Discipline with an Adoption Twist

Discipline with an Adoption Twist

Originally published in Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections EMK Press

On top of whatever method of discipline you choose, Doris Landry suggests adding these three basic tools to dramatically increase its effectiveness. Successfully disciplining an adopted child takes the extra layer of adoption into consideration:

Understand. It is important for us parents to help our children understand the meaning of their actions. For instance, children who were hit, slapped, kicked or restrained in their orphanage may replicate those behaviors under duress, without understanding why. When a child misbehaves, and you can recognize where the behavior comes from, it can be helpful to explain the relationship between his actions and his past.

Express empathy. With your empathy you can help a child see that while his behavior is bad, he is not bad. When you take him into your arms and engage in meaningful dialog about the why of what happened, you are not condoning his misbehavior, but rather helping him understand the origin and the meaning of his behavior.

Re-attune. The child's understanding and the parent's empathy together lead to a re-attunement between parent and child, allowing for the child to express sorrow for hurting the other person. He is then able to learn and change and to openly accept your guidance and correction.

Our children will try our patience and push us to our limits. They need to be corrected and disciplined like all other children. But because they were adopted, our children have needs and issues unique to them. The added layer of adoption, along with perhaps the added layer of being a post-institutionalized adoptee, adds some complexity to our discipline models. Before my daughters came home, I had planned to discipline straight from the book, with a one-size-fits-all approach. But once my kids arrived, I quickly realized that that was not going to work. Their need for correction and discipline was the same as every other child's, but the way I handled it needed to be different.

Their past experiences necessitated that I consider different models. Some of the best advice I ever received about disciplining my children, was to have a 'toolbox' of techniques. Landry, in her "Discipline with an Adoption Twist" workshop, outlines seven different discipline 'tools'. These are all basic, well-known methods, but with an explanatory adoption 'twist' for our children's extra layers.

1-2-3 Magic

This book, written by Thomas W. Phelan, PhD, asserts that parents often treat children as little adults, and often spend way too much time trying to persuade our children that we are right. Parents talk too much and with too much emotion, which actually provokes the child. This can lead to yelling and even eventually to hitting. The 1-2-3 Magic philosophy:

  • A parent gives one explanation only.
  • A parent's authority is not negotiable. 

After giving the one explanation, the parent then begins to count. If the misbehavior doesn't stop as a result of the explanation, the parent warns, "That's one". If the misbehavior continues, the parent says "That's two." If the child is still misbehaving the parent says,"That's three" and gives the child a time-out. The parent is not to argue with the child, or lecture the child. After the time-out, the child re-joins the family.

The Adotion Twist: Parents should not send the child off to another room as suggested in 1-2-3. Rather, by keeping them close (time-in) and modeling calm, controlled behavior you help the child regulate by not allowing him to escalate. This method takes the emotion out of the discipline, which will help the child re-attune with the parent.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

This popular book written by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish give parents four techniques for successful listening (a key piece of communication and attunement):

Listen with full attention. When you only half listen, children just give up even trying to talk with their parents. But when you give them your full attention, they feel special and want to talk with you even more.

Show a caring attitude. Children don't always want you to fix their problems. They may just need to know that you care about them and what they're feeling. You can often communicate your caring with just a word, such as "Oh" or "I see", or "Mmmm..." The child will know he was heard.

Deal with feelings, both the parents and child's. How often do we as parents try to deny what our children are feeling? Our child will try to express emotion, and we quickly jump in telling him not to feel that way. Instead we need to help them deal with their feelings by naming those feelings. Statements such as "you are sad", "what a shock that was for you", or "you really cared about your friend" will help your child feel that you understand him.

You don't need to fix it. Don't try to solve the problem. Parents often try to explain things with adult reasoning. Telling a 2-year-old that you don't have any Toastie Crunchies in the house doesn't mean anything to him. All he knows is that he wants them now! Instead, give into the child's wishes and fantasy. How much easier it is for a child to go along with you when you fantasize right along with him about how wonderful a box of Toastie Crunchies would be. When mom wants it as much as he does, how can he argue? Faber and Mazlish also offer help in gaining cooperation from our children. Parents can talk to their kids in such a way that the kids will naturally listen.

Describe the problem. Simply stating the problem as you see it is much better than blaming, yelling, or coercing.The point is made without blame and without emotion. It does not put the child on the defensive. Instead of "You haven't taken the dog out all day. You don't deserve to have a pet";, try "I see Rover pacing up and down near the door." Use one word. Instead of yelling at your child again for walking out without her lunch, simply say "lunch". Again, you don't express blame or accusation toward your child. Talk about your feelings. Instead of yelling at your child for pulling on your sleeve, tell him calmly, "I don't like having my sleeve pulled". It is more difficult for a child to argue with how his behavior makes you feel.

The Adoption Twist: The goal of the Faber/Mazlish method is to help children change unacceptable behavior without making them feel threatened, attacked or rejected, and also to help parents learn to listen so our children feel genuinely heard. This is particularly important for the adopted child, who may have a heightened sensitivity to not being heard or understood. The parents need to be mindful of not falling into the adoptive parent discipline trap, and should avoid:

  • Giving in to the child's demands out of fear that the child won't love them.
  • Being overly dismissive of the feelings that an adoptive child is trying to express (not really listening)

Behavior Modification

This relies on rewarding positive behavior in order to increase the frequency of such behavior. Any behavior will increase if followed by something pleasant. The reward can be either material, verbal or time spent together. Parents need to be careful when using this approach, and consider whether not reaching a reward will wrongly affect their child's self-esteem, and if the system is reinforcing the correct behavior.

