Article Title

Psychomotor Agitation with the Anti-Social Content in Internationally Adopted Children and Adolescents


Boris Gindis, Ph.D.

Posted Date



Psychomotor Agitation (PMA) is a series of unintentional and purposeless motions that stem from mental excitation and anxiety of an individual.

A child afflicted with complex childhood trauma (having Developmental Trauma Disorder - DTD) has a distorted Central Nervous System (CNS) processing with major deficit in self-regulation of emotions and overt behavior. This child is easily frustrated and tends to accumulate tension related to this frustration. In certain situations, usually in familiar, structured, and monitored circumstances with an authority figure in sight and capable of managing the child's behavior, these children can for some time preserve control of their behavior. However, when tension is mounting, the ability to sustain the outburst diminishes, and the child releases tension through physical agitation that may take form of the a-social actions: physical or verbal aggression and damage of property/things. This psychomotor agitation is mostly unintentional and purposeless and stems from the traumatized child's anxiety. Inner tension is a feeling of nervousness, and an overwhelming mood discomfort. This drive makes purposeless actions practically unavoidable, almost compulsory for a child. For a by-standee it is impossible to empathise with or even understand the tension that is so extreme that it forces movement, but this is what happens.

By releasing tension through motor restlessness, the child experiences relief in spite of making his or her life miserable by often hurting other people and destroying property. They sometime laugh and smile in the midst of their destructive actions or when they are reprimanded or punished. This famous "orphanage smile" is reported by many parents and clinicians and is extremely frustrating for adults who live and work with traumatized children.

It's important for parents and school personnel to realize that this behaviour does not have purpose and does not have "triggers". It has inner dynamic dictated by the child's nervous system and is relatively free from the environmental influences. It may start "out of the blue", it may disappear for several hours to several days, and re-appear again without visible causes. That is why the traditional behaviour modification techniques and programs are often not successful with this type of conduct: nothing serves the purpose of "attracting attention" or "avoiding an assignment": it's just a tension release.

The question remains why this psychomotor agitation is released in such an anti-social manner; with physical aggression against peers, siblings and parents, with destruction of property, with violation of societal norms and school regulations? Young post-institutionalized children just do not know any other ways of releasing this tension, and one of the methods of preventing PMA anti-social nature is to teach them socially acceptable ways to discharge it.

Treating psychomotor agitation with anti-social content when it starts is hardly possible until the child is exhausted and the excitation of their CNS subsides (similar to tantrums that are a specific case of psychomotor agitation). However, it is possible to prevent PMA through relaxation techniques, attention redirection, and verbal interactions before the cycle starts.
What can be done in the school to address this issue?

Behavior Improvement Plan (BIP)

Traditional behavior modification strategies (a system of rewards and punishment) that rely on self-control, presume willfulness and require an age-appropriate level of maturity and responsibility are likely to be ineffective or even impossible in preventing or controlling PMA. On the other hand, the strategies that do not presume self-control and do not put undue weight on behavioral slip-ups, which are suited to the child's level of emotional maturity and decrease their level of stress, will be more effective.

Traditional behavior modification programming often used in the school system, may not be effective for children with developmental trauma disorder, because constant "evaluation" of a person with emotional trauma perpetually puts this person in defensive state or in the state of anxiety, which leaves them feeling unsafe and thus unable to learn and socialize in the age-appropriate manner. Based on my experience working with internationally adopted children, I advocate for a trauma-informed approach, which is different from traditional behavioral methods. Social connectedness instead of reward-punishment methodology should be applied to aim at creating an environment that is proactive in preventing escalation of the emotional distress.

In practical terms, this should be a system of classroom and school-wide accommodations, including special crisis prevention and de-escalation techniques. Behavior Improvement Plan (BIP) should include teaching of alternative positive behavior, such as means of calming down. When dealing with a traumatized child, the focus should be on connection, not control. When reprimanded, a traumatized child may become further frustrated and stressed, which will escalate defiant behavior. Instead, when feeling frustrated, the child should be allowed to talk about his/her feelings of frustration and injustice and the listener should be able to look at the situation from the child's perspective.

The Behavior Improvement Plan (BIP) should include at least three sections:

  • Implement proactive interventions - for example, using a "frustration card": the child will be taught to show a card that he/she can use to signal feelings of frustration. After showing the card, he/she will be removed from the frustrating situation. The child will use a "Finish Later" folder or box to be used when he/she is not done with an assignment or project on time. Still other means of proactive interventions could be used if these are not in violation of school rules and regulations.
  • Teach alternative and adaptive behavior - strategies for calming down, such as breathing, counting, walking/stretching, etc. A child should be trained in self-regulatory scripts such as: "big deal/little deal," "choice/no choice," "plan A/plan B." Visual reminders are provided so that ultimately the child will be able to become more flexible rather than getting stuck in negative thoughts, getting frustrated and having a meltdown.
  • Use reactive Interventions - for any situation in which a child may present danger to her/himself and others: e.g. distracting the child from the frustrating situation, using calming techniques, removing them from the place of an incident.

Implementing Behavior Improvement Plan (BIP) we should always have in mind that our goal is to develop self-regulation in the child in order to effectively address PMA. A substantial part of BIP should be the Zones of Regulation methodology. This technique was initially developed by the occupational therapist Leah Kuypers and now is wildly used by school counselors and therapists who work with children lacking self-regulation skills (also called "executive functions").

