Parenting Strategies for Parents Adopting Older Children

terri mccoyBy Terri McCoy, LBSW

Children who are placed for adoption through the foster care system have special needs due to the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in their lives. Traditional parenting techniques may not be successful with these children because of those experiences. It is important for adoptive parents to be open to learning new training and discipline methods to meet the needs of their new child.

Young children learn to behave in order to please their caretakers and keep them close. Many "system" children have attachment problems and fear closeness. They look at the world through the lens of their experience, so they are likely to mistrust adults and expect to be hurt or rejected by them. They may reject adoptive parents' attempts to help or nurture them, because past adults have been unreliable or incapable, so they self-parent.

There are some specific Do's and Don'ts for parents that can help. Let's start with the Don'ts:

  1. No physical discipline should be used with children who have been abused! Some parents feel strongly that spanking is a helpful discipline, especially when nothing else works. For an abused child, physical discipline feels too much like abuse and reinforces their experience that big people hurt little people.

    Never threaten abandonment. When the child misbehaves, don't question whether he/she wants to be part of your family or threaten to take him back. The child will take this as a sign that the parents plan to kick him out and will set out to prove it. This is the "I'll reject you first" reaction typical of children coming from the foster care system. The child tests his new parents, not because he wants to leave, but because he wants the parents to prove they want him to stay. A better response is to say "You are part of our family and we don't act that way.''

    Don't take it personally. It is very hard not to take it personally when a child says "You're not my real mother" or screams that she wants to leave. Often you are the stand-in for a birth parent who abandoned or abused her, the real source of her anger. Like adults, children say things in anger that they don't really believe, but they know will push someone's buttons. A child saying she misses her birthparents is normal and does not reflect on her feelings for you.

    Never use food as a consequence. Too many children in foster care have food issues such hoarding or gorging, due to neglect in their past. Food is a basic necessity and should never be denied as a consequence such as going to bed without supper. No dessert because you didn't eat your vegetables is still o.k.

    Pick your battles. Don't make control issues out of something you cannot control. One rule of thumb is that you can't control what goes into or out of a child, so forcing him to eat food he hates is neither effective nor practical. You also may decide not to worry too much about clothing or hairstyles, and concentrate on rules about safety.

    Don't ask why. Children rarely know why they do the things they do. There is often an underlying unmet need causing the behavior that the child is unlikely to be consciously aware of. Deal with the facts instead. This happened—it's not o.k.—here's what we do next. Parents will discover over time what the child's triggers are. It can be helpful to review the child's history periodically to see where the behavior might have come from.


  2. Don't make promises. The child has had many disappointments in his life already and will be acutely aware of any promises you make, even one made casually such as, "Sure, we can go to the park this week." The child will be watching to see if she can trust you. This is also true of the promise that "We will never give up on you." This is not a promise you can make! Saying "We really want this to work" is more honest and does not challenge the child to prove you wrong.

Now let's be proactive and learn the Do's:

  1. Structure equals safety! Your child has lived with chaos and fear, in a world where the rules changed daily and they couldn't count on anyone or anything. Having a predictable routine gives the child the security of predictability. If the rules never change, the child can begin to alter his behavior to what is acceptable for your family.

    Unconditional activities. Children often feel worthless and not deserving of praise or rewards. The more the child feels this way, the less the adult should expect the child to earn them. Expressions of love and inclusion in family activities should never be conditional.

    A parent that I worked with took away her child's birthday party because she acted out in school the week before party. This was not a logical consequence. The child had very few friends and this would have been a chance to provide a structured social activity. Instead the child was shamed, confirming her opinion that she was worthless. Another consequence could have been chosen.

    "Gorilla Nurturing." Don't wait for the child to ask for what she needs, she will assume that you don't care. A self-parenting child expects to take care of her own needs. While the normal sequence is dependence to independence, these children have to learn self-sufficiency early in order to survive. It is now your job to help your child learn to let others take care of her so she can be a child again. For example, if your child has food issues, ask him often if he is hungry, make snacks for him before he asks, leave candy kisses on his pillow, etc. Don't make him ask for food, you are more likely to find it hidden under his bed.

    Change the filter. The child looks at the world through the filter of his past experiences. If his parents yelled and screamed at him, you will be more effective if you react calmly and quietly. One parent figured out that when she used a softer voice, the children started to listen more. Instead of towering over your child, looking threatening, get down at the child's eye level to defuse the situation.

    Discipline to the developmental age. Children who have been abused or neglected often have gaps or delays in their development. We might see a 10 year old who is emotionally and socially more like a five year old. Or a child who was removed from the birthparent at age two, might still have two year old tantrums, because his development was interrupted. Rules and discipline should be geared to the child's skill level and developmental age rather than his chronological age.

    Time-in. For children with attachment problems, discipline techniques need to be altered. Typically, children are isolated when they misbehave, but it is more effective to pull these children in closer to the parent. A time-in might mean that the child sits on a chair in the kitchen where you are working rather than being sent to her room. Or the child might have to clean house with you. The added benefit of this approach is that during the time-in, you and the child will be able to talk and spend time together. An older child might be grounded to the family rather than playing with friends.

    "Checking back." Children who are unattached have no sense of being a part of you. It can be disappointing to drop your new child off at school or day care and have them walk away without even saying good-by. As they walk away, you have truly ceased to exist for them. One attachment technique is to develop a ritual for hugs, a last look and a wave, etc., whenever you and the child separate. This reminds the child that you continue to be part of his life even when he can't see you.

    Routines for physical affection. Children who are uncomfortable or stand-offish about affection, will respond better when the hug is offered as part of a routine rather than spontaneously. If all the children get a bedtime hug, Jason will be more likely to accept a hug for himself. Routinely rocking a younger child while reading a bedtime story allows for physical closeness that feels safe. Dads can make up a special handshake (or high 5) with their son each night when they get home. Never surprise the child with a hug or kiss, ask permission first.

    Teach fun. Your child's life may have focused on survival and she may not know how to be a child or have fun. Activities such as a family sock fight, taking turns telling jokes at the dinner table, or building a snowman together will give you an opportunity to teach healthy fun. Plan holiday activities or vacations together so the child learns to anticipate good times. Take pictures to share joint memories you have created.


  2. Use humor. Sometimes humor can defuse a situation. During one of our pre-teen son's tantrums, my husband and I discussed loudly how we didn't think this tantrum was up to my son's usual standards and we knew he could do better. He decided we were crazy, barely concealing his smile as he stomped off. When they were going through a rough spot, one mother decided to greet her teenage son with a squirt gun ambush after school instead of her usual grilling. He became more willing to share details of his school day when he arrived home to a positive atmosphere.

This is not an all inclusive list but it might give you some ideas. I highly recommend connecting with other adoptive parents through a support group. This can be a lifesaver! The other parents will have similar experiences and will understand the challenges you are facing. They will not judge you for feeling overwhelmed or questioning what you got yourself into. They may have suggestions of what worked for them or know the best counselors to handle adoption or attachment issues.

Do not be afraid to ask for help! Adopting an older child brings unique challenges. Give yourself a break for making mistakes!! In the end, your commitment to the child is what makes the difference, not your perfect parenting.

About the author: Ms. McCoy has been an Adoption Specialist for 27 years in Iowa, in the public and private sectors. She has worked exclusively in special needs adoption, recruiting and training families, and providing post-placement services. For the last 19 years she has worked at a residential treatment center.