Disciplining adopted children

The need for patience, grace and a long-term perspective

By Sandra Lundberg

. . . do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)

Karen is almost finished preparing dinner. "Russell," she calls out to her eight-year-old adopted son, "turn off the TV and put your toys away. It's time to wash up and come to the table. It's almost time to eat." Russell does not move. Karen wonders if he hears her over the television. She calls out to him again, but this time her voice is slightly irritated. Russell squirms but does not move.

Karen's frustration is mounting. She walks over to Russell and stands between him and the TV. "Russell, I've told you to get ready for dinner and you are not even starting to clean up. Look at me when I am talking to you." Russell makes eye contact with his mother, then averts his gaze. Karen interprets Russell's behaviour as disrespectful and defiant. Russell has already begun to tune Karen out as she says something about going to his room "by the count of three." When he remains frozen in his seat, Karen grabs him by the arm and pulls him down the hall to his room. She puts him on his bed and pulls the door closed behind her. As she walks down the hall she calls to Russell, "Stay there until I come back for you."

Does this sound like a scene from your own home? You may identify with Karen, or you may believe that she was overreacting to Russell. This article series will help clarify some of the unique challenges of disciplining children who have been adopted, discipline methods that may or may not be effective, handling differences in discipline among siblings and the essential component of coming to agreement as parents.

Let me begin by saying that committing to personal prayer and having a support network of people praying for you and supporting you in tangible ways is key throughout parenting. Many people are tempted to isolate themselves when they run into difficulties in child rearing. This can be true in adoptive families due to a perceived lack of understanding, interest or desire to help. But instead of isolating yourself and your family during difficult times, run to God, through prayer and Bible reading, and run to your friends and family. Pursue professional help if needed. And know that along the way, you and your spouse will continue to learn and grow when it comes to nurture and discipline for your family. A lot of patience and grace will go a long way in maintaining important relationships throughout the journey.

The goal in balancing discipline and nurture is helping your child mature into an emotionally, spiritually and physically healthy individual. If you only focus on behaviour change, you will not raise a healthy individual. You must initiate and develop a deep and abiding connection with your child. Keep in mind that children need to learn to assess situations and take action considering the likely outcome. To do this, a child needs to learn to respond immediately to parental imperatives, choose an option from those given by a parent and make mistakes that can be corrected in the safety of home and family.

Consider the relationship God wants to have with us. As humans, we respond to His love for us by loving and wanting to please Him in return – not because we have to but because we choose to.

You must reach through your child's hurt and see beyond those behaviours intended to distance you. Remember that the behaviours that frustrate you are very often intended to keep him safe (or to make him feel safe). Be patient and stay focused on the long-term goals of connection and relationship. As you do, you will be presenting a model of God's patience and love for us. Sometimes your child will be able to articulate why he disobeyed or misbehaved and other times he may not know or cannot explain it to you. In either case, it is up to you to nurture the connection and help your child to grow in the right direction.

Understanding the reasons for your child's behaviour and responses is important, but the truth is that some adoptive parents may never know the full extent of their child's underlying problems for a number of reasons (e.g., the child being too young at the time of any abuse to put the experience into words or the child having a sparse history due to adoption from overseas or multiple placements).

However, be encouraged that neither parents nor children need to understand or know everything that has happened in the child's past or inside the child in the present in order for there to be healing and attachment. Now, let's look at some of the challenges you might run into when dealing with discipline, in the article entitled Unique challenges in disciplining adopted children.

Next article in series: Unique challenges in disciplining adopted children