The Zones of Regulation methodology classifies states of arousal into four easily identified color-coded zones: the Red Zone, where emotions are so intense and overwhelming, that the person feels out of control; the Yellow Zone, where emotions are not as extreme and a person has some control; the Green Zone, a calm state where the person feels focused, alert, in control of the emotions; and the Blue Zone, a state of relaxation, reduced alertness (this state is counter-productive for learning).

The zones can be explained much as we would explain traffic signs. Red means stop. Yellow is a warning to slow down and be cautious. Blue is like a rest area off the freeway, a place where we can stop, take a break, and get re-energized. Green means we're good to go. Within the course of 15 to 18 sessions, children learn ways to identify their different states of arousal and capacity for emotional control. Children who previously struggled when asked to explain how they feel now have a vocabulary for doing so. Children also learn about different tools for moving from one zone to another, including tools for staying in the green zone, a zone we need to be in to function well in class.

The Zones curriculum also provides practice in other emotion self-regulation strategies as well, including situation modification and cognitive change. For example, lessons teach children to recognize personal triggers that typically send them into yellow and red zones. Then they practice ways of identifying and preparing for triggers beforehand. This way they can prevent themselves from losing control in situations where losing control has occurred in the past. In order to encourage children to take more ownership of their self-regulation skills, Kuypers also incorporates a number of cognitive behavioral strategies designed to increase positive self-talk, self-monitoring, and self-management.

One big advantage of Zones of Regulation methodology is that it focuses particular attention on teaching the self-regulation skills necessary for making and keeping friends. Children learn how their reactions in different zones affect others, including other children at school. They also practice recognizing other people's facial expressions and how these different facial expressions relate to different zones people are in. Children become more skilled at appreciating other people's moods and emotions. In teaching social skills, The Zones of Regulation methodology is intended for anyone who works with students K-12 struggling in area of self-regulation.

You can learn more about Zones of Regulation by logging on to the website or reading Leah Kuypers' book (which contains a CD ROM that includes reproducible visuals and handouts related to lessons): "The Zones of Regulation: A Curriculum Designed to Foster Self-Regulation and Emotional Control" (2011, Social Thinking Publishing,


Boris Gindis, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist
Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment and Remediation (BGCenter)

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Article Title

The Money Is In The Drawer, Or Is It? Thoughts About Stealing


Jeltje Simons

Posted Date



We all know what the ultimate consequence is when people take things which do not belong to them.
This is on the back of my mind when I get a call from my child's teacher who found a banknote in his pocket, or when I dig out his pockets and toys I have never seen roll out. When I doubt myself if biscuits I had purchased yesterday are missing. Is it conscious stealing, or just an act of a toddler inside the delayed child, or the effects of neglect? One thing is sure: it is a bit of everything, but there is a problem if your money goes missing, regardless of the reason.

It appears that the hands of my child are "not connected" to his brain at times. There are some coins laying on the kitchen table and before I am even fully aware, those are in his pocket. That quick! I just witness the proof that I had a good night sleep, otherwise I would not even have time to notice!

How does the world react on young kids who have some 'cute factor' and steal? The world does not help much: I send the boy back with the candy bar that he took and then I get very annoyed when the cashier says: 'It does not matter'. Maybe she says this because she thinks I feel bad about it, maybe because he gives the impression of a really young child. But she gives the wrong message and it does matter. The message for the child who steals should not be a downplay or excuse. It is a serious problem that needs attention.

It starts like this: your newly adopted child has just come home, and most days are challenging as that is how most older child's adoptions begin. It is actually a huge shock to the household to make a child who is biologically not your own a member of your family. Older children who have lived in institutions, who do not know what a family is, those children do not know how to behave in this family; all they know are the behaviours that served them well in the orphanage.

Most children are super sweet until you want them to do something on your terms. If you read about this before adopting, you might think: "Great if that is the only problem my future child has, I can live with that, how difficult can it be? Those POB's are learned behaviours, so with loads of love and a bit of structure this will surely not going to be a huge problem." The reality is that in most children adopted at an older age those behaviours are deeply engrained. I feel passionate about older child adoptions, those children deserve to be adopted. But post-orphanage behaviours are serious and real, the chances that your new child will disappoint you and will be stealing and lying are very realistic. And the chance that this is 'just a phase' is small. These are survival and learned behaviours, and with the right interventions the child can overcome his feelings of entitlement, but very rarely these are quick fixes. The neglect those children have suffered was also not caused in a day, these were years of neglect and the effects are not magically going 'away' because the child is adopted now. Changing them can take years. Some behaviours become personal characteristics and may always stay with the child. Their neediness, their longing for attention, their trauma can last a lifetime; the task might change over the years from changing the child to teaching the child to live with their limitations.

Your first notice that things go wrong

In my case I was sort of sure I had a 100 in my wallet, but I was doubting myself, I was stressed, had just adopted a new child, so I blamed my own mindset for this confusion. It took a week or 2 before I found 86 or so outside under the trash container. Now I began to realize that this was the work of the new inhabitant. The first cracks appeared in my attitude to always believe you little boy, to always trust you dear child.

