How and why discipline should look different for children who have been adopted, have a history of being in foster care or who are currently in foster care?

Discipline is a part of parenting that is not always fun. It is the part where you have to do the things that do not necessarily make you feel good, but is essential to equip our children with the tools to succeed throughout their life. Discipline does not always look the same. Let’s look a little closer at why discipline SHOULD look different for children who have been adopted, have a history of being in foster care or who are currently in foster care?

“Too often we forget that discipline really means to teach, not to punish. A disciple is a student, not a recipient of behavioral consequences”

Dr. Dan Siegal, The Whole-Brain Child

In the past, techniques have been used to discipline children. These may include yelling, harsher punishments, lectures, bribery, threats, debates, and shaming. Unfortunately, many of the children who have been in care or who are adopted may have faced similar forms of these that were far more severe. These children could have come from a home where discipline was actually punishment, and the punishment was abuse. Some of these children could have also came from a home where there was no discipline at all the children learned through how their caregivers/parents modeled unhealthy self-regulation/behaviors and/or neglect. Some children faced insecure or unhealthy attachments in their early life and this effects how a discipline method may be received or internalized by the child. Some children faced multiple moves and experienced multiple different ways of discipline and how it is carried out in each placement. Then we can compound this with, the fact that each child is inherently different. Some children internalize more, some children are more emotional, some children suppress their emotions in an effort not to offend or hurt those around them.

When we look at children who were adopted internationally or domestically as infants, this still holds true. The primal wound of being separated from a birth mother at birth is traumatic and full of loss; without connection based discipline, an adoptive parent can face many challenges. If we do not really examine the ways we interact and teach through discipline, we are doing adoptees and foster children a disservice.

Adoptive parents are parenting from a unique set of circumstances. Before disciplining a child, you need to have an established and strong relationship of trust and connection. Rules and routines should be set from the begining for any child. However, discipline requires a relationship of trust in order for the child to feel safe and secure enough to learn. Until this is established, you will not see long term behavioral changes. The age of when a child is adopted, does not necessarily impact the long term connection or attachment.

Discpline looks much different when we look at adoptees. A foundation for all parenting decisions in relation to adoption should always fall back on the question “will this strengthen or weaken the connection, attachment and trust between adoptive parent and adoptee?”

Stephanie Oyler, MSW, LSW

When discipling a child who has been adopted or who is currently in foster care, the adoptive parent should always refer back to the child’s history. What has my child gone through? We already know that adoption begins from loss. However, has the child experienced abuse or neglect? Was the child placed in a bed or propped up with a bottle for hours on end? Was connection and attachment limited? Did the child spend time in an instituion or orphanage? Was the child placed in front of a TV screen or left in the care of parentified older siblings? Did the child experience stress and trauma while in the womb?

An obvious parenting “no” would be not to use physical dicipline on a child who has experienced physical abuse. However, is the same sensitivity given when deciding to send a child who has experienced neglect to their room or putting them in time-out? Is the same amount of thought considered on how this may impact a child who’s history includes being left at home for hours on end or a baby who was left in a playpen with no parental interaction or stimulation?

It is important that a child’s history is ALWAYS taken into account when we make any decisions regarding an adoptee or child in foster care.

The more traditional techniques of discipline that one might use with their biological children such as, “time-out”, lecture, and sending a child to their room could actually back fire and escalate a situation with children who have experienced trauma.

The disciplinary approach that tends to be the strongest foundation with children in foster care and who have been adopted have these key factors that the caregiver/parent demonstrate:

  • Offer simple choices
  • Clarify your expectations
  • Respond quickly
  • Present consequences
  • Providing an immediate opportunity to retrain and “re-do”
  • Stay consistent and grounded
  • Keep the child near you
  • Offer praises for the child’s success
  • Provide continuous reassurance that your love is unconditional and nothing they do could ever change that
  • Provide continuous reassurance that you are not ever going to leave them
  • Remind your child that everyone makes mistakes and they are not alone. This is not a reflection on their character, rather an opportunity to learn

Remain grounded and calm. When you see a misbehavior, look at it as an opportunity to teach the child new skills. Try your hardest not to take it personally.  In the midst of a tantrum or “melt-down” remember that these behaviorsare rooted in the need for survival and many times underneath the anger and misbehavior is pain, sadness, loss of control and overstimulation.

In my next blog post, I will be providing and examining some discipline techniques that have been proven to be more effective, healthy and connection enhancing with adoptees and foster children. Stay tuned!

Published by Stephanie Oyler

Stephanie is a Licensed MSW professional who specializes in the area of adoption and foster care. She is also an adoptee herself. Adoptee LIT is a space created for education, advocacy, personal insight/experience and guidance in the sphere of Adoption.

3 thoughts on “How and why discipline should look different for children who have been adopted, have a history of being in foster care or who are currently in foster care?

  1. Okay while I admit these are good parenting tips. The real matter here is 10% of the kids taken for sale had adverse beginnings, 90% had the trauma that they were taken from a good parent that loves them for the purpose of the sale. Rrrr.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Each child is different,all kid’s don’t come from the same situation. With that being said treat each child different.


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