Maintaining Perspective

With biological children, discipline or behavior correction begins at an appropriate age and is part of the process of transitioning from an infant to a toddler to a preschooler. However, if your child has not been with you since birth, it’s important to remember that she missed certain experiences in the beginning of her life. To ensure proper brain development, a different approach may not only be wise, but necessary. Keep reading for expert advice on how discipline your child if she was adopted later than birth.

toddler in timeout chair

At a certain age, you must begin working with your child on appropriate behaviors. Nobody wants to be the parent of that kid -- the one who never listens. However, if your child hasn't been with your family since infancy, you should consider how you shape and correct her behaviors. Keep reading for expert advice from Katie Prigel Sharp, LMSW, an adoptive parent, social worker and co-owner of Heart of the Matter Seminars.

Early experiences and brain development

"When you adopt an older infant, a toddler or a preschooler, there are a lot of missed experiences," says Prigel Sharp. She explains that the first year of childhood is about a baby having her needs met and receiving help with emotions. "We give babies what they need! We forget that when children come home [at older ages], they may not have had those same early life experiences."

What does that have to do with discipline? A lot, actually. Babies' brains are constantly developing, but when they miss experiences, their brains don't develop in the manner that a typical baby's does. As an adoptive parent, you have to help your child's brain "catch up." Prigel Sharp suggests, "Go back and provide those experiences they missed. Not because it's a nice thing to do, but because it helps develop their brains so they can actually utilize more discipline down the road."

More than just extinguishing behaviors

Prigel Sharp reminds parents not to become hung up on the behaviors themselves. "It's so much more than just extinguishing certain behaviors," she explains. "We're building internal skills that will allow our children to make good decisions." Basically, you don't want your child to behave solely because you tell her to -- although, of course, there is always a time and place for "because I said so!" Ultimately, you want to instill impulse control, the ability to choose right from wrong and self-regulation. These require proper brain development, which is why many experts recommend more parental involvement in discipline.

Discipline techniques

Prigel Sharp notes that it is less about technique and more about understanding what you want to accomplish. You will be most successful if you understand why some behaviors might be present, as well as if you consider the best way to address them, given your child's unique history.

One tool is the "time in." "We encourage parents to provide boundaries in a way that maintains connections while doing it," she says. Time ins can vary in different families and even in different situations within the same family, but basically, if your child is having trouble regulating or is throwing a fit, bring her close to you. Remove her from the situation and hold her. The concept is the same as a timeout: time to calm down and regain control, but instead of her doing it alone, you are there to offer support. She is connected to and engaged with you, something she may have missed out on during the early months of her life. As Prigel Sharp says, "The timeout timer doesn't know when your child is regulated, but you do. The timeout chair can't regulate your child, you can help do that."

Of course, there is a probably a place for timeouts, too! As a parent, you'll find the balance. Just be mindful of what you want to accomplish through discipline -- a child who makes good decisions and behaves because she wants to, not just because there are consequences. If you are struggling, talk to your social worker or pediatrician. You won't be the first -- or last -- adoptive parent to benefit from advice and guidance.

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