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Discipline and the Adopted Child

Shot of a mature father and his son having a disagreement at home

What parent hasn’t been in this situation, in a supermarket, the playground or at bedtime? You ask your child to do something and he says, “NO!” You insist more firmly and he continues to resist. Eventually, he throws himself on the floor and screams “I hate you!” And no amount of cajoling will get him to obey. Typical toddler behavior, right?

But what if the child is not a toddler, but a 10-year-old? And what if he came into your family through adoption? You may begin to wonder if adoption is playing a role in his behavior.

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. 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. In fact, punishment is not the most effective to shape behavior – discipline is. This can be especially true 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, which frequently results in a power struggle and vicious circle. 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 and allows the child latitude to work within those guidelines, establishing consequences for failing to do so. The ultimate goal of parental discipline is to wrap just enough structure around a child so that they 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.

Positive Discipline with an Adopted Child

Discipline is important to children at any age; but these techniques 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: Predictable schedules help children 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. 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.
  • Provide Choices: Giving children choices prevents 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 try and 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’s important to remember to only give choices that you are comfortable with, “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 if she eats the vegetables.
  • 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.” This not only avoids the “no” answer, but it helps your child with decision making skills and builds an understanding of making good choices.
  • Communicate Clearly: As parents, we may inadvertently send the wrong 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 and may become defiant simply to prove you wrong. 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 they did the cleaning, then acknowledge the work done. “You spent time on this. Thank you.” To avoid control battles, try turning statements around to make them positive rather than negative. Say “We can go to the movie after you’ve finished your chores,” instead of, “We’re not going to the movie until you finish your chores.”


Learn more from the Adoption Learning Partners online course, Discipline and the Adopted Child: Ain’t Misbehavin’, which was developed to help parents better understand potential causes for challenging behaviors and to help develop effective discipline strategies to address them.

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