Adoption Positive Discipline Methods

So better late than never! I had some technical difficulty getting this posted on Sunday, so if you were expecting this. I do apologize!

This post is going to be full of different techniques and methods that I have researched and found to be the most effective when we take into account a child’s history, adoption and/or foster-care experience. Something that came up in discussion around my last blog post (around discipline) in various groups was my mention of how in some cases discipline may NEED to look different when you are intervening with an adoptive child vs. a biological child. This is hard for some adoptive parents and honestly, parents in general.

I am a parent of two biological children myself and the idea of “treating” one child different from the other can feel “wrong”. However, the fact is both of my children are very different, they have different strengths and different weaknesses, they have different personalities and traits and they have different experiences. So naturally, the discipline I use with each may look slightly different. This concept is no different when looking at adoptive children and biological children. Adoptive children and foster children, whether they come into your home and family at 1 day old or 15 years old, have experiences that will affect and influence them. These are both conscious and unconscious. When making decisions about parenting an adoptive child or foster child, one should ALWAYS take into account their experiences as an adoptee/foster child, family history/trauma (if you have access to that), prenatal history/trauma, and generational history/trauma. One should also always take into account the separation and loss of adoption and how their child is impacted by that.

So lets our feet wet and jump into some methods and techniques! These are only a few, there are so many others, so please do not think this is the end all be all list.

“IDEAL” Approach

The “IDEAL” Approach is a simple guide in dealing with challenging behaviors in an effort to have the best outcome for all involved:

  • I: Respond to the behavior immediately.
  • D: Respond to the child directly. Maintain eye contact, give the child your undivided attention and bring the child closer to you on their level as you guide and provide instruction.
  • E: Keep your response efficient and measured. Try to keep your words short and precise and use the least amount of firmness and corrective effort necessary.
  • A: Keep your response action-based. Actively redirect the child to better behavior. At times, this means physically helping your child walk through a real life “re-do”. Remember to praise the child when they are successful in this, even if they needed assistance.
  • L: Level your response at the behavior and not at the child. Even when the behavior is rejected, never reject the child

Offer Choices and Compromise

The idea that you may compromise with your child can make you feel like you are “giving in”. However, it is exactly the opposite. Allowing the child to think critically and make a choice can be the exact thing that not only helps build skills but also deescalates the situation.

Staying centered and not reacting with strong emotions is important. Saying things such as “Why won’t you eat your food” or “Why do you always do always throw the toy in the house” can quickly escalate the situation. This can put your child on the defense and can result in a blow up of emotion. This is particularly present in children who may lack mental/emotional processing or language skills. Instead, maintain eye contact and firmly but kindly offer acceptable alternatives. This can diffuse a situation and can be a much easier way to handle the behaviors.

There are a few ways to implement this approach. You can offer a compromise in the response. “It is unsafe to throw the toy in the house. You will need to either put the toy away or ask me for a compromise” (or choice depending on the child’s age and development). Provide praise throughout the interaction. If a child responds, “Can I make a compromise”, tell them how well they used their words before presenting them with the options. “You can put your toys away and then I will draw with you for ten minutes” (Provide a count of fingers for first and second option, this gives a visual que that helps to solidify the dialogue) “Or I can draw with you for ten minutes and then you can put away your toys”.

If the child resists or avoids the choice, do not let yourself fall into an argument. Simply, repeat the choices without saying anything else. Eventually the child will choose one. Once the child chooses, reinforce and repeat that choice and describe how that situation will unfold. Not only does this approach promote compliance but it also boosts self-esteem and empowers the child in making their own decisions. It puts the control back into the hands of the child and promotes positive interaction. Children both in care and who have been adopted can sometimes struggle with the lack of control. This gives them an active role in choosing the next steps.

The “Sandwich” Technique

The “sandwich” technique is a simple way to incorporate more praise into a situation and can buffer disappointment and corrections while still getting the point across.

This technique involves introducing a positive statement, then transitioning into a corrective statement and lastly, following up with another positive statement. This creates a “sandwich” effect and ensures that even though you are remaining in charge, you are still sending more positive statements than negative.

An example of this would be praising a behavior and letting the child know you understand their feelings and needs: “I know that you love to play those video games. Thank you for asking for permission!”. You would then follow up with the corrective statement. This will offer a clear and concise redirection with other options/alternatives. “Right now we can’t play the video game because you played on it not long ago. While I do this work, you can build something with your Legos or build a fort. What choice would you rather do?”. After this exchange, you would then follow up with another positive statement that holds hope for the future. “After I am done working and we eat dinner, you can play for 30 minutes on your video game”.

This technique is useful in keeping the child’s self-confidence up and serves as a way to build an atmosphere of warmth and acceptance.

Safe Map and Safe Word

I am not going to spend a long time on this but I want to mention it because it is a newer technique that I came across recently and I think it is such an important method.

This can work with older or younger children and places them back into a seat of control. Control is a piece of many children/youth and adults who have experienced being in care or who have been adopted struggle with. Putting the age at adoption aside, control is something that has been stripped. The lives of these children and adults have been wholly impacted, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively by the outright choices that everyone made without them, ABOUT them and their life. Instead of fighting a child who is struggling with control, its best to work with them. This technique provides this.

You would start by sitting with your child or youth and drawing out a map. You can also do this on the computer or in an application for some of the older more tech savvy kids. This map will encompass the house or residence in which you and the child live. Once creating this map, you will then mark off the areas that the child feels safe and would like to designate as a place of retreat and processing if and when they need it. This should be shared with all family members and in the time that a child might use this. It should be made clear to others that no one should come into that space until the child is ready, unless their is a safety concern for the child or others around them.

The second part to this is to create a safe word. This is actually useful for everyone! In the middle of a fight, argument, intense emotions etc. the child can say this safe word and it will then turn into a “come back later” situation. The child will go to their designated safe area that was mapped out on their map and they can stay there until they feel they are comfortable enough to return. Sometimes picking up where everyone left off isn’t the best situation. Sometimes revisiting an issue the next day or a week from then (if the topic is able to wait that long) is more beneficial.

Another way to add to this method is to put some a box, set of drawers or items that promote calming and stress relief in that safe area. This could be sensory or figit toys, a pillow and soft blanket, a book or alternative options like essential oils or diffusers.

This technique promotes autonomy and places the control back into the child’s hands in a safe and positive manner. It also teaches them that they can be in control of their emotions and allows them to learn when they need to step away to gather themselves before returning to finish a heated topic or conversation.

Final Thoughts

No child or parent is perfect. All involved, are allowed and even expected to make mistakes. Every technique and method may not work every time but it gives hope in tricky situations and allows for the use of something new. Some final tips are:

  • Always be mindful of your tone and voice.
  • Be authoritative and firm, but not scary (Think back to the child’s specific trauma history).
  • Keep your child in close proximity.
  • Avoid a head-on collision and go for a sideswipe.
  • Say what you mean and mean what you say.
  • There are no “bad” kids.
  • Do not be afraid to say no.
  • Allow yourself to make mistakes, correct them and move forward (it sets the example and models behavior).
  • Maintain a respectful atmosphere.
  • Praise the child.
  • Praise and give credit to yourself.
Helpful Books on Discipline:  
The Connect Child by Karyn Purvis, David Cross and Wendy Lyons Sunshine  
The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel Siegal and Tina Payne Bryson  
Attachment by Christina Reese  
The Yes Brain by Daniel Siegal and Tina Payne Bryson          
The information in this Post was extracted from the various sources included in the resources of books list, personal and professional experience. Thank you.  

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.

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