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Discipline in Older-Child Adoption

by Gregory C. Keck, Ph.D, AF's older-child expert



Like all moms and dads, you want to be great parents, and you are confident that quality parenting and love will make your new arrival emotionally healthy. The fact is, traditional discipline techniques often do not work for kids adopted at older ages. It is not that the old techniques aren’t good, but that they are designed for securely attached children.

The suggestions that follow are unconventional, and some may seem counterintuitive, or even absurd. But these strategies, when practiced with patience and steadiness, will increase your child’s faith in you—and this attachment will lead to a loving, secure relationship. But first, a few techniques that are doomed to failure:

What doesn't work

  • Equality. You don’t have to parent all the children in the family the same way. The older child adjusting to a new home has a special need, and it is critical to recognize this need and to respond accordingly.

  • Withholding parental love. Some parents keep themselves at a distance. After all, why risk loving a child who may never love back? But loving back is precisely what we are asking of him—to trust that we will stay around, unlike his previous caregivers.

  • Anger. A child with a difficult history—of abuse, neglect, abandonment, or other trauma—has probably experienced anger and rage in his early years. Ranting and raving at him reinforces the idea that the “same old thing” is about to occur, and doesn’t allow your child to have a positive learning or corrective experience. (If anger is ever effective, it must be rare; otherwise, the child won’t respond to it.)

  • Punishment. When a consequence, like grounding or taking away a favorite toy, is given in anger, the child’s focus is on the anger, not on the behavior that caused the consequence. (Any consequence for bad behavior should be something that brings the child close to you—having him help to scrub the bathtub or wash the car—“time-ins” rather than time-outs.)

  • Rewards/behavior charts. Having to be good for a week seems to them as having to be perfect forever. They know they can’t do it, so they make sure they’re in control. It is more fun to pervert the parents’ system (and push his buttons) than to earn the reward.

What works
Children with attachment problems have learned not to trust adults, and that is what they need to unlearn. They need to know that they won’t fail or be hurt if the parent is in charge. Because control has been linked to his concept of survival, a child may initiate battles unnecessarily. If you try to control everything, you’ll end up the loser. Choose your battles carefully. By winning the battles you do take on, you become more powerful in the child’s eyes. You are seen as being in control of the family.

One way to help your child relinquish control is to let him make choices. Whenever seven-year-old Alex was asked by her mom to tie her shoes, comb her hair, and put on a jacket, she would do them in a different order, feeling powerful by doing it “her way.” When her mom restated her directions, “…in any order you want,” she took Alex by surprise. Alex’s mom had taken control (by not caring), and had avoided the battle (by eliminating the demand to do things “Mom’s way”).

Here are more ideas to try. Keep the ones that work, discard the others. Remember, you are the expert on your child. Reevaluate your parenting strategies as he ages, develops, and gets well.

  • Don’t expect consistency. Most children like consistency, and most parents try to explain consequences and enforce the same ones every time. But hurt children do not have good cause-and-effect thinking. Even when faced with predictable consequences, they do not see that their actions caused their predicament. It is better for your child not to be told what the consequences of bad behavior will be. When told, “If you don’t do your homework, you get a time-out,” the securely attached child does his math. Your child may see this as a choice. He decides to take the time-out (“sitting by myself for awhile doesn’t seem so bad”), then can’t figure out why his parents are mad at him.

    Instead, alternate your responses—sometimes ignore, sometimes comment, other times impose a consequence. Your child should have to guess what his parents are going to do, as opposed to your guessing what he will do.

  • Keep your expectations reasonable. This means understanding normal child development, and the emotional age of your child. A 10-year-old stuck at a younger emotional age may need toddler toys to capture his attention, and clear directions to learn how to play and to pick up after himself. When assigning chores (another reasonable expectation), work alongside your child. A moment spent completing a job together is another chance to attach.

  • Offer praise…just don’t overdo it. Praise sends the message that your child has lost control by doing something that you like—and that he’d better stop that behavior to deflect your attention. To have a positive effect, praise must be specific, short, and enthusiastic (a quick touch or smile and a cheerful “good job!”). Occasionally, mail him a card with a complimentary message, or let him overhear your praise indirectly. Call a friend, or dial up the weather recording, and talk about something he did well.

  • Turn the tables on an angry child. If he’s having a temper tantrum, telling him to stop is pointless. Instead, say something like, “Oh, a tantrum. I think I’ll get some iced tea and make myself comfortable while I watch,” or, if you’re feeling brave, “You can do better than that, can’t you? I’ll bet you can scream louder.” If the tantrum continues, it seems like compliance. The child now has two choices—to stop or to keep going and do what you want.

  • Define “good” and “bad.” Our kids know they are supposed to behave, but may not know what “behave” means. They can’t differentiate among degrees of behavior, so spilling their milk and smacking their little brother seem equally “bad.” I sometimes use the child’s body to demonstrate the difference. The head represents perfect behavior; the toes, horrible behavior. Hitting is at the toes, skipping homework might be at the waist; listening carefully to a direction is at the neck; helping Dad wash the car is at the head. As your child learns that there are gradations of behavior, you can ask him to try giving up things that are “below the belt” and hurt others or take away trust, such as stealing and lying. The parent then has a verbal cue—“That was below the belt”—to help the child sort through behaviors.

    Instead of simply asking your child to give up past behaviors, tell him what to do to replace them. It is more effective to advise him to become a truth-teller than to tell him to stop lying.

  • Nurture and have fun. When good parents nurture small children, they just do it, no matter what. Whether a baby has soiled his diaper, burped up formula, or screamed in Daddy’s ear, the parent coos and comforts him. The older child adjusting to a new home needs the same unconditional nurturing. Nurturing must be constant for the cycle of attachment to be completed.

When you begin to understand your child’s inner world, and his reasons for behaving as he does, you will find it easier to parent. When you have solutions, control, and fun, the family dynamic will begin to shift. You will feel your competency, and your child will feel safer. Now get out there and try something new.

Gregory C. Keck, Ph.D., the founder of the Attachment and Bonding Center of Ohio, in Cleveland, has been working with adoptive families for nearly two decades. He’s coauthor of Parenting the Hurt Child and Adopting the Hurt Child (NavPress), author of Parenting Adopted Adolescents (NavPress), and the adoptive father of two boys.

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