keep it simple: simple language = understanding (adoption/foster)

keep it simple-understanding
Do you have a young child who doesn’t obey when you ask her to do something? Does your child smile at your from the top of the table when you’ve asked him to get down? Do you have a newly (within the last year) foster or adopted child who is older but doesn’t do what you ask?

It’s definitely possible that your child is ignoring you,

but it also may be that they don’t understand what you want them to do. Today I will give you some steps to help your child understand you, and after you’ve tried this for a few weeks you’ll know if his behavior is stemming from something else. (All behavior is communication so it’s important to get to the bottom of the actual problem.)

When we were working with speech and developmental therapists to help our son, Jeremiah, they suggested I say, “Get down,” instead of, “Get off the table.” The therapists point was first, to keep it short, and second, to end the sentence with the action I wanted to take place. If we say, “Don’t throw sticks,” the child may only hear the last word or two, “throw sticks.”

At first, I didn’t really like the advice. I come from a background in education and I talked to kids in full sentences. I believe children are much smarter than we give them credit for, and I noticed it first in the children I worked with in an educational setting. I had also talked to my daughter, Payton, in full sentences and it worked well. Even though she was in multiple homes while in foster care before coming to us, she still understood.

But each child is different, and although children from similar backgrounds can have comparable behaviors, they can also have some that vary.

While I’ve talked before about how intelligent our hurting children can be, some can have cognitive delays, and most have developmental delays.

A child who comes from multiple homes (multiple foster care placements, biological homes that are unstable) or even a couple, may not have a language foundation for understanding guidelines, in fact, there probably were no set guidelines. Some days they did whatever they wanted and other days parents and caregivers came down with a vengeance, expecting perfection.

So, with this basis of understanding we can give our children a foundation to start on. When telling your child to do something:

  • Keep your sentences short: “Hands off.” “Be gentle.”
  • If your child is young you can do hand-over-hand motions to teach them. For example, if your child is hitting, you can gently take their hand and touch your arm softly with it while saying what you deem appropriate, “Soft hands.” “Be gentle.” You can also show them how to be gentle with an animal in the same way. When children haven’t been taught how to be kind, they don’t know how, when children have been dealt with roughly, they will do the same to others. But they can learn.
  • Try to end your short statement with the action you want to take place. If your child is jumping on the couch and you want him to sit, it’s counterintuitive to say, “Please sit down on the couch.” Saying, “Sit down,” will communicate exactly what you want your child to do. Your child may be hearing only the last word of your sentence, if you’re saying, “Don’t hit,” they only hear the word “hit.” More examples to use are “Get off,” “Get down,” “Hands off.” (It’s great to teach your child how to be polite through the words you use, but you can teach manners in other areas, not when you want an immediate response, and not until they understand what you’re wanting.)
  • Be consistent. If you have a rule like: No Jumping on the Couch, be sure to follow through with keeping your child from jumping on the couch.
  • Move. Your child will know you mean what you’re saying when you walk over to them. This doesn’t mean stand over them authoritatively and have power over them, but they do need to know you’re in charge. They need to know that you feel it’s important they follow the rules of the house. If you don’t participate in helping them follow through and you only yell across the room, they don’t take you seriously.
  • Praise specifically, genuinely, and often when your child does what you ask. You can say things like, “Thank you for sitting.” “That was great listening.” “You were so gentle with your sister.” Praise when you see your child doing positive things, even when they aren’t asked, to reinforce what good behavior is: “I like how you and your brother are playing together.” “You’re sitting at the table so nicely.” “That’s exactly how to use that toy.”


keep it simple
When you have a child who isn’t obeying, you may want to consider their past experiences. Many times you won’t know what that experience was like. Often I hear parents saying, “Their birth parents weren’t abusive, they just didn’t take good care of the kids,” and other such statements. Really, we don’t know what happened in our child’s previous home(s). We don’t know if our child was screamed at, hit, expected to carry far more responsibility than they should, if expectations of behavior existed, whether those expectations varied. And, for a child who speaks a different language, even after learning your language, there can be a communication breakdown, especially with English, as it’s complicated.

We don’t want to belittle our child’s intelligence, so use full sentences when you aren’t asking your child to do something. Simple directions can go a long ways and you can build on them as your child begins to follow those directions.


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your child can hear you (Autism/special needs)

your child can hear you
I recently watched a video on Autism, and in that video moms are shown with their children, meltdowns are taking place, some kids are hitting their parents, you hear the babbling of nonverbal children (all trying to make their voice heard), kids that are too big to be carried clinging to mom, vying for her attention.

It’s real, and sometimes it’s the exact life I live. However, many of the moms in that video don’t realize their children can hear what they’re saying about them, nor do I feel they see the qualities their children possess. I don’t feel they’re trying to hear wheat their child is saying when they make a noise, hit them, or fall on the floor in a meltdown.

For this post I will focus on the first point. Our children hear what we say. Even when it looks impossible, like our child doesn’t understand the world around them, they CAN hear us.

I was surprised by what the mothers in the video were saying in front of their kids. At the same time, some of it sounded familiar because I’ve been there, saying very similar things. I still find myself making comments that I shouldn’t.

The moms in the video were saying:

  • This is so exhausting. (Referring to taking care of the child.)
  • She wants all of my attention.
  • He’s so difficult.
  • She’s like a baby.
  • He can’t be left alone for a minute.

My son, Jeremiah, is nonverbal and it took me a while (too long) to come to the realization that my son understood far more than what I thought he did. When I saw Jeremiah smiling in response to us talking about what he’d done, I started to recognize what he understood. Then he began to laugh at funny things he was doing, or funny things we said and it continued from there, me realizing what this kiddo understood, and how much I didn’t. Some of you are shaking your heads, saying, “Duh.”

