate Kids Inc. and the author of 8 Great Smarts.
This article first appeared in the February/March 2017 issue of Focus on the Family magazine and was originally titled " 'Am I Good Enough?' " If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
© 2017 by Kathy Koch. Used by permission.