why consequences & rewards don’t work for hurting children (adoption/foster)

consequences You can listen to a recording of this post, just scroll down to the bottom of this page and don some earbuds. 🙂

“My child doesn’t respond to consequences, I can take away anything and he doesn’t care.” “Rewards mean nothing to my daughter, I can offer an ice cream at McDonald’s or a new Wii game, it doesn’t matter to her.” I hear these stories ALL. THE. TIME. It’s as though all of us who have children who’ve been neglected, abused, and traumatized live in the same house! Yes, every child is unique, but there are many similarities in hurting kids.

One of the similarities that’s common in hurting children is their response to consequences, discipline, and rewards. At some point in your journey, you may have been encouraged by other parents to read Love and Logic or attend one of their seminars, other parenting advice may be thrown at you, saying, “I promise, this works.” The problem is, there’s a missing link, their child probably didn’t experience trauma, neglect, or abuse, or at least it didn’t have the same affect on their child.

Love and Logic, Have a New Kid by Friday, as well as other parenting books and classes have some great information, but they aren’t the cure-all for a hurting child.

When we were struggling with our daughter’s behaviors a friend of mine (she had adopted domestically) suggested I read Have a New Kid by Friday. She said, “It works. Find something she cares about and remove it if she makes a wrong choice.” I said, “I’ve tried that.” She replied, adamantly, nodding her head, “There’s something.” I read the book anyway, there were some good ideas, very helpful ones for children who aren’t hurting. But, why don’t consequences and reward systems work for kids who’ve been neglected, abused, and traumatized?

Because many adopted and foster children don’t care about the material world around them.

Often they don’t have a favorite toy, stuffed animal, or blanket when they’re young, they aren’t connected to anything, so removing it doesn’t make any difference to them. Neither are rewards important enough for them to turn off their strong emotions and behaviors for them.

The logic part of Love and Logic doesn’t work because hurting kids don’t think logically, their brain isn’t calm enough or reasonable enough to do so.

Their brain looks different than a child’s who has been loved and cared for since their birth. This DOES NOT mean they aren’t intelligent, oh no, most children who’ve been through trauma are very smart (all about that in another post), but logical they are not. Not until they’ve made significant attachments.

These kiddos are constantly in fight or flight mode. There are three responses that children have to trauma – fight, flight, and dissociation. When looking at the trauma response in adults, Putnam says, “Among the constellation of symptoms associated with the trauma response in adults is dissociation. Dissociation is simply disengaging from stimuli in the external world and attending to an ‘internal’ world. Daydreaming, fantasy, depersonalization, and derealization are all examples of dissociation.” Putnam goes on to explain what happens to a soldier during battle and how dissociation can take affect, and he concludes, “It is this very ability to dissociate which can keep soldiers alive.”

It is much the same for our children. They have connected to the world around them; what’s going on, where they are, and who is present, not a person or item. They were in life preserving mode before they came to us, and it’s going to take a lengthy amount of time to learn that their new parents and caretakers can be trusted.

It will take more than a few months to learn they don’t have to fight, flee, or dissociate from their life any longer. I’m not encouraging you to throw out all consequences or rewards, we need to use them to lay a foundation for their future. Your child still needs to know they can’t get away with hitting, tearing apart the house, or yelling.

Some ways to begin to curb your child’s behaviors are through time-ins.

Time-ins are time with you, if your child is small enough, that means sitting on your lap, preferably while rocking (make sure you are safe and not harming your child). If your child is bigger, you can have your child sit in a chair near you. You can also have your child do something with you, preferably not something fun if this is being utilized as a consequence.

Using natural consequences lays that foundation I mentioned earlier. An example of this is if your daughter draws on the couch with a marker, she can’t use markers or crayons for a set period of time. (I don’t recommend using natural consequences with food related instances.) Remember that you may not see a difference in your child’s behavior, they have to make attachments, then their brain will calm down and heal so they can think logically and care about those around them.

When you have a child who’s come from a neglectful or abusive situation, your parenting techniques need to be tweaked.