Does he trust me to feed him? He takes and hides food which he then eats, including cat biscuits. I have never tasted them but he tells me these biscuits are nice and taste like fish! If you walk into your child's room and there is a smell you can't identify and a few days later it is so strong that it is no longer difficult to locate (rotten stashed away food), then you know what I am talking about. I have always fed my boy consistently, he is always allowed to eat fruit or bread if we are longer than 30 minutes away from dinner time, but we are in the third year after the adoption and he still hoards food given a chance. So feeding him plenty during 3 years is not enough to help him stop eating cat food and hiding food. It is another example of a POB and it relates to trust. No quick solutions. I presume at the moment he can trust me more, he will stop.

The attitude of the parent

Lying is also a big problem; the reality is that I can only believe my child 50% of the time. It is sad when you think about it, but this is unfortunately not uncommon in adopted children. The first important thing when dealing with a child who steals and lies is the attitude of the parent. It is good to reflect what this behaviour does to you. Does it make you very angry? Do you feel helpless? Do you overreact? Does it make you fearful for the future? These are all normal reactions. It is easy to say 'stay neutral,' but nearly impossible if the child steals in the family or you have to deal with people who are affected by your child's actions.

Stealing and lying are related to trust. Living with an individual who steals makes everyone in the household suspicious. You have to start over and give the child new chances of course, but keep in mind you are likely to be disappointed time after time. Learn to step back a few steps and do not make this your emotional struggle, disappointment, and shame - you did not cause this. The child has problems, but you have to deal with them even if those behaviours are going against every grain of decency you grew up with.

Young children often do not grasp the concept that the item belongs to someone or that the items must be paid for in a shop. By 4 years of age most biological children understand 'this is mine, that is yours'. Not necessarily adopted children. Older ones may have understanding of ownership but not be able to control the impulsive behaviour; they may be led by others and want to impress. Diagnoses, mental health problems and disorders do not really matter: stealing is stealing. Never use your child's problems as an excuse for stealing, there are many people in jail who have very serious mental health problems, but society is not that forgiving and those problems do not prevent jail if the young adult still thinks like a toddler.

You can pretend you do not know that your younger child steals, you can make excuses, but you lose valuable time when things could have been turned around: the more often the child does something, the more it becomes a habit.

Keep thinking: prevention!

I believe preventing stealing as much as possible is important as it is easier to learn a new behaviour than forget a learned one. Not only will you break the old habit, but a good behaviour replaces stealing when you work on prevention; then the parents themselves are more relaxed, which is important too: being often angry and disappointed is not good for their child's self esteem ("another thing I did wrong"). Of course it is very wrong, and you are justified to be angry, but they often do not learn a lot from the emotions of their parents.

We want to prevent stealing, and there is no one method fitting all situations. A lot depends on the child's age and developmental stage, and the time spent in orphanage before adoption.

  • Children under 5 do not need any interventions other than simple straightforward explanation of the situation at hand, for example: you first are pointing at daddy then at the child and saying: "Those glasses are daddy's, not yours". It is good to practice this often during the day as well: "This is mine (point at yourself), and that is yours" (point at the child). It is especially important for children with developmental delays and new language learners. They need to know that everything belongs to someone.
  • Teach the child at young age to ask permission to play with toys that are not his, do not allow the child to search drawers etc. Yes, your home is now the child's home, but only the child's bedroom and dedicated places (like toy baskets in the lounge, one shelf of books, etc) in the house are the child's territory. They need to learn to respect the other people's belongings, as they do not know boundaries and they will be going through all what is yours if there are no rules. And even with rules in place, the concept that this is not allowed is often difficult to understand for the former orphanage resident: remember that most orphans have not had their own belongings, and if they had these things would be easily taken or broken by other children.

The trust issue

How beautiful to trust the child! In most cases the birth children learn that trust is important, and when they break it mummy or daddy are disappointed; the children do not like this as they want to please the parent.
Now adopted children with their wobbly attachment and impulsive behaviours. Often they do not fully understand what trust is and this needs to be explained time after time. I do it like this with my son:

  • I often say if my child lies: "I have no idea if you are telling me the truth. And this is a problem as one day something very important happens, you tell me about it, and I will think it is not true."
  • We talk about trust. I asked him to give me an example of not trusting someone and he came up with one occasion in his class. I asked: "Why don't you trust them?" And he told me: "Because they say 'look outside the classroom' and I looked and there was nothing there".
    I told him they were joking but also that it was a very good example. As now he does no longer look outside if they tell him to. So he cannot trust what they say.
  • I link his example back to him telling that I also cannot trust him because he lies so much. We talk about how he can earn trust back by doing or saying everything truthfully, by listening and following up with the requests, by answering politely and honestly, by making good choices.

How to deal with the younger children stealing?