One way to use the behavior modification technique is with the use of a reward chart. Once the problem behavior has been identified and agreed upon by the parents, it then needs to be discussed and agreed upon by the child. Allowing your children to help select the rewards and help in designing the chart is usually greeted with great enthusiasm. It's important to set a start date, and commit to a consistent time of filling out the chart. For some kids, behavior modification doesn't work. If, after implementing this technique, you see that it is not working for your child, then you need to question why. Perhaps it is because your child has significant control issues, or doesn"t truly trust his parents to know what's best for him, both of which are not uncommon in adopted children. Parents may need to seek professional help.

The Adoption Twist: An important thing to remember about this discipline technique is that the rewards should be only positive, such as more time spent together, or choosing dessert for that night, or playing a favorite game together. Behavior Modification is really just a helpful indicator to measure if your child can be amenable to change or if the problems run deeper. If a simple additional story at bedtime is motivation for a reward you are well on your way to a healthy relationship. If nothing motivates the child, then there is cause for concern; children normally are motivated by positive incentives.


Time-out is a common discipline technique that often needs modification in order to be appropriate for a child who:

  • has been recently adopted
  • has not fully attached to his parents
  • struggles with anxiety related to separation from his parents

Time-out involves separation of the child and parent by sending the child to a designated room away from the family. But a child who has attachment issues, or who is just learning to trust his new family, should never be forced away from the parents. Using time-out, but with the adoption "twist", the parent still disciplines the child, but places them in a location close by.

Another adaptation of Time-Out takes place with the child sitting in the parent's lap to calm down and "think". A tantruming child can be kept safe in a parent's arms and lap while mom or dad is sitting on the floor. An out of control child may scream to get away, but desperately needs the calm, safe physical security of his parent.

The Adoption Twist: Time out minimizes the shame response that adopted children are so easily prone to. This type of time-out is a positive example of disciplining a bad behavior, while always helping the child feel emotionally and physically secure.


Time-in is a variation of the time-out technique mentioned above. According to Landry, the goal of time-in is for a chronically misbehaving child to experience a successful day. When a child repeatedly misbehaves and does not respond to other disciplinary methods, a time-in may be appropriate. The parent explains to the child that she is going to help him have a good day by keeping him near by, and helping him make good decisions throughout their time together. The child is kept physically close to the parent, usually within arms length, for as long as the parent thinks necessary. As the parent goes about her day with her child beside her, they are able to talk together about his misbehavior and the feelings that caused it. The parent is also able to correct any subsequent misbehavior or bad attitude, because she can address the issues immediately, as they surface. The key to the success of this technique is for the parent to be very loving and empathetic toward the child, as the parent helps the child make good choices.

The Adoption Twist: The physical closeness of the parent and the time spent together give the parent and child an opportunity to process the child's feelings and surfacing behaviors. The parent must present a time-in as a help to the child, not as a punishment. The idea is to promote a "we are going to do this together" team feeling. Time-In is a wonderful opportunity to practice and strengthen attunement between parent and child.

Love and Logic

Love and logic parenting, created by Foster Cline and Jim Fay, is an approach to raising children that puts parents in control and teaches responsibility to children. This is accomplished by parents setting firm limits in a loving way, and making sure the child knows in advance exactly what is expected of him. The child then experiences natural consequences for his actions, both good and bad, and is held accountable for his actions and for solving his own problems. The parent expresses empathy toward the child for making a bad choice, but does not bail the child out of the problem or try to solve it for him. The Love and Logic approach is normally a very positive technique, yet for the post-institutionalized child, or the child that has been neglected, abused, or shuffled from family to family, the "natural consequence" may not be known to him. Time is needed for the parent to teach and train the child, and to establish a basis of trust. If trust has not been established, then natural consequences can be shaming rather than instructive.

The Adoption Twist: Coaching the child may be a necessary adjunct to implementing Love and Logic, as some of life's lessons may have been missed (especially if the child was adopted from an orphanage or from foster care). Coaching focuses on teaching the child appropriate behavior. Instead of just telling a child to stop a behavior, the parent teaches the child societal expectations, and what appropriate behavior looks like. This builds an alliance between the child and his parent.

60-Second Scolding

A 60-second scolding is another highly effective discipline technique. When the child misbehaves, the parent comes close to the child and makes eye contact, even gently holding his face if necessary. The parent tells the child, firmly but without shouting, how the child's actions affected the parent. The parent then softens her voice, hugs the child and tells him how much he is loved and assures him it is the parent's job to take care of the child, and together they will work through the problem.

The Adoption Twist: The 60-second scolding is intense and honest, provides immediate intervention and ends on a nurturing note, affirming the parents love and commitment toward the child. Most parents scold, walk away and proceed with life as though nothing has happened. The adopted child is profoundly affected by disciplinary action, so the re-attunement twist is vital. This technique is powerful in its simplicity and works well for the adopted child, as it fosters a quick re-attunement between parent and child.

In Summary...

A wonderful word to remember, because we often forget to do this, is praise! We must never forget to praise our children. Sometimes a well-timed word of praise and encouragement can head off bad behavior before it even begins. Our kids covet our praise for hard-earned accomplishments, for behavior that is pleasing and appropriate, and for behavior that was not as bad as it could have been. No matter which tool we use from our adoption-parenting toolbox, our children who were adopted need our loving discipline. We must convey that nothing the child does will ever push us away, and that we love them enough to correct their behavior when it is wrong, with no strings attached. And even if they fail, they need to know our love stands strong.

Please contact Carrie Kitze for information on obtaining reprints of this article for pre and post adoption kits and seminars.