Unique challenges in disciplining adopted children

The importance of preserving your emotional connection with your child

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. 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 behaviour.

"Time outs," behaviour 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 behaviour. Rather than fixing the behaviour 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 behaviour. 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.)

Behaviour charts. Behaviour charts are problematic for adopted children for two reasons. The first is that it seems nonsensical to be rewarded for behaviours that are not exceptional. For example, making the bed, not having a tantrum in a store, taking out the trash – these are behaviours that are reasonable to expect. They are not behaviours that require rewards. 

The second reason behaviour 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 behaviour, 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 behaviour. 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 behaviour. 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 behaviour 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 modelled 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 behaviour 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 favour of other disciplinary skills.1 A spank is to be used only to shape predetermined behaviours 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 behaviour. It must take into account the child's history (abuse, neglect, reactive attachment disorder, 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 behaviours. 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 behaviour 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. If you need a referral to a Christian therapist, call Focus at 1.800.661.9800.)

Next article in series: Healthy discipline for adopted children
First article in series:
Disciplining adopted children

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