  • Things need to be returned by the child (with the parent present), the child needs to apologize and a consequence should follow. Something needs to be done for the person they hurt by stealing. The 5-year-old can make a drawing, the 9-year-old should do more serious work like gardening, mowing the lawn, doing errand, etc.
  • If the child has stolen from a shop, the item should be returned. When the child gets older it might be good to call the shop in advance to avoid an assistant who tells her 'it is OK'.
    I have heard people suggest not to bring the stolen thing back together with the child because you will shame the child. I do not agree, I would be happy if my child felt shame, as that would be a healthy reaction. I prefer that he now learns that stealing comes with consequences (facing what you have done, bringing stuff back, apologizing, etc) instead of facing serious consequences as an adolescent or young adult. A good prevention, of course, would be not to allow children who are still in the process of learning about entitlement being unsupervised in shops.
  • If the child has stolen from a friend, the natural consequence would be that the child cannot play at other people's house.
    For some children letting the child from whom they stole choose something out of their own toys might have an impact even if their attitude is one of 'I don't care, they can have every toy I own, I do not want toys anyway'.
    Other children can of course play at the child's home as you are there to supervise, or the child can play outside with other children.
  • Be open with friends and family members, tell them your child has trouble understanding what belongs to him and what does not, and he is learning to respect other people's property. Ask them not to leave small items like coins laying around when your child visits. Give school permission to search the child.
  • Do not feel ashamed on behalf of the child.
  • Stitch pockets of the jackets and other clothing: if the child does not have places to hide stolen goods it becomes more complicated.
  • Make the child's bedroom absolutely clutter free. At the moment my child has no lockers: all storage space is open. Just shelving with look through plastic boxes to store toys and even clothes. This saves me the frustration of having to search his bedroom. It is also very easy to keep tidy, as one look is enough to see if he cleared away his toys. The boxes are marked, so there is no confusion what should be in which box; they are also easily emptied out on the floor to be sorted by the child again if everything is mixed up.
    Check your child's bedroom daily.
  • I have chosen not to give my child pocket money at the moment; this makes it easier for me to monitor as there is no confusion where the money comes from if he has some.
    I have tried for a while to give pocket money but it became all consuming for him. And it took about 2 weeks before the piggybank was half full, and he only got 2 coins every week!
    I may start giving him pocket money again when he has some money concept and understands numbers up to a 100. But then good administration needs to accompany the piggybank.

Training and letting the child experience the good (no stealing) behaviour

It's important to consistently train the child in proper behaviour until it becomes his new habit. For example, the child is touching everything in a shop, and from touching letting the item slide in a pocket is a small step. So now you want the child to hold his hands behind his back while walking through a shop (as pockets are already stitched up), or push a trolley, or carry a basket: you are working on making this behaviour his new habit while visiting a shop. It took about 60/70 corrections for my child to do this habitually while being in a shop. So do not get discouraged if your child does not do what you want her to do straight away. Just keep trying.

  • Explain the rule: "If you 'find' money you return it to me," and create practice moments,
    leaving some money out sometimes to see what the child chooses to do. My son gives it back more often than he takes it now.
  • Talk or read them stories about children/people who steal and the consequences that follow: no trust, no friendship, police involvement, etc.
  • Talk about being in a situation when something is stolen from them. Your bike gets stolen, how would you feel? How will it be for you not having your bike? (Walking, having to buy a new one and not having money for something else, etc, etc).
  • If talking does not work, let the child experience how it is to have something stolen from him. Organize that something from the child gets 'stolen', then you have something personal to talk about. This item should never be 'returned' to make the child aware how they hurt others by taking stuff. Remove something with value for the child.
  • Besides normal family life it is also important to spend time with your child 1:1 even if it is only 20 minutes every day. You do not need to make the child aware of this, just choose a quiet moment every day when you are alone with them. Forget about the dish washer; washing and drying the dishes together is an excellent moment for 1:1 time. Sing together or play word games: "Who knows more animals starting with letter 'P', etc." It is often easier to talk when you are doing something simple. No heavy stuff, just talk about day to day subjects that interest the child. Create those positive moments.
  • Talk mainly about stealing as 'taking things that do not belong to you', do not call a young child a thief - it is not appropriate and works against reinforcing positive self esteem. Select the stories to read that have clearly defined models like thieves, police, victim etc. - it's easier for you to make a link to the child's stealing and how other people view it.
  • Set up camera or any kind of alarm on the doors if your child is sneaking around the house during the night. I do not recommend motion detectors as my child managed to get out by opening the door very slowly and then going under the sensor. Cheap alarms (like those used to guard windows, with sticky tape to attach) are just fine and easily replaced. They make a lot of noise and I attach 2 on his door to add extra security in case batteries run low.

Working with teenagers who steal

If the teen is at home less than a year, treating him as a much younger child is in most cases appropriate, including using the above measures. They might be 12 or 15 but if they lived for years in orphanage, there are many 'first time' occasions for them too and they need to learn a lot of skills normally acquired at a much younger age. They might not know or have real understanding of the meaning of words like 'trust' or 'responsibility' or 'disrespect' etc. With them it's especially important to prevent stilling from the very beginning of their life at home.

