Adoption = Discipline

“Did you try spanking him?”

The police officer glanced at his partner. “Another kid headed for juvenile, thanks to his spineless parent.” I could almost hear his telepathic message.

“We can’t,” I explained. “He’s a foster child. At least three other foster homes sent him away because of his violent behavior. We’re committed. He’s staying with us, but we need help. Nothing we’ve done is working. If his behavior continues, he’s going to end up in jail.” Now I had his attention. Maybe she’s not useless.

“How old is this young man?” he asked.

“He’s…five.” I said, waiting for the reaction.

“Five years old and you can’t control him?” He was incredulous. “Three other homes tossed him out?”

“He’s physically aggressive, and it’s escalating outside our home. Four days ago, he attacked a church worker because she was ‘too close’ to him and he wanted space. My husband told him he’d have to speak with police if he hurt anyone else. Today, he punched a female classmate in the face because she laughed at him when he had a tantrum. It wasn’t a simple reaction. He waited to get near her.”

The officer invited us to bring him in. He sat down with our small boy, explaining what would happen if the violence continued as he grew up. He connected with a county Magistrate via video link, who explained the same. Tears ran down the little guy’s cheeks as he nodded and promised to use his hands for good.

I’d like to say this was our last contact with the police. Although we saw improvement, the police station visit was not life-changing. Similar conversations occurred throughout the next year. At times, we felt very defeated.

I read every child-rearing book available. Most had a few nuggets of truth for our situation, but conventional wisdom generally didn’t help. The officer wasn’t the only one to suggest spanking. Typical discipline does not work for most foster/adoptive households.

Corporal punishment is not allowed in a foster situation, and even after adoption is generally not the best option for a child who’s been physically and emotionally abused. A mild swat may bring back vivid memories of beatings.

Rewarding all positive behavior becomes a challenge, without positive behavior to reward. “Great job! This tantrum was thirty seconds shorter than usual!” “You kept all your dinner off the floor and walls. Let’s have dessert.” “You pushed that child down instead of punching him. Gold star!”

Ignoring negative actions is almost impossible. Imagine you have a child who can, in a thirty-minute span, bash a large helicopter toy to slivers, throw chairs across the kitchen, rip pages from books, climb fifteen feet up a tree and scream for ten minutes. Keeping the child (and the rest of the household) safe becomes priority. Ignoring is not an option.

Time-out only works if the child will sit. For this to happen, you must have either a compliant child or a bigger consequence. If the child is not compliant and doesn’t give a flying flip about another consequence, the time-out chair is just another seat.

Removal of the child from the situation is a problem for several reasons. First, as with time-out, the child has to comply. Unless you’re willing to restrain or lock a child up (never a good idea), nothing stops the child from returning. Second, for children who have been neglected, abused, locked away and ignored, removing them may ignite memories. Think for a moment; a whiff of coconut suntan lotion, even in the dead of winter, transports your imagination to the beach. You can almost feel the sun warm your skin, hear the ocean and seagulls. That same gift of imagination can take your child to a very dark place.

Take away toys, electronics, TV time–all of this sounds great. For most kids, this works because they want their things. Things become less important when you’ve lost people. Mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, cousins–all these have already been stripped away from these children. Prisoners of war become dedicated to survival. “You’ve taken everything from me, but you won’t break me. Go ahead. Take my bedroll.” Kids in the foster system become similarly determined. “I’m stuck with strangers. Go ahead. Take my video games. They mean nothing. You can’t hurt me.”

What does work?

Consistency. If you say, “No TV for a week,” “Clean it up or I’m coming in with a trashbag,” or “If you make it through the week without putting your hands on someone, we’ll go for ice cream,” DO IT. This applies to all kids, but especially ones who’ve found that adults are unreliable.

Expectations. We don’t expect our guy to be perfect, or to act like “other kids.” This year, his teacher commented, “We had an excellent day. Don’t get me wrong, we still had issues, but for him, it was an excellent day.”

Love. After every (mostly useless) consequence, we explained that we loved him too much to let him grow up with behaviors which would lead to ruin. Our breakthrough came the day I screamed (not proud of it) at our then-seven-year-old, “I don’t care how BAD your behavior is. I will always love you. NO MATTER WHAT! But please stop trying to make me prove it!” Two years of consistently loving him, no matter what, paid off.

Jesus. We brought Jesus into the conversation daily. “Jesus loves you more than anything, even when you do wrong.” The day he grasped the truth did not come as an epiphany. He gradually began to believe, and it was a powerful thing for him to understand that God’s love is unconditional and He will never leave us. For a broken, abandoned heart, this is the perfect bandage.

Our kids have been through more than we can imagine. The redemption and renewal process takes time. Be patient, give them what they need. Remember that most of the individuals offering you “helpful” advice have no concept of your situation. Just nod and smile. And, on occasion, call for police backup. Use the non-emergency number, though. Unless, of course, it’s an emergency.


About Casey

Adoption = my life. I'm determined to give my kids the chance they deserve. Adoption isn't always easy. I promise, you're not alone in this. Join me at - we're in this together.

Posted on October 29, 2014, in Adoption, parenting and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. This is great!! It’s wonderful how you have touched these kids lives and I know they have touched yours too! Keep on loving 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Let me clarify the question. Did you end up adopting or did he get reunited with his family?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My wife and I are currently in the process of becoming foster parents. This scenario you just described has always scared me. What happened to this child?

    Liked by 1 person

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