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Dealing with Behavior Challenges

Adopted children can present a range of behavior challenges from being extremely defiant to overly compliant. These may stem from emotional trauma and neglect experienced during infancy or early childhood or from the intrinsic loss associated with adoption.

The Connected Child (by Karyn Purvis, David Cross and Wendy Sunshine) is an excellent resource for understanding why your child might be behaving a particular way. It can also help you learn techniques to establish trust with your child and deal with behavioral disorders. There is also an entire video series on TBRI (Trust-Based Relational Intervention).

Here is an overview of some of the topics covered in the book:

Emphasize forming a connection with your child. Your child may have been deprived of the intense face-to-face connection and feedback that babies typically experience with their biological mothers. Engage in play, look into the child’s eyes, talk, cuddle, soothe, praise and explicitly teach the child on how to form relationships. Don’t focus on exposing them to external, enriching experiences and taking them to as many different activities as possible.

Understand the message behind a child’s behavior. For example, if your daughter wants to be left alone because everything seems new, confusing and scary – she is likely experiencing sensory overload. Or for example, if he approaches strangers indiscriminately, it could be because his previous caregivers were not reliable and abandoned him, so he seeks approval whenever possible. Another possible scenario, if your daughter steals something, it could b because she is afraid that she will be deprived of things again. It is important to respond to the need behind the behavior and not just punish the actions.

Help the child feel safe. An adopted child may have developed a habit of hypervigilance in order to survive in an orphanage setting. Fear may cause the child to lose control when faced with triggers such as hunger or fatigue. A timeout for punishment is isolating and scary for the child; instead try using a time-in with you for the child to “think-it-over” until he is ready to talk about what went wrong. By staying close even when the child has misbehaved, the message you are sending is that you love him no matter what and will help work through problems together.

Be proactive about reducing stress. Structure can be very helpful for all children. Some things to consider: ake the day predictable and be consistent. It can also be helpful to prepare children for upcoming activities by giving them a heads-up beforehand. For example, tell your child that in 10 minutes we will get ready for bed. Give children simple choices, so they feel in control. For example, you can ask if they want to read a book or play a game. You can also model good behavior by being calm, patient and confident. You should also aim to prevent sensory overload and help the child meet new challenges by breaking down the issue into smaller pieces they can handle. It can be helpful to familiarize the child with new environments beforehand, such as a new classroom. And most of all, honor their emotions.

Don’t take it personally .Tantrums and meltdowns stem from the trauma the child has suffered and the survival instinct it triggers. Remember the child is not doing this to make your life difficult and it certainly does not mean you are a bad parent.

Dealing with defiance. There is an entire chapter in The Connected Child providing strategies for handling escalating levels of oppositional behavior.

Expect setbacks. The process of stumbling and self-correction actually strengthen the acquisition of new skills. Recognize where there has been progress. Levels of care build on each other. The levels typically follow this pattern:

1. The child’s physical needs for food and shelter are met.

 2. The child feels truly safe and protected.

3. The child receives proper balance of affection, guidance and correction.

4. The child learns to communicate with others.

5. The child has a healthy self-esteem, feels precious, valued and loved.

6. The connected child can express their full and joyous potential.

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