  • If the teen steals out of a shop, the item needs to be returned by them (the parent is there supervising,) and consequences enforced by the shop might follow (ex.: the child is no longer allowed in this shop or police involvement follows). Be neutral about this: this is what happens if you steal. Do not cover up for the child or try to downplay it because it is difficult for them. You need to support the child but not their misguided behaviours. Let them feel they are responsible to earn the trust of the adults around, to make things right again. They need to know you support whatever consequence society gives them.
  • To make sure the child understands the seriousness of the situation, give her work to do at home to earn 5 - 10 times more money than the value of the stolen object.. Give the earned money to the child and then let the teen donate this money to a good cause. Make it understood that until the goods are paid for, there are no 'extras' for the child and they will not be allowed spending pocket money on anything else.
  • Talk with the teen about how stealing from a shop will make every item more expensive. Talk a lot about trust and how she breaks it stealing from friends and family.
  • Do not spoil children by giving them whatever they want. For most teens wearing the 'right' shoes or clothes is important. If you just give them what they want, they might get the impression they are entitled to those things. If they really want something, give them the opportunity to earn the money. It takes a bit of time to get the desired object, but it is good to learn to be patient.
  • Make an arrangement with the teen that the bedroom needs to be tidy every Saturday morning, then ask them to show you the room. Look everywhere if you do not trust them, under the mattress, in drawers, behind curtains, under carpet if there is a bubble, etc. If stealing is a problem, make sure the room is not full of stuff and search daily. Remember: less stuff is better for the child and for you. If stealing becomes less of a problem stop searching the room daily again.
  • Show your feelings and talk with them how you feel about stealing. You want to be able to trust them, you want to believe them, you care about them and love them that is why you are now very disappointed. Do not get extremely angry, do not lose it with them - this will not be productive. But there is nothing wrong with showing feelings.
  • Make sure that your teen has interesting and exciting things to do: sports, music, dance, rock climbing etc. As stealing involves a thrill factor, it is good when they can experience thrill from healthy activities.
  • If your teen is attracted to a wrong crowd, you may need to put boundaries in place to limit or stop contacts. Talk also to the child how to say 'no' to friends.
  • Do not give your teen free internet access, and if they have a mobile phone make sure you know how it works and check often what they are up to. Of course if the child has a mobile or internet access, this can be taken away if misused. If your child has used your credit card to pay for items or games, the money needs to be returned to you. The item has to be returned but if that is not possible, do not give it to the teen, sell it on ebay. There should never be a reward for stealing. Even if they return the money, still do not allow them to have the item. It is your responsibility to lock credit cards and money away, even if it is only to prevent your own frustration.
  • Talk about the repercussions: not only what other people (family or friends) will think, but also the implications of a criminal record. Ask them what they think the problems might be later if they get a criminal record.
  • Encourage finding a job, any small job would be good if the teen learns to work for money and to realize that he/she is not entitled to whatever they fancy, that earning money is an effort.
  • Try to keep the relationship with your child positive, take initiative when you feel the relationship gets strained. You as a parent are the one with more life experience, you are not on the equal footing with your teen. They need boundaries and you need to be their 'leader', not their friend. On the other hand, they have a lot of emotions, feelings, and immature behaviours, so do not be overly critical as that can hurt their feelings and you want to prevent their withdrawal. When you disagree with your teen you might say things you regret later; do not be afraid to say 'sorry' if you overstep boundaries in the heat of a moment and say something hurtful.
  • Teens are very good in turning the truth slightly around, 'I borrowed the ipad', 'I only looked at it, you get it back', 'It is too small for you anyway', etc, etc. Do not buy into those excuses.

Most children who steal also lie so believably, that it is difficult to know the truth. You know deep down the child lies and has taken your watch, you have however not caught him red handed. Of cause it is not good to hand out consequences if you are not sure, but it is also not good for the child to get away with stealing and lying. So if I have a gut feeling my child is lying after stealing something, he gets a consequence, and I go through the steps as if I am 100% sure he did it. This works fine and so far I have not been wrong, and he always admits guilt eventually. However, if I get it wrong one day then I will say: "Sorry that you had to do XXXX and that happened to you, please understand it is very difficult for me to know when you speak the truth and when you are lying, because you say a lot of things that are not true. Now you see how lying gets you into trouble even if it was not your fault this time. Do not lie, because one day something really important can happen and nobody believes you anymore."

Be confident that if the situation does not look good it probably is not good. Observe the child's body language carefully. Do not only look at their face but also at the feet, they do not lie. Read a book about body language if you are unsure what to look for, it is very interesting. My child looks me straight in the face while lying, and makes the falsehood very convincing, yet his body and movement tell a different story.

It is not easy to live with a child who steals, it is a nuisance to have to lock away everything you really value, it is painful to always be on guard. But that is how it is with the child who needs to learn to deal differently with the problems he has. You are not the one who caused these difficulties, but you have to deal with them.


My name is Jeltje Simons and I am a single adoptive mother of 2 boys now age 9 and 14. Both of my children arrived a few weeks before their 6th birthday. Both children have significant special needs. Before my eldest's adoption I worked many years as a nurse in residential settings for children and adolescents with special needs in the Netherlands, Ireland and UK.

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Article Title

Consequences and discipline in an internationally adopted child's upbringing


Jeltje Simons

Posted Date



What is a consequence?

A consequence is a natural fallout of a person's choice, action or inaction. It differs from punishment in that a punishment is a retribution. A punishment is "getting back" at someone, trying to hurt them physically or emotionally in the hope that they will behave as we want them to behave in the future.
It is much easier to learn from natural consequences then from punishment, as punishment makes people afraid to do something, but not necessarily agree that their action was wrong; and it also conveys the idea that hurting another person is OK.

When you park your car on a sidewalk and get a ticket, it is not a retribution, it's a consequence of your poor choice and decision to park the car unlawfully.

What sort of consequences are there?

  • Natural consequences. They happen as a result of the child's behaviour, without the parents' intervention. Natural consequences are implemented by nature, society or another person. Children learn quickly from natural consequences and we should allow them to happen whenever it is safe.

    A natural consequence of refusing to eat is hunger; refusing to put a rain coat on is getting wet, refusing gloves is getting cold hands, etc. It is our task as parents to keep our children safe, so we have to intervene if the natural consequences are simply too dangerous and need to be prevented. For example, if a child is playing with fire, allowing a natural consequence to happen is likely to get him burned or even the house burns down. The ultimate natural consequence for adults who get involved in criminal activity is that their freedom is taken away by society.

