Many adopted children transition relatively seamlessly into their new families, or may experience only a brief adjustment period. Certainly not all adopted children were disrupted from their biological families due to traumatic events. Having two kids adopted from orphanages, in addition to being foster parents, we tend to view our children’s behavior through the lens of their trauma. I realize not every adoptive family is in this situation, but for those who can relate, this article is for you. Our first child is biological. Naturally, we assumed that the same discipline techniques that worked for her would work with any child, adopted or not. Our first run in with challenging behavior came when we noticed that our newly adopted daughter didn’t cry. Not when she hit her head hard, not when she pinched her finger in the door, and definitely not when she was disciplined. Soon after that came a barrage of other bizarre behaviors that had us scratching our heads: Hoarding food in her pillow case, locking herself in the closet, avoiding eye contact and extreme tantrums. So, we did what many uninformed but well-meaning parents would do. We disciplined her more intensely. Sharing that brings tears to my eyes and reminds me of the utter helplessness I felt. We had no clue what was wrong with our little girl or what she needed. Over the decade that followed, God put some amazing therapists, behavior specialists, elders and friends in our lives. These individuals taught us how to help our children heal, while somehow preserving our sanity and our marriage. As a side note, our daughter was eventually diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). We are still learning, but here are a few tips we have gathered from books, professionals working with our children, or good old-fashioned trial and error. This is not stuff pulled from a text book (for any professionals who may be reading, please don’t cringe at my over-simplification). Here are practical suggestions we use in our family daily for our kids with a trauma history.
1. Try thinking of your child’s negative behavior as their survival skill. At one point or another in their young lives, this behavior kept them alive. It served a purpose. The behavior worked. For one of our children, I like to call his survival skill “sabotage.” He was the master of disruption and damage. Any time things were quiet and running smoothly, he could find the perfect way to throw a wrench in it. Because he was removed from a home where he experienced severe neglect due to parental drug abuse, he likely had to misbehave in some pretty big ways to elicit any sort of attention at all. And in his world, zero attention meant he might not eat or get changed that day. Upon joining our family, he did anything he could to sabotage the family peace. If his sister was working on homework, he would slam the laptop closed on her hands. If brother was building a Lego tower, it got smashed. Any attention, even negative attention, was the goal. Other children may hoard food, compulsively lie, steal, or charm total strangers. Thinking of these behaviors as the ways our children stayed alive in seemingly impossible situations, helps me to have compassion. It also helps me to depersonalize things. This child is not trying to get under my skin or drive me crazy, he is only responding in a way that, at one time, made perfectly logical sense.
2. If a particular negative behavior is the survival skill, then it’s our job as parents to show the child a couple of things: A.) That behavior doesn’t work anymore (i.e. isn’t going to bring about the outcome they desire) and B.) His or her needs are met now and therefore that behavior is no longer needed. This is a very tall order. However, once we understand the child’s goal in the behavior we can begin to make it ineffective for him/her. If you took any introductory psychology classes you may remember this principle: Many creatures (including little humans) will continue to engage in negative or harmful behaviors if the payoff is rewarding enough. Take, for example, a young children who bites. For children seeking attention, the “reward” for biting is tremendous. There is crying, and screaming. There may be running around and very big reactions on the faces of the adults in the room. The biter typically gets immediate attention (either placed in time out, scolded, taken out of the room with mom or dad, etc.) In this scenario, for someone seeking attention, biting may be just the way to go! Unless it doesn’t work anymore. What if the “victim” is showered with all the attention? After all, owies need lots of kisses and maybe even a popsicle. And definitely some snuggle time with mom or dad. What if the biter is completely ignored? No pay off, no reward. I am not suggesting that we allow children to hurt others without consequence. On the other hand, we may be reinforcing a child’s negative behavior without even realizing it.
