Tag Archives: why consequences and rewards don’t work with adopted children

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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rocking: a simple first step to bonding, and it doesn’t just apply to infants

Have you found that discipline and having consequences for negative behavior doesn’t work with your hurting child? As one mom phrased it, “They don’t care.” So, our first goal is to focus on creating a bond. As you work on making connections with your child, be sure to keep in mind that this is a process. Our children’s previous circumstances have played a major role in re-wiring their brains, and it will take time and consistency to help them see us as safe adults, who they can trust.

Before we can implement directional techniques with our children, we have to begin working on the bonding process. Reason being, if our children are not attached to anyone, they will not change their behavior. This is why, until a certain point in the bonding continuum, consequences and discipline mean nothing. Simply put, our children who have attachment issues don’t care.

I will be encouraging you to begin using different approaches to help change your child’s behavior before they have bonded, but understand that it won’t be a long lasting effect until they have attached to someone.

It is also extremely important to remember that bonding will take time, so will your child’s awareness that their negative behavior isn’t acceptable. Your child will take steps forward, and steps back. At first the steps forward will be much smaller than those going in reverse, but always look at those advances because those are what will keep you going.

Part of the reason our children are so difficult is because they are strong, and they’re extremely intelligent. I read another part in Chris Cleave’s book Little Bee that sums it up so simply. “You are not dumb, Yevette. All of us who have got this far, all of us who have survived – how can we be dumb? Dumb could not come this far.”

Our children don’t want to change, and how well does it work to manipulate someones behavior when they are against it? It’s a no go. Their brain has literally been wired to distrust, and to protect themselves at all costs. We will have to change the patterns in their brain so they can bond with us, then we can help them with their negative behaviors. Bruce Perry has done some research that has scientifically proven that when a child is neglected, or has been through trauma, connections are not made in their developing brain. The neurotransmitters are not connected. A neglected/traumatized child’s brain looks different than a child’s who has been loved and accepted. This brain connectivity begins in-utero!

Rocking (rhythmic movement) has been proven to connect these neurotransmitters. Brain scans were taken of children prior to rocking and afterwards, and the results were visible. Physical healing takes place when a child is rocked.

When we implemented rocking with our daughter we were surprised by the results. Prior to rocking, Payton had major sleep issues, not all of them were solved by rocking, but many were. It was a tremendous first step. You can see a previous post about how rocking helped us here. Before we began rocking, Payton would yell at me without thinking. She had a temper and was unable to control herself. After only a couple days of rocking, she yelled at me, caught herself, and began talking to me nicely.   This was a tremendous turn around, one that I had never witnessed with her. We still had behavior issues to work through, but many were taken care of with rocking.

You might be thinking, “Rock your child and they’ll begin to bond? But what if my child isn’t an infant, I have a seven-year-old.” The answer to the first question is, yes! The answer to the second is found in an amazing story I heard about a nine-year-old by who was not attached to either of his adoptive parents. He had been in their home for more than four years, and he had a disdain for his adoptive mother, and could barely tolerate his adoptive father. A therapist recommend the dad begin rocking the boy daily for a minimum of fifteen minutes per day. He did this, and the boy allowed him to do so. After rocking for a while, the young child began to make eye contact with his mom, which had never happened before. He finally allowed his mom to rock him and he bonded with both of them.

Try rocking your child by holding them facing you, it is recommended that they be rocked a minimum of fifteen minutes per day. You want rocking to be a positive time together, remember the goal is attachment. If you have a child that throws tantrums and fights you on everything, you can try Paradoxical Parenting to get them to rock. If you can tell that your child is completely uncomfortable rocking, you can begin with Floortime and Parallel Play which I lay out in my post let’s bond already – creating attachment with an adopted child and move to rocking as your child feels more comfortable with you.

rocking chairsYou can also begin by rocking your child for two minutes, then add a minute every day. If you have an older child that understands rewards, you can tell them they will get a small reward for rocking. I wouldn’t recommend candy, as I try to stay away from connecting food to behavior, whether removing it because of negative behavior, or rewarding with it because of positive behavior. I say small reward because you will have to continue it every time you rock for a while. Maybe they can play an educational iPad game when they’re done, or they can pick out a stuffed animal to sleep with. Also remember that for some of our children even rewards don’t matter. I can’t tell you how many “special” things our daughter has lost over the years. Until our daughter made a connection with us, rewards and consequences didn’t have the outcome we were looking for.

The study done on bonding wasn’t specific to rocking, but to rhythmic movement. Although, it is my opinion and the opinion of others that rocking makes a quicker connection between a parent and child – you are holding them close, you have bodily contact, you can make eye contact if your child will let you, and you are doing it together. There are other ways to get rhythmic movement into your child’s daily routine. You can use a trampoline, they even have smaller indoor ones (both of our kids LOVE the trampoline), swinging (you can even use a boy swinginghammock and rock together), or swimming. Friends of ours adopted their daughter from foster care when she was twelve-months-old and once they started her with horseback riding lessons, she never stopped.  Her family believes this is the rhythmic movement she craves and has helped her deal with issues that arise in her life.

I hope you can try rocking, and until your child is able to rock with you, or is far too large to rock, try rhythmic movement of any kind (can be combined with rocking). Let me know how it works, I would love to hear about it!

*Note: I shared the link about our children’s hurting brains looking different. This does not mean our children aren’t intelligent. It can actually mean that our children do possess a great intelligence, you can read more about it in, The Intelligence Behind a Hurting Child.

Following are some more posts related to attachment:
attachment in adoption: the first things we need to know

let’s bond alreay: creating attachment with an adopted child

play = bonding time