    Natural consequences are best and preferable whenever you can use them. You need to keep in mind what you want the child to learn from the consequence and prevent consequences from becoming a punishment.
  • Logical consequences. They happen when the parent steps in to create a consequence. For example, when you ask your child to stop playing that electronic game and he refuses, you take the game away for the rest of the day. Or your teenage daughter comes home an hour late and now she is not allowed out in the evening as she broke the rule and will have no time to finish her homework.

    Logical consequences can be implemented in a positive or negative way. It is always better if you can present a consequence in a positive light, and try to avoid negativity whenever you can.

Examples of positive presentation of consequences:
    - After you finish your homework you may play outside.
    - After you fold washed clothes you may watch TV.
Examples of negative presentation of consequences:
    - If you are not home before dinner, you are not allowed to go to the swimming pool tonight.
    - If you do not help with the dishes you will not go to see your friend.

Consequences applied in the wrong setting do not work well

The use of consequences can be a great tool in parenting, but they are unlikely to work if certain conditions are not in place; if you are in endless power struggle with your child; if you feel that the child can make you very angry (you were such a laid back person before this adoption); and if you are constantly stressed out hoping that the next tantrum just does not happen. Then it is easy to enter a vicious cycle: the parent asks the child to do something, the child refuses, this makes the parent angry or unsure what to do next, a consequence is given, the child's behaviour becomes more oppositional as she goes into a personal power struggle with the parent and sees the parent as the cause of the problems, etc. When a child is confused by vague guidance, in this environment consequences become another reason for them to fight the parent. This has to be prevented.

Now here is the question: how can parents create an environment where there is less reason for their children to withhold compliance and become oppositional? The answer is in being creative about how you address your child and how empathetic you are with the child's feelings without being overwhelmed by them, how well you can stay in control over your own emotions and think before you speak. Here are some practical examples:

    - The magic word 'no'. For a lot of adopted children the 'no' word works like a red flag for a bull. The child asks a simple question like 'Can I have a candy?' and you answer is 'No, not now', and this is the beginning of a huge drama. Often if you do not use the word 'no' you can prevent strong reactions. This does not mean you gave in, you just use your words more carefully.

    - Other negative reactions like 'do not', 'stop doing that', 'not until ...', 'you cannot do that', etc. can cause the same strong response in children as they perceive the parent as the reason why they can't have or do something. So they may become angry with you, even if this appears totally unreasonable.

It is also easy to become negative reacting on children who constantly provoke their parents or other caregivers. If you can respond more positively, it is likely that the child's reaction will become more accepting.

How can you talk around the 'no' word and still get your message across?

By giving the reason and showing empathy or asking a question to clarify the situation. Examples of how to avoid saying no:

    Child: 'Can I have a candy?'
    Parent: ' It would be so nice if we could eat sweets all day without having to worry about our teeth, you can have an apple if you are hungry.'

    Child: 'Can I have some yoghurt? (an hour before dinner).
    Parent: 'You can have yoghurt, when do we eat yoghurt? We eat yoghurt after dinner'.

    Child is throwing toys around the room.
    Parent: 'Play with your toys nicely, it would be a shame if they break'.

    Child: 'Can I play outside?'
    Parent: 'You can go outside if there is time left after you do your homework'.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me

This saying from 1862 is well known and I presume there is some truth in it, but how does this relate to parenting the traumatized children? Swearing, endless talking back and talking disrespectfully to parents are not uncommon when children are traumatized. The question arises how important it is to address those behaviours? After all do they 'do not hurt me'? I believe it is very important as it is not only not nice when you are being called a 'fat hippo', or a 'stupid cow', or something much worse; it does hurt and is not promoting healthy attachment between the parent and child.

We can understand why a child directs anger or frustration at the safe parent, but letting the child be totally disrespectful is counterproductive because there is a very thin line between verbal and physical aggression. It should be avoided at all costs as that is often the reason for adoptions to fail, when children end up in boarding schools and foster care.

Teach children to talk respectfully from the start, to use 'please' and 'thank you', talk with 2 words 'yes mom', 'no mom' etc). This is very easy to enforce by basically looking at the child but not reacting if the child uses one word. Or making the comment: 'I am sure you can say this in a nicer way'.

My children are magnets when it comes to learning bad language and swearing but I never ignore any of it. My children learned 'Fxxx you' in the school bus including sticking up the middle finger. I asked them what it means, and they did not really know. I told them 'In this house we do not use those words; if you do, you cannot be in the house. So next time I hear it, I would send them outside but not just outside. They may as well make themselves useful there, so they will get some sort of 'job'. Piling up fire wood, clearing snow from the pathway, sweeping out the stable, mowing grass, whatever needs to be done.

For the first time it may last 15 minutes; if they continue using those words, the time spent outside will be longer. This would make me happy as work gets done. I will tell them how happy I am with this good job and then joke 'please use those words tomorrow again'. If they say they will use it again I say that is OK as more work gets done outside. If they say they will not swear, I ask them why. If they say they do not like piling wood, I know the message came through.

The children need to feel safe and trust that the parent is in charge and will make decisions in the child's best interest. I do not know how a child will perceive a parent who allows them to be out of control with words. I think it makes them feel unsafe. So I believe that we should start correcting children at a very early moment when they may say things that are not 'that bad really' but slightly disrespectful. In many cases this will prevent escalating verbal attacks.