Dozens of times I’ve seen parents of older biological children say, “My other kids turned out great, what’s the problem? It can’t be me, because I did it right four times.” What they don’t see is that parenting a hurting child and one who’s been loved consistently is vastly different. Parents think they can implement the same techniques they used with their biological children with their hurting children and it will all turn out the same. Sadly, they’re wrong.

Hurting kids come with a whole different set of rules, and many of those rules are difficult for us to understand. One big one is that it takes time. Lots of time. Are you willing to be patient with your children? Are you willing to show them love, read on this website about how to parent your child, and be consistent?

  • A child who’s been neglected, abused, and traumatized will react differently than a child who has been loved consistently to consequences, discipline, and rewards.
  • Hurting children aren’t connected to the material items around them, so removing them won’t make a big difference immediately. You can use these discipline techniques, but understand you are laying a foundation for later.
  • A hurting child’s brain looks different than a child’s who has been loved and cared for consistently.
  • A hurting child doesn’t think logically because their brain isn’t calm. This doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent!
  • Often dissociating is what kept our children alive in their neglectful, abusive environment, and this will carry over to their new environment – your home. It will take time for them to heal.
  • Use time-ins when behavior is unacceptable. CHOOSE your battles. Use consequences and rewards to lay a foundation.
  • Parenting techniques for hurting children need to be modified.

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Be sure to check out my CONTENTS page for more posts on how to help your foster and adopted children and your family.
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27 responses to “why consequences & rewards don’t work for hurting children (adoption/foster)

  1. My biological son is destructive, autistic, ADHD, with a behavior disorder. He has never been abused. We love him and want him to be happy, succeed, and everything else a normal parent wants. But, he acts like you described above. Consequences mean nothing and he doesn’t understand the idea of behaving well to get a reward. He doesn’t understand that x leads to y even with ABA, prompts, or pictures. He doesn’t follow or understand our logic or any logic that I can come up with. He thinks we are out to get him if we/others don’t do what he wants and often responds with crying, screaming, destruction, threats, etc. It’s like we are talking to a wall. We have tried PCIT, therapies, etc. to no real avail.

  2. I think this advice applies to a lot of non-neurotypical kids, too. My daughter has sensory processing disorder and selective mutism, and there is nothing in the outside world (either rewards or consequences) that can outweigh the negative feelings that she experiences when she’s hit a sensory or social wall and she’s feeling overwhelmed.

    It took us forever to figure that out, because her boundaries aren’t completely consistent from day to day, and she couldn’t communicate them to us. So sometimes she would just refuse to get dressed for school, but wouldn’t tell us why, and any consequences we tried to impose just made her more upset, but didn’t change her behavior.

    Finally, in third grade, after a particularly bad melt-down, she had the insight to say to us, “Why do you punish me when I get stuck? It just makes things worse.” And we said, “Huh, you’re right. Why is that?” And she said, “I don’t know, but it doesn’t work.”

    So from then on, we’ve saved consequences only for situations in which she’s clearly feeling calm, rational and “present”.

  3. This information “is right on” based on my experiences with my 12 y/o granddaughter adopted 2 years ago. She failed in my daughter’s home and has resided with me for 6 months. I am older, with only this child in my home. Once I experienced this perspective, my ability grew and her healing started.

  4. Thanks for sending me this article. I wish time-ins were clarified a little more as a consequence.

  5. This article has blown my mind! We have a senior in highschool (biological) who struggles with this, as we feel we have tried everything. I thought I was crazy and in all my research and prayer to help him this is the first article to fully describe him & what I’ve been trying to explain to providers & school counselor, but they want to just prescribe more medicine. We used ADD medicine this last year after many years and turning every stone, but hasn’t helped his grades. It’s such a frustrating life. Though, our son has not been abused he did have a few febrile seizures at 2-3 and was a premie at 4 pounds. They asked me so many times if he had fetal alcohol syndrome, but I only had an occasional diet soda when pregnant. Which was funny because they had him on a mobile heart monitor for apnea his first 6-8 months and gave him daily doses of caffeine.
    I’m not going to lie his academics and way of life has caused frustration on our part and we are not the best parents by far and lost our cool fussing a yelling at times, ashamedly. He has also been showered with love a phenomenol family, higher education but there is just a disconnect. At this age we are meeting just this week with a counselor & time management/life coach type person. I’m not gonna lie it’s been a frustrating struggle and wish I had many do overs. He is a sweet kid, highly intelligent, but yes there seems to be a disconnect and if you have any suggestions on what to do or what help to seek that would be a true miracle. We will never give up or run out on him or ever quit fighting for him. We know God has a plan and a great future and life for him. Thank you!

