When you have children from hard places in your home, moments of discipline can look very different than the biological children in your home. Even the children adopted from birth have experienced trauma in their short time on earth, which may be evident even years later. As parents, we need to meet our children and help them grow in trust and love as they grow in development and stature. Adoptees have experienced loss and trauma, and therefore, need a different approach to discipline. Here are some ways disciplining adoptees can be different.
Trust-Based Relational Intervention
A favorite approach amongst adoptive parents, me included, is Karyn Purvis’ trust-based disciplinary approach. As she famously said, “When you connect to the heart of a child, everything is possible.” She developed TBRI (trust-based relational intervention), which utilizes trust and safety in training parents and caregivers when dealing with children from trauma.
TBRI teaches caregivers to create feelings of safety, emphasizing the importance of trust between child and parent. Doing this allows the child to let their guard down, enabling the caregiver to enter into their world and reach them on their level. Karyn Purvis’ book, The Connected Child, is often woven into the education portion of a home study through individual agencies. Educators within the adoption world are finding out more and more that our children need a different approach to development; what works for your biological children may not work for your adopted children.
A wonderful way to learn more about TBRI principles for both you and your children is a collection of books by Cindy R. Lee. Her collection of TBRI books are beautifully written and encourage children to express their feelings while encouraging parents to remember to use a trust-based approach to understanding behavior. The collection of books includes Doggie Doesn’t Know No, It’s Tough To Be Gentle, Baby Owl Lost Her Whoo, The Penguin and the Fine-Looking Fish, The Redo Roo, and my favorite, The Elephant With Small Ears.
The Elephant With Small Ears follows Elly, the elephant. Elly has small ears that won’t grow. They won’t grow because she is scared, scared of her surroundings, scared to act. This means that she can’t hear her parents when they speak to her. When this happens to our children, when they emotionally and mentally cannot process what we say to them because of fear and overwhelm, many may view that act as disobedient. Elly, the elephant, experienced a similar view from others. But she wasn’t disobedient; she was terrified and couldn’t process the requests of her parents. Once her parents helped her feel safe, Elly’s ears started to grow. With this growth comes an ability to listen and obey her parents. Our children often do the same. When felt safety is added into their world; when they feel safe and know that you, as caregivers, are a safe place for them to be, they can develop and grow in the best direction for them.
Chase the “Why”
Our children require a sense of safety and trust to let down their walls. A deeper approach to TBRI is to “chase the why.” This means, instead of addressing the behavior in an isolated manner, try and find out why your child is doing that particular behavior. For example, if your child is hiding food under their bed, don’t just punish the act. Don’t just take it all away, toss it, and give them a lecture about not doing that again. Even if you include truth in your talk, like, that the food will go bad and make them sick when left out of the refrigerator, it often doesn’t resonate through the deeper reason of why they’re hoarding and stealing the food. Instead, try and figure out why they are keeping food in their room. Do they come from a place of malnourishment and starvation? Did they experience such intense neglect that, even though you have proven that you will provide for them, they believe they need to keep a safety net of food? So, instead of removing the food, a TBRI approach would replace the food with healthy, non-perishable options to leave in their room. Not only will that help them stay healthy and safe, but it will also show them that you are partnering with them on this journey of life. You are there to help them when they’re fearful, so to provide a safe way to meet that need seems like a win in my book.
The trauma our kids have experienced means that their brain is permanently affected. Their reasoning for certain behaviors can typically be traced back to a fear-based or survival-based response. Many of our children learned to survive in harsh environments by responding in inappropriate or unsafe ways in a family environment. Disciplining these behaviors in typical ways won’t resonate in a way that will spark purposeful change. Utilizing TBRI principles and chasing the why behind the behaviors will help us create safety and repair some of the pain caused in their past.
There are many ways that parents who have gone before us have learned to discipline and teach our children from hard places. One great option is to present re-dos. Re-dos allow our children to practice doing things the appropriate way and allow them to win and receive praise for doing it. It allows you to rescript the child’s response. So, if a child from a hard place hits you without using words, you can practice a re-do by having them practice gentle hands and giving them the words that would have been a more appropriate choice to get their point across. Re-dos allow our children to continue having continuity, trust, and repetition, all things that a brain from trauma thrives on. That repetition is often needed to counteract the neural pathways that trauma has rerouted. Re-dos are a gentle way to discipline adoptees from trauma. As Dr. Karyn Purvis said, “Re-dos give children a chance to practice a new behavior in a fun and playful way while building self-esteem through success.”