If children say hurtful things like 'I hate you' (or the latest one here 'I am going to kill you'), I do not go into a long explanation how this hurts me, etc, etc. I just say 'I am sorry you feel this way, but this is not the way we talk to each other; you want to say 'I do not like that you make me clean up my bedroom' (or whatever you think has made them cross).

If 'I hate you' (or something else that I disapprove) continues then I make a rule that they are not allowed to use those words and if they choose to use those words they have to do a task that I normally do. In this time I can read a magazine or relax close by, so I can supervise the child if needed to make sure the job is done properly. My youngest would especially go out of his way to say things in the hope to get my reaction or hurt my feelings. I do not take it personally as he is just a hurt little boy with feelings all over the place, how can I take what he says for the face value?

He wants to kill me.......... really? He starts crying when he thinks he lost me in a shop.
He hates me............. ? I wonder why he never packs his bag if I tell him he is free to leave when he says he no longer wants to live here.

He says cruel things like cutting off the cats ears, how he will hurt me or domestic animals, how he will start another fire, etc. I do not ignore those comments as I am well aware that he is able to do those things, but I try to get him to think through the consequences, try to make him think how this would be for the other person or animal, try to get him realize how he would feel if he gets hurt. All without any judgment or emotional reaction from me. I do scream to myself sometimes 'NOOOOOOOOOO', but I never show it to him.

Use less words

The use of just a few words is often more powerful than a long talk. Does the child really understand what you want of him? Often we explain and then explain again, micromanaging every step of the way. My oldest child has autism and I learned very quickly to say only the essentials as he would just ignore me if I give too many instructions at once or put in unnecessary information.
Instead of saying: 'It is time for dinner; I bet you are hungry; go and wash your hands and come to the table; do not touch the hot pan on the table and get some placemats - I forgot to put them', I say: 'It is dinner time, wash your hands and sit down at the table'.

When you parent the challenging children, it is very important to communicate clearly, after all you want them to listen. If you give too much irrelevant information, or give instructions over and over, or you use language the children do not understand, it goes in one ear and comes out the other!

Of course it is important not to say things you can never work through, for example 'no TV for a year'. This will never happen and you make yourself a liar in the child's eyes. Think before you speak, consider the child's feelings; and if it all goes wrong, learn from the mistakes you made. Think through and evaluate how you could have reacted differently, where you could have intervened earlier so the situation would escalate less.

Time, have plenty of it

When you want your child to do something it is important that you have plenty of time. Even if you have not, you need to give your child the impression you have. For example: you want your child to make the bed, the child knows how to do it and has done this many times before. It's just today he is not in the mood to do it. So now comes the consequence - the child cannot play or leave the house until the bed is made, and do not hurry, we have all day... Just sit it out until the bed is made. In the mean time, natural consequences might kick in as there might be no time left to go to a friend or cycle. While they have a strop refusing to make their bed, do not warn them on other things they will miss out. That just happens, let the consequence be the teacher.

If the child refuses to make the bed before going to school, just leave it and when he comes back home ask them to make their bed before anything else happens (including drinks and snacks). You could say something like: 'There was not enough time this morning, when you are done making your bed we have tea and biscuits'.

If the child is very stubborn and the bed is still not made but it gets late, then you have to decide enough is enough and put the child to bed, as there is no point in allowing them to become excessively tired. At this point you need to reconsider why this drags on so long. I would just say to the child: 'I am sorry I gave you such a difficult task, I will help you now every morning for the rest of the week'. Then I would do that until the child is very keen to make the bed alone again. Naturally it is not that much 'fun' for him to make the bed together, as it has to be made really well when I supervise it. Of course if the child does it alone, the standards are lower and the job is done much quicker.

Do not fall in the trap of arguing with your child

My youngest child is a star when it comes to trying to argue with me, telling me what I say is not right, knowing it 'better'. Not in a pleasant discursive way but just for the argument. This is a rather common behaviour that has to do with the child attempting to control the adult. Do not fall into the trap of arguing with the child, as it only confirms in their mind that they are 'powerful'. If they attempt it, explain once where you stand, and after that a good saying is: 'we have talked about it, I do not want to talk about this anymore'. Leave the subject at that and ignore any further attempts to engage you into the argument. Another good comment is: 'I love you too much to argue with you'. It is very important that children feel free to express their opinions and thoughts, but when they do it to create power struggles, do not engage with them. Arguing creates a messy situation, and it is not going to be beneficial either to the parent or to the child, just do not go there!

Do not use warnings to warn them over and over again

I advise you to keep warnings to a minimum: often we want so desperately for our children to do well and make good choices that we warn them over and over again. Natural consequences do not give warnings, touch the hot radiator and you get hurt, steal a candy bar and hopefully you get caught. Children like to push boundaries to see how much their parents are willing to tolerate before enough is enough.
So give a warning if you have to, but keep it to a minimum, do not give second, third or tenth's warning, it is a waste of time and the outcome is unlikely to be any better. This too can so easily become a matter of control battle: the child attempts to control what the parent will say by behaving in an undesirable way intentionally. Often children know very well that they do something what is not allowed, so how many warnings does one need? I offer maximum one. Realize also, it is a small step to go from a warning to a threat, which should be avoided in most cases.


It is important to remind children (and not only autistic children) about transitions: 'in 5 minutes we go to the shop', 'after supper you have a shower' etc. I have however never worked with visual time tables as that makes ME feel trapped. What will happen if the time table that was created in advance says we go to swim Saturday afternoon, and I just do not feel like going to swim? Then my child has a meltdown because we do not swim? I prefer a somewhat more flexible approach. Sometimes I will tell my children things quite far in advance, but not if there is a reasonable chance the plan may change. For example, visiting people: it happens so often that visits get changed or cancelled, so I just tell those things an hour or so before we go.

