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How to Help Struggling Adopted Children

Feb 03, 2016

It’s common for adopted children to deal with complex emotions. If you notice your child struggling to cope with feelings or acting out at home or school, know that there are things you can do to help.

First, you must understand that parenting methods that may have worked on other children might not be appropriate in dealing with an adopted child. Gregory Keck, founder of the Attachment & Bonding Center of Ohio, outlines some disciplinary styles that are not only ineffective in helping a struggling adopted child, but may even be counterproductive and do more harm than good.

  • Don’t isolate adopted kids. It’s very common for parents to use “time-outs” or to send a child to his or her room as a form of punishment. Remember, though, that adopted kids may already be dealing with feelings of abandonment. Shunning them may only exacerbate these feelings and perpetuate their inner belief that they truly don’t belong.
  • Never act out of anger. Dealing with kids who are working through emotional issues can be frustrating at times, even for the most patient parent. If you find yourself getting angry, step away and take a few minutes to calm down. Remember that these kids may not have had any kind of model for how to behave in a healthy and appropriate way. It is imperative that you show an example of how to work through issues without blowing up.
  • Never use corporal punishment. According to Keck, the probability that adopted children have been traumatized in early life is high. Inflicting any kind of physical harm on them will only deepen their emotional wounds and cause them to distrust you.
  • Don’t shelter them from the consequences of their actions. This only sets a child up for much bigger problems in adulthood. Cause and effect is a concept that struggling adopted kids need to grasp as early as possible. In order for them to learn accountability, they can’t be shielded from the fallout caused by their bad decisions. Always maintain that you love them unconditionally, but cannot save them from the results of their choices.
  • Show them love, all the time, no matter what. Jeanette Yoffe, adoption and family therapist, says that adopted kids need lots of “stroking.” What she means by this is that you can’t praise an emotionally struggling child enough. They need to be told every single day that they are loved, liked, and wanted.
  • Disapprove of the behavior, not the child. Adopted kids can develop the belief that they are not important or deserving of your love. Labeling them as “bad” or “out of control” perpetuates this belief for them, and can make them feel ashamed to be who they are. They may begin to feel that there is just something inherently wrong with them, and that they have no chance of being a “good kid.” Research shows that people who feel high levels of shame tend to have correspondingly lower capacity for empathy toward others.

This isn’t to say that you should not use any kind of disciplinary measures when your adopted child misbehaves. Keck says the key is to ask yourself whether the methods you’re using are “corrective” or not. Is what you’re doing working to help solve the underlying issues, or are you just trying to end the conflict in the moment?

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