How do we discipline our 8-year old (adopted) son? He is extremely angry, at times violent and aggressive and has been since about 4 years old. We have seen therapists, psychiatrists, medical doctors, etc. We have tried it all, from medicine to discipline (time out, spanking, withdraw privileges, positive reinforcement, redirection, isolation (in his room), writing sentences, physical activities) and none of it makes any difference to him.
Up until recently, all his anger has been directed only at us, his parents. However, this week he hit a boy with his hat, on the school bus. The consequence is a warning from the principal. Next time he'll be removed from the bus and no longer allowed to ride it. He is extremely smart, socially immature, and very much likes to be in control - of everything, even us. We need help.
Adopted and angry
Dear Adopted and Angry,
I find that it is helpful to break things down into manageable chunks when overwhelmed by parenting problems. You have very complex case here that involves multiple issues, some of which are workable and others that may not be. Here are the various issues I read in your question: Adoption, child development, aggressive behavior, professional help, behavioral modification, parenting hurts, peer relationships, control issues, and desperation.
I threw that last one in there as semi-jest, semi-truth. You are obviously very frustrated and at the end of your proverbial rope. This permeates everything else you have said and everything you will try to do with your son. This frustration may sabotage your efforts and shorten your ability to fully modify his behavior. You are using some great behavior modification techniques (time out, withdraw privileges, reinforcement, etc.) and I would urge you to continue to use them. But, behavior modification has limitations, especially if you are already experiencing your limitations with your son. In fact, it is possible you are reinforcing him negatively to continue.
The biggest issue you have listed, in my opinion, is adoption. Adopted children come into our families wounded on a spiritual or deeply psychological level. Some people call this the "Mother Wound." The feeling of being "given up" for adoption, even in the best of circumstances, to the best of families, is a difficult issue for children to cope with. This can be even more difficult if there are other biological children in the home and if there is a dramatic physical difference between children. It is also affected by how adoptive parents handle the whole adoption issue with their adoptive children.
Another related issue with adoptive children is genetics. Parents often don't know a lot about an adoptive child's family history and genetic make-up. Mental illness in your child's family tree may be a big, unknown factor here, and this may not be about behavior, per se, but a genetic problem. If you haven't already investigated this, I would encourage you to do so. It will help you and the professionals you are working with you to deal with this problem.
Given that you already have a host of professional helpers on your side and you have a good knowledge of behavioral techniques, I would suggest that you focus more on helping your child heal from the spiritual or psychological wounds of adoption. Anger is rarely the real issue in children. What's under all that rage? What fuels his aggression? How can you answer the main issue of hurt and loss that makes him resistant to change?
What we are really talking about is love. True, unconditional love. The fact that he targets you, his parents, with his rage demonstrates his sense of safety. I know this is confusing but angry/aggressive children usually vent at those they know will not abandon them. And adoptive children are highly sensitive to abandonment. You must reassure, love, and embrace him every time he attacks. This is the only way you can answer his violent test ("Will you give me up, too, or will you keep me no matter how 'unlovable' I am?"). Let your behavior modification set the limits on his behavior and let the embrace of your arms be the limits on his spirit).
Ron Huxley, LMFT