Discipline and the Internationally Adopted Child

I am a fairly well-educated person. I have the highest degree in my profession. I am well-read and reasonable. I read a plethora of adoption books before adopting from Africa. I even went to a conference talking about connecting with the adopted child. But I have been utterly baffled by the lack of good education about disciplining the pre-English speaking internationally adopted child.

There are lots of rules about disciplining the internationally adopted child. Lots of “don’t” rules, that is.

  • Don’t spank. They might have been abused.
  • Don’t take toys away. They don’t value them anyway.
  • Don’t put them in time-out. They will think you are abandoning them.
  • Don’t withhold, food, love, affection, privileges, and on and on and on.

What can you do?

Talk to them about what they are feeling. Encourage them to use their words. Make compromises. Reward charts.

That’s right, when it comes to disciplining internationally adopted kids, all the recommendations are language-based. But internationally adopted kids don’t speak English for months (especially mine).

So we have found ourselves for the last two months with tantrum-throwing wild children but no recommendations for disciplining them, other than what we were doing was wrong.

In the absence of better information, here are my thoughts on disciplining the internationally adopted child who doesn’t speak English. I am in health care, but do not specialize in pediatrics or child development, so don’t take me too seriously. These are just my thoughts.

Rules for Disciplining the Internationally Adopted Child:

1. Read the adoption books before you go get them. Then throw them away.

The books will have great principles, but the authors don’t know your child. They are not there when you are trying to keep them from jumping out of the car at 50 miles per hour, or are kicking or screaming at you at 3:00 a.m. while their sibling is trying to sleep. In my opinion, before a child can begin to feel loved, they have to feel safe, and much of that comes from structure and stability. Part of that structure and stability is discipline.

2. Not spanking is highly overrated.

Without language, it’s hard for kids to understand taking away privileges, reward charts, or explanations. They do understand a swat to the hand or to the behind. I’m not talking about beating a child, but getting their attention when they intentionally disobey.

3. Your sanity is more important than the kids’.

Your kids cannot become emotionally healthy if you are not. So cocooning yourself if you are an extrovert is a bad move. (Cocooning THEM if they are extroverts is probably a bad move too.)  Do what it takes to keep yourself sane: go for a massage, see a counselor, find a group of internationally adoptive moms to vent with, go on dates with your spouse. Leave your kids with (gasp) a sitter. I know this goes against all that the books say, but the authors aren’t living in your reality. Do what it takes to preserve your mental and physical health. Your kids will be much better off for it.

4. You will not screw them up any more than they already are.

My counselor shared this bit of wisdom with me. There are so many rules, tips, and guilt in international adoption. It is a lie from the pit of hell that if you don’t do everything exactly right the kids will have reactive attachment disorder. Give yourself some grace, relax the rules, and trust your intuition. God matched you with your specific children for a reason.

5. Find your child’s “currency.”

Each child will value something different. For some it will be a certain privilege. For others, it will be a toy. For some, it will merely be your approval. When you discipline an internationally adopted child, you have to use what their “currency” is. For our daughter, she wouldn’t even notice if we took away a toy, but a look of disapproval and a strong warning corrects her behavior quickly. Our son is completely different. His currency is possessions, especially his favorite books and toys. If we want him to correct a behavior, a toy is set “on the block” and he thinks about whether he would rather change his behavior or lose a toy. He chooses changing his behavior most of the time.

Those are my thoughts so far. There aren’t many, but I’ve been frustrated at the lack of real advice out there for those of us in the pre-English phase of international adoption. Hopefully this will help someone else, and maybe some days, even me!


2 responses

  1. You make a great point on finding your child’s “currency”. Yesterday it was pennies for our little guy. He was excited to help me make instant pudding – wisk, wisk, wisk. But, he didn’t want to try it. So, I told him I’d give him a penny if he did. He liked it and asked for more. So, I wondered what he would do for 10 pennies. He has cardiomyopathy and takes coumadin. We have to do a PT/INR test every week. We have a home monitor. It just requires a finger prick so that we can get a drop of blood. For several weeks he’s thrown a royal fit every time – struggling and crying (before getting the home machine we had to drive 45 min each way for the test). Yesterday I told him we needed to do the test and if he could do it with out crying I would give him 10 pennies. He agreed, helped turn on the monitor and even picked the finger. When I pricked his finger there was a little “ouch” and that was it. So worth the 10 pennies.

  2. So so helpful – thanks for this! We feel kinda left out in the open with little direction. There were all sort of “instructions” about bonding and attachment but little for discipline, other than the “don’ts.” Nice to remember the big picture 🙂 Any ideas for a very active 1-yr old (or about there – we don’t know exactly how old our kids are either) who is “too young” to throw tantrums, but does anyway?
    (Feel free to read our adoption story at http://www.adoptionistas.com).

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