    • Just on a hunch I would look at the autistic spectrum for similarities. Our boy is high functioning aspergers and his behaviours are controlled by diet and therapeutic strategies and he is now excelling. It took over a year to show consistent behaviour from him but worth it.

      • We had a terrible time in high school with my biological son. Nothing I did made a difference, because he just didn’t care about jumping through the hoops. He barely graduated. Now, he is in college, has a job and an unpaid internship. He’s doing great. He just hated high school. Hope that helps!

  6. I think this is also helpful for younger children, whose rational brain has yet developed to balance out the emotional brain.

  7. Just wondering if these ideas can apply to a biological child suffering from severe depression including feelings of worthlessness, self hate, and self harm??

    • The solution of using natural consequences would definitely be a way to go and can be beneficial for biological children. If your child has experienced trauma, these ideas definitely may resound with you, and helping them with the ideas I put forth in my blog posts may help.

  8. This is so true. I have raised three children (mine, his and ours) and how we have two that were adopted. There has been tremendous improvement in their behaviors, but there are a few things that don’t seem to change … ever (food, lying, etc.). I get very frustrated because the consequences and things that worked with my other kids has no effect on the adopted kids (they have been with us 3.5 years, adopted for 1). You’re right – it is like they don’t care about anything. They have 4 bio siblings that were adopted by a childless couple. They think it is easier for us with our two because we have raised other children. Honestly, I think that makes it harder!

    • Thanks for coming by and commenting! I hope you can continue to read posts I’ve written, as there are ways to help hurting kids thrive (sleep, a lot less lying (most kids lie), etc.) I agree it’s very different raising adopted kids vs. biological. Ha, I’ve written other posts on that too. People think it’s the same, but it’s far different.

  9. Thank you so much for this post. I love your thoughts. They make so much sense. Time in. I’m all about it!

  10. Our youngest was adopted, and we had this problem….we later believed he had Fetal Alcohol Affect ( not the full syndrome)….but couldn’t get a Dr. to concure with us. Not being able to understand consequences is a symptom of this. He did good if he could mentor with a good role model…but when he got older…we had no control over that….and he fell in with the wrong crowd. Unfortunatly the outcome was disasterous.

  11. I agree, this has been very informative. I just feel that you have to deal with any child on a single basis. There is not an answer for all children as they are all different and with much different circumstances. How ever the longer you have a child foster or adopted you as a parent learn how to work with that childs needs. But it doesn’t happen over night and it does take a lot of work and patience. But as time goes on you learn from previous experience what may work. If what you feel will work you try it. If it doesn’t work well then you work on finding what does work for you and the child(ren). As a foster parent I have had a few problems with some of the kids I’ve had. It hurt me like hell when things didn’t work out and the children were removed from my home, even after an investigation found nothing to the accusations that were made against me didn’t happen in my home. But as time goes on you learn who you can trust and who you can’t. I thought all foster parents were here to help each other out but not all are. Your right some do it just for the money. If I wanted just the money I would go to work.

  12. Thank you so much for this! So many parents who have only dealt with biological children (that have been raised in a good home) have NO idea how hard parenting an adoptive child is!

  13. This is very helpful to me as a teacher. Thank you!

  14. Over time with lots of consistency and love it is possible to see change. Our son was in total trauma mode when we got home. But now, almost 17 months later, we have been able to start incorporating more traditional parenting techniques. That just wasn’t a possibility at first, though. Great post, thanks for sharing!

  15. This is really helpful information for all people working with hurting children along the way! Therapists, daycare teachers, Early Intervention case workers, I know so many people who could benefit from this knowledge!

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