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Healthy Discipline for Adopted Children

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

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

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.

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