Another way to discipline our adopted children is by utilizing a “yes” response. This is especially important for children who are verbal and developmentally able to learn from verbal connections. Rewriting your script to respond “yes” instead of “no” allows you to seem like a more positive, trusting source. Rewording questions and comments to where you can respond with a “yes” can be key to your children feeling empowered and positive. For example, if your child comes to you and says, “Can I have a juice box?” instead of responding with a quick “no, sorry, no juice,” a TBRI response could be, “Yes, you can have juice with dinner! Would you like some water now?” Giving them a “yes” gives them the confidence and relief to know that what they want (or feel like they need) will come to them, even if it’s not in the way they asked for. Maintaining the family rules is also important, so being able to flip the script and give a “yes” while keeping the rules of the house is a recipe for success.
Another strategy is to utilize “time-ins” instead of “time-outs.” Time-ins keep the parent and child close together, so the punishment of a time-out can never be misconstrued as separation from the parent. Time-ins look like the parent and child sitting next to each other while waiting for calmness and an ability to talk about the situation. Time-outs and time-ins have similar goals – to calm down, stop the behavior, and help the child learn a way to cope. Time-ins allow these things to happen while maintaining a positive relationship with the caregiver. They allow separation never to be a factor in their learning and to continue to emphasize that you, as the parent, will always be there.
Use Visual References
The effect of fear and intense stress, like the abuse and neglect that many of our children have experienced, can hinder memory recollection and memory storage. Therefore, many of our children have issues remembering things like schedules, processes, rules, etc. To help alleviate some of the pain of recollection on their end and repetition on the parent end, using visual references can help. For our neurotypical biological children, many of us may punish behavior that ignores the schedules and order known in the home. But, our adoptees may struggle recollecting simple things like using deodorant, closing doors when they leave the house, or that shoes come after pants. Visual aids, like putting pictures up that include an ordered to-do list, may really help those moments. Not only is this a TBRI approved approach to dealing with perceived disobedience around the home, but it can also help build confidence within your child as they learn how to overcome their difficulties.
Create Relational Connection
A core basis of a trust-based intervention for disciplining our adopted children is to create a quick relational connection before correcting the behavior. So, if they are yelling for a toy that they can not have, instead of saying, “No. You can’t have that,” you can say, “I love you. You may not have that right now.” Showing a connection with them first can help make sure that trust and bonding come first, instead of negativity. TBRI principles always want to make sure the message of love, from caregiver to child, is shown, expressed often, and lived out.
Similarly to making a loving statement before disciplining, listening to your child is extremely important. Listening to them makes them feel seen. Sounds simple enough, and yet, it can be difficult when our children are expressing challenging emotions. Make sure not to interrupt them, even if they are speaking unrealistically. Become aware of how often you command or lecture them about topics they’re dealing with. Once they have finished sharing with you, ask if they are willing to hear you out. This, again, puts the power in their hands, helping them feel in control of themselves. Then, work together to find a solution. This particular strategy would work well for older children who are willing to problem-solve with you.
Give Them Some Control
The most challenging thing children from hard places deal with is the loss of power and control. Throughout their whole life, people have been removing the control from them. To help them feel empowered within their own life, to help them gain confidence in their own abilities, host a “power with” persona when dealing with issues brought up with your adoptee. To avoid adding power and growth to the feelings of the past trauma, we need to share the power with our children. This is connected to providing them a variety of choices. Instead of just telling them, “You are having grilled cheese for lunch,” allowing them the power to choose what they want for lunch lets them feel empowered but still gives you the decision-making ability to decide what is best for the home. So, instead of telling them what to eat for lunch, maybe say, “For lunch, would you like grilled cheese or a hot dog? You choose!” This continues to allow them to feel in control of their choices and lives and help them become respectful, strong adults.
L.R. Knost once said, “Discipline is helping a child solve a problem. Punishment is making a child suffer for having a problem. To raise problem solvers, focus on solutions, not retribution.” For the children who come into our homes, having experienced severe trauma and loss, lovingly guiding them by connecting, reassuring, and trust-building is crucial to their development and how they perceive love and attachment in this world. If you have both biological and adopted children in your home, never feel like you’re doing a disservice to your family if you need to parent your children completely differently. Although that is not the norm, and many people may view it as unfair or odd, know that you are treating the individual. You are meeting each of your children where they are and providing the love and safety they need to grow.Do you feel there is a hole in your heart that can only be filled by a child? We’ve helped complete 32,000+ adoptions. We would love to help you through your adoption journey. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98.
Kristina Frazier: I’m Kristi—Mama of 4, adoption advocate, and wife to my high school sweetheart. I’m just here surviving off of sweet tea and sarcasm, sharing all the feels of life with some honesty, a little bit of humor, and a whole lot of Jesus.