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Monday21 April 2014

Ain't Misbehavin: Discipline & the Adopted Child

By Judy Stigger, LCSW

What parent hasn't been in this situation, in a supermarket, the playground or at bedtime? You ask your child to do something and she says "NO!" You insist more firmly and she continues to resist. Eventually, she throws herself on the floor and screams "I hate you!" Typical toddler behavior, right?

But what if the child is not two but ten? What if she came into your family through adoption? You may begin to wonder if adoption is playing a role in her behavior. Perhaps an early childhood trauma is playing itself out. Now what do you do?

Adoption Learning Partners has launched a new online course entitled Ain't Misbehavin': Discipline and the Adopted Child. The goal of this course is to help parents better understand potential causes for challenging behaviors and to develop effective discipline strategies to address them. Encouraging children to make better behavioral choices by applying consistent discipline techniques can result in happier, more connected families.

Discipline vs. Punishment

When a child misbehaves, many parents assume they need to punish the child so as to teach them a lesson. We've all heard "spare the rod, spoil the child." In fact, punishment is not the most effective means to shape behavior - discipline is. The next part of that quote reads "a parent that loves a child, corrects the child." This can be especially tru for families formed through adoption, where a child may be struggling with attachment or trust issues.

Punishment is imposed on the child by the parent after the fact. The child misbehaves and the parent reacts to that behavior. Punishment expresses a parent's anger, is usually applied in the heat of the moment and is defined by the parent's needs.

Discipline, by contrast, is established before the fact and is based on the child's needs. The parent provides guidelines for the child including consequences for failing to follow the guidelines, and allows the child latitude to work within those guidelines. The ultimate goal of parental discipline is to wrap just enough structure around a child so that the child can begin to develop self-control, the precursor of self discipline.

If a child is provided with consistent and effective discipline, not only will her behavior improve, but so will her relationship with her parents.

Strategies for Positive Discipline

Discipline is important to children at any age, and while it is easiest to start using some strategies the moment you bring your child home, others can be introduced at any time. Here are some specific suggestions that you can adapt for use with your child. Naturally, every family is different and not every child will respond to a particular discipline strategy. It is important to consider your child's needs and your own comfort level when choosing methods of discipline.

Have predictable routines

Children with challenging pasts need consistency. Predictable schedules help them build their trust and learn to regulate their behavior. The first step is keeping meal, bath and bed times at the same time each day. For older children, posting a daily schedule on a white board lets them know what is expected and provides a sense of accomplishment as each task is completed. If the child does not speak English, use pictures along with the words.

Helping your child understand changes in the daily schedule is an important part of maintaining routines. She will be less stressed and prone to meltdowns if you have prepared her for changes in plans, special events, and new transitions, and if you explain when you will be back in your old routine. As plans or timing shift, give the child a "family update," even if the change seems minor to the parent.

Provide choices

Giving children choices decreases power struggles, gives them a sense of control, and an opportunity to solve problems and learn from their mistakes. But giving too many choices can overwhelm a child. Instead of asking your child what she wants to drink, give her two choices: "milk or juice?" The natural impulse of some children will be to suggest a third alternative. If this happens, remain neutral and repeat the original choices. If she doesn't choose, you make the choice for her.

It is important to remember to only give choices with which you are comfortable. "You can eat your vegetables and have dessert or you can skip them and go without dessert," works fine only if you don't care whether she eats her vegetables.

Communicate clearly

As parents, we may inadvertently send an unintended message to our children because we don't recognize how our children may interpret what we say. For instance, children with low self esteem often find it difficult to accept praise.

To address this, instead of saying "you're such a good girl," try "my, look at that sparkling clean room." If the child volunteers that she did the cleaning then acknowledge the work done. "You spent time on this. Thank you."

To avoid control battles, try spinning statements around to make them positive rather than negative. Say "we can go to the movie after you have finished your chores," rather than "we're not going to the movie until you finish your chores."

Constructing Family's Plan

Choosing a discipline strategy that works for you and your child will take time and patience. Your child has spent years learning the behaviors she has. They likely helped her cope in a previous setting. It will take time to unlearn the behaviors and replace them with new, more acceptable ones for your family. Your role is to understand why she behaves the way she does, and to help her learn to make better choices.

For Ain't Misbehavin' visit Adoption Learning Partners.

Judy Stigger, LCSW, provides therapy for post-adoptive families, training for pre-adoptive families, and content for www.AdoptionLearningPartners.org. She is the adoptive mom of two, now-grown cross-racially placed children. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .