Disciplining a Young Adopted Child
Discipline: 1. Training to act in accordance with rules. 2. Activity, exercise or a regimen that develops or improves a skill. 3. Punishment inflicted by way of correction and training.
Notice that “punishment” falls to number 3 in the definition of discipline. “Discipline is not about punishment, it’s about teaching,” says Adoption Therapist Dori Fujii, MSW, LCSW. “It’s about laying a foundation and teaching your child to make choices.”
There are moments in time, perhaps when your child is beating up his brother, that your goal is to immediately stop the behavior. But even then, your goal is to teach your child to use words, not actions; to find their own voice; to talk things through with you and to build relationships and attach to you and others. These lessons can become more complicated when your child is adopted, but Dori has some advice for parents.
Understand behaviors and consider actions
For adopted kids, there are many layers that affect how they interact with parents, siblings and the world around them. Orphanage care, feelings of loss, and concern or wonder about a birth family, can all have an impact on behavior.
A lot of young kids struggle with impulse control or self-control. For a number of reasons including possible prenatal exposure or orphanage/foster care, adopted kids can be more at risk for challenges with control. When your child exhibits signs of trouble with impulse control, it’s important to recognize a “can’t” vs. a “won’t”. Is your child simply misbehaving? Or can he really not control his actions? Then, think about what tools your child needs to help him with self-control.
Manage the environment
Sensory issues, which can also be typical in adopted kids, often lead to behavior challenges. Regulating your child’s environment can have a tremendous impact.
Stick to a schedule, regular meal times, regular bed times and routines. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep. As your child gets older, build a schedule together – with pictures or calendar updates – and refer back to it if your child becomes dysregulated.
Pay close attention to what your child needs. Some kids need a boost and a little extra stimulation to become more engaged. Others need something that helps them slow down and take a break from over stimulation. If your child is under OR over stimulated, asking them to be compliant before they are regulated isn’t going to work. Build an environment that gives them what they need so you can effectively communicate with them.
No more “NO”
No matter who you are, hearing “No” all of the time is frustrating. For kids who may have some feelings of loss, or are wondering where they fit in with your family, hearing “No” constantly can be even more disheartening.
Give your child some options so that you can get to "Yes." Instead of saying no, try “I’m not sure we can go out to breakfast today, but we could make waffles at home, or we could go to breakfast this weekend.” Find choices that are acceptable to you and present those as options. This not only avoids the “no” answer, but it helps your child with decision making skills and builds an understanding of making good choices.
Listen, Engage, Praise
Although your child is young, how you discipline them now has a significant impact in the future. Really listen to what your child, or your child’s behaviors, are telling you. Talk to them about what’s happening, and help them understand what implications their actions have. Beginning this at a young age - before 4 or 5 years old - prepares your child to be able to more effectively process their emotions, rather than misbehaving or lashing out. It also establishes a line of communication for kids to explain their feelings to you early on and establishes the foundation for them to talk to you when bigger, more pressing issues may arise down the road.
Remember to praise your kids when they are making an effort, even if they do not get it 100% right. Make sure they know you notice when they’ve changed a behavior. Or if they are struggling in one area and really succeeding in another, make sure you acknowledge that success.