3. How do we communicate that the negative behavior is no longer needed? How do we let our kids know: “I will pay attention to you even if you don’t hit, bite, lie, or sabotage this family event”? All kids, especially kids with a trauma history, benefit from having their needs met on a consistent basis. Predictable, consistent, patient need-meeting. When our children were very young we took advantage of opportunities like a little fall or skinned knee. We tried to immediately run over, pick them up, show empathy, apply a Band-Aid, snuggle, etc. We probably looked silly to on-lookers, over-reacting this way! But these were great teaching moments. All their lives, prior to coming to us, our children were told “You’re ok, brush it off, don’t cry, take care of it yourself.” We wanted to communicate just the opposite, “We want to take care of you, we know how to take care of you, and we will do it every time.” As our children got older, we used activities that involved an element of risk such as riding a roller coaster or playing in big ocean waves. Inevitably they would become afraid or unsure. Guess who was right there meeting their need for safety and reassurance. Our kids needed lots of repeated experiences with being cared for. Obviously, there are no quick fixes, but we have seen steady improvement over time in our children’s negative behavior with this sort of consistent need-meeting.
4. Use corporal punishment with extreme caution. Children who have been victims of physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect can be further traumatized by corporal punishment. Any form of discipline is only effective when the relationship is intact. A secure parent-child relationship results in the child wanting to please you and being concerned by your displeasure. Without first establishing a relationship that is meaningful to the child, one of trust and mutual concern, I believe corporal punishment can be quite damaging.
5. What are other options of discipline for young children? Thankfully there are a lot! One of the most effective ones we have found for our kids (from toddler to teen) is the use of logical natural consequences. For example, if an item is broken because of abuse/misuse, chores can be done to earn money to repay the value of the item. Thrown dinner plate equals a hungry belly until breakfast the next morning. Hurting another child may mean playing alone for the remainder of the afternoon, so that everyone can be safe. I like natural consequences because, not only are they quite effective, they also take the pressure off having to think up arbitrary ones. Often, I only need to ask myself, “What would be the outcome if an adult did not intervene in this situation?” and then allow that to play out. It goes without saying that this is applied within reason and always with the safety of the child in mind. Other discipline techniques we have used with young children include color charts, earning and removal of privileges (with a visual cue such as marbles in a jar, or moving a clip). We also have used both “time-out” and “time-in.” Keep in mind that for some adopted children, getting sent to their rooms or isolated in a corner is exactly what they want. It means they get to avoid the relationship. A time-in is where the child gets removed from the activity but spends her “reflection” time right next to mom or dad. This may not sound all that punitive, but if you asked our kids, they would take a time-out over a time-in any day! We’ve also found it helpful to use discipline techniques appropriate for our child’s emotional age, which may not always match their chronological age. We have a pre-teen right now who, when she is cornered or feels shame, demonstrates the emotional maturity of a 6-year-old. In these moments, it’s most helpful to revert to simple, logical consequences, maybe even visual cues, and very little talk.
6. Read all you can on the effects of early trauma on a child’s developing brain. This is not mere psychological theory. It is hard neuroscience that has been proven across many studies. Some of these effects include poor understanding of cause and effect, impulsivity, poor recall, and chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. All of these can wreak havoc on a child’s ability to follow rules and directions. I have lost track of the number of times I have said to my adopted children “WHAT were you THINKING?” Well, that is part of the problem. They weren’t thinking. Or at least not thinking clearly and effectively. One of our favorite books on this topic is “The Connected Child” by Karyn Purvis. This is a quick read and explains in layman’s terms the effects of trauma on the brain. It also includes some pretty awesome tips on bonding, attachment and behavior management.
7. Continue to seek many advisors. As the number of adoptive and foster parents in our fellowship grows, that is a great resource for sure! At the same time, don’t limit yourself. Get advice from a wide variety of Godly families. It can be tempting to feel misunderstood if we discipline our adopted children differently from those around us. We can even be tempted to close ourselves off from advice. We all have blind-spots that are seen by others with great clarity. I wish I had time to list all the golden nuggets of parenting advice we have received over the years. Some of it was “trauma sensitive” and some if it was not. At times a piece of advice was not appropriate for our child in that moment, but we filed it away and years later were able to implement it and benefit from it. Lastly, by all means, get professional help when needed. Our daughter with RAD? She’s goofing around with her friends at church camp this week. We don’t have what the world would call a perfect happy ending, but our kids are light years from where they started. If you are dealing with difficult behaviors, there is hope, and God will lead you in the path of healing. Pray to stay open to advice, and ever listening to the Spirit’s guidance as we raise our awesome adopted kids.