When your child doesn’t obey simple (or so they seem to us) requests, it can lead you to believe they don’t understand anything you’re saying,

and that just isn’t true.

We also need to treat those with special needs with respect. Maybe you would say those things about a typically functioning child, but many wouldn’t. Stress makes us do things we normally wouldn’t.

It’s also really important to recognize that meltdowns are a child’s way of communicating, so are most other behaviors. And one woman, when describing her hand movements (stimming), said it was the song of her heart. She was communicating through her hands. When individuals are nonverbal everything is tucked inside, maybe it sounds obvious now, but I feel the fact is easily forgotten.

Let’s remember to be careful how we talk to, and about our child when they can hear us. Here’s another good post to help remind us how we should treat our kids, and how we should expect others to treat them: Would You Accept This Behavior Toward a Non-Autistic Child?

I also highly recommend everyone read the book, Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. It gives us a glimpse into the life of someone who is nonverbal, but has much to say. It’s an easy and quick read, but so much can be gained from reading about Melody’s world.

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what’s on their mind? (adoption/foster)

Something about negative behavior struck me when I read the fourth part in the Reuter’s series The Child Exchange. (You can read my opinion on The Child Exchange – aka adoption disruption here.) The Reuters investigation shares the devastating story of Anna Barnes, a girl who was born in Russia, orphaned (although she didn’t know her mother had died, the news had been shared with her via a second party) at the age of six, and adopted by an American family at age eight. In fifth grade, she was sent to military school, and in sixth grade, she was called into the office and told, “We thought it would be fun for you. Instead of going to a military school this year, we’re going to send you to a horse ranch in Texas, and you’re going to stay there for three months, then you’re going to come back.”

A couple named Gary and Lisa Barnes showed up at the horse ranch and decided to adopt Anna. She says of her first adoptive family, “I just couldn’t see them doing this to their real son. I felt very betrayed.” Anna says, “I didn’t get to go home and say bye to my brothers and sisters. I didn’t get to say good-bye to my mom and dad.” Anna shared her thoughts on how she felt about being with the Barnes, she told them repeatedly “I don’t want to be here, I want to go home,” and that her home was in Indiana with John and Jill (her first adoptive parents).

Gary and Lisa said Anna had behavior issues they couldn’t handle, so they found her a new home. Anna’s story doesn’t end here, she continued to be abandoned.

There’s something we can learn from her heartbreak, and it’s evident when you hear her share what she’s been through. She felt something should have taken place, a major life event – going back to her first adoptive family, and that didn’t happen. She had already lost her birth family, lived in a Russian orphanage (I don’t care what anyone says about them, they aren’t acceptable and many are deplorable), and she was given up by the family (John and Jill) who promised to care for her as their own. She desired one thing, to go back to that family, and she made it particularly clear.

I saw this same situation transpire with a girl who was adopted from Africa. Some of you have heard about the unethical adoption practices that can take place in third world countries. It happened to a girl named Zenia*. Her mother, who was living in a poor village, was told by a woman that if she could not provide for her daughter that Zenia could be sent to an American family, and she’d be able to see her daughter again in one year. Zenia was told the same.

Zenia was adopted by a wonderful American family who had adopted other older children internationally. Those children were doing very well, but they always seemed perplexed by Zenias continued behavior issues and indignation. After being with the family for one year, Zenia finally shared with them what she had been told. She felt that they weren’t her parents because her mom was waiting for her in Africa.

The question here isn’t whether these children’s wishes could be granted or not, because they can’t (or at least it wasn’t likely for Anna, and it wasn’t possible for Zenia) the question is, what can a parent do about it?

Ask your children questions about their adoption. You will need to use your intuition to determine whether your child is capable of handling information about their pre-adoption experience. I don’t withhold information, but I also don’t give all the details. If a child was older at the time of adoption, it’s probably okay to talk about what happened before they came to you, because they likely remember it.

Many times behavior issues in adopted children stem from a lack of true attachment, in the situations above, I would treat it the same as an attachment issue. No matter what their pain stems from, a child always needs to make attachments.

If, in the case of Zenia, she wants to return to her birth mother, you could discuss why her mother made the choice she did, being sure to alleviate any guilt the child would have of it being her fault. You can tell her that those who told her she could go back and visit in a year lied to her and that you knew nothing about it. Share what adoption means with her, that in front of a court and judge you promised to be her mother/father forever. If you want to consider making a trip to Africa so she can visit, discuss it with your spouse and be confident it’s really possible before saying anything to your child.

Your child may not be struggling with the same situations listed here. Many of our children have similar stories, but some are vastly different. Your child may be holding onto something else, it may be a need for control (this is an element most hurting adopted kids deal with), or they are worried about moving again. These are concerns that are difficult to label, and that is why beginning to open communication is key.

Sometimes negative behaviors can be a sign of a child’s anger over what they want or don’t want to take place (as in both cases I mentioned). That’s why it’s good to talk about feelings, because that can get your child to open up and share more of what’s on their mind. Opening up dialogue with your child will help too.

Our hurting children are strong, they are strong because life has taught them to stick it out or die. They will use that strong will to get what they want, and if what they want is their birth family or first adoptive family (even if they have perfected a horrible situation in their mind), then it will take explanation and attachment for them to see it differently. They still might yell and scream that you aren’t their “real” family, or they hate you and don’t want you to be their dad, but stick with it. Showing your child continually that you will not abandon them will sink in. Eventually they will see that you aren’t going anywhere.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

Have you ever found that getting to what’s really bothering your child helped alleviate anger or anxiety? I love comments, so share you thoughts!

Some additional links that may help:
the lies hurting children believe
the magic word
it’s your fault, mom
the intelligence behind a hurting child

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