Getting children to listen by giving choices

When a child is reluctant to do what you want them to do it is best not to get into a big fight with them. Give them some control that they so desperately want by presenting them with 2 choices. Examples:

    - Do you want to wear the red or the green t-shirt?
    If the child says he wants the yellow t-shirt, say: 'The choice is the red or the green t-shirt' (no more explanations). Choose for the child if it takes too long to decide.
    - Do you want to go to bed now or when the timer goes off in 15 minutes?
    - Shall we brush the teeth now or after your bedtime story?
    - Do you want to shower now or after the TV program is finished?
    - Do you want to tidy your room or to water the garden?

If you want the child to do something you know they are not keen on, give a choice where the alternative is much more work than what you want them to do: 'Do you want to wash the dishes (your goal, 15 minutes work) or do you want to pull the weeds from the garden (two hours work)?'

Very likely the child will choose the dishes; in case they chose the garden, just accept that and do not talk to them about their poor choice. Again the consequence of their choice will be the teacher. When I started to use this method my youngest always chose the worst option, I think he thought he was punishing me by doing so. So he did a few big tasks, now he is very careful when choosing!

At some point your child is likely to say 'I will not do any of them'. In that case choose for them the less desirable option, and follow this through. Next time the child is likely to make the 'right' choice quickly.

Have high standards

If your child has to do a task, expect them to do it as well as they can. If my child dries the dishes and I find wet cups and plates in the cupboard, it has to be done over again. If my child is sloppy and colours a picture like a 3-year-old, I ask him: 'Can you do that better?'

I noticed with my children that they often do a task but leave something unfinished: a few dirty cups, a stable that is clean except one corner, etc. So this just means that I have to check up after them whenever I ask them to do something. I quickly noticed also that if they get away with doing things half- heartedly, they do even less the next time or drop it altogether. So check and check again after everything they do.

Implementing consequences

When possible, it is best to use natural consequences and then children learn from their own mistakes. In these situations you allow the child to make mistakes and let them experience the consequences. The parent must judge if the consequence is too dangerous, or costly. For example, the child who does not put gloves on gets cold hands (acceptable), but if the temperature is -15C, the result might be a frostbite (not acceptable). If the child leaves their bicycle unlocked in front of the house, the natural consequence can be that the bike gets stolen; this is a problem if the child needs the bike to get to school. You can let him walk, which is acceptable in some cases, but for how long? If the school is 10 km away, this becomes impractical as it just takes too much time, and the child has not much of it left for homework after walking. As a result the parent is the one who has to replace the bike. So in this case I would remind the child to lock the bike or reduce pocket money every time the bike is unlocked, so we already save for a bike in case it gets stolen.

Often natural consequences will occur on their own and there is very little what can be done about it: the child touches a hot pot and gets a burn. The pain of the burn will hopefully teach the child not to do it again.

There is a thin line between giving the child freedom to experience natural consequences and wanting and needing to protect them. A playground is a good example: if your child annoys the other children on the playground (often not deliberately as neglected children typically have poor social skills), he is not going to make friends. This can easily turn into a bullying situation. At this point the child will not learn anything from the natural consequence by being bullied. So often we are in a difficult position having to judge if the child is going to learn from the situation or is he going to get more abused.

Once my child was invited to a birthday party in a community hall (the entire class was invited) and I had to stay with him as he has bleeding issues and can be hurt easily if runs into something that can give internal bleeding. I did not know the other parents at all and if they would have any idea what to do if he falls and bleeds. So there I was to observe him with all his 'friends' (according to the teacher). What I saw did not make me happy: he was actively ignored by the boys, and when he tried to engage they would turn away from him at the first possibility. He was hanging out a bit with the girls who appeared to be nicer. He ended up alone time after time, just standing and looking around if there was someone to engage with. Not one child came up to him, they did not want him in their games. He needed to learn to engage with other children, so should I put him in this situation in his free time and let him feel the pain of not being part of this group or should I protect him? For me it was obvious that an unstructured birthday party where the children were allowed to run wild, no games organized, just feed them cake and put loud music on, was not the right place to learn those skills.

We got another invitation (everyone appears now to use that village hall and invite everyone) and I decided not to let him go through this experience this time. School time is already very difficult for him, why shall I expose him to more 'school' in his free time? In the hope that he becomes accepted by the other children in his class? It is very unlikely to happen as long as his behaviours are so strange in the eyes of the other children. With his mixed maturity, behaving like a 3-year-old most of the time and then occasionally as a 13-year-old, he did not fit into the group of children in his class of 7-8-year-olds, all behaving like 7.5-year-olds! So in this case I do not allow the natural consequence to do its work because I feel it is damaging for my child.

You might not always be able to use natural consequences, and then you have to use logical consequences. These too can be helpful if they are meaningful and chosen with care. It is important that the consequences do not become a punishment, they need to be implemented in a kind and understanding way. If you are feeling really angry, and super frustrated with your child, this might not be the right time to choose a consequence. In that case walk away and calm down first, do not be impulsive when giving consequences.

Do not start with a huge consequence as this may give the child the feeling 'all is lost anyway, I might as well totally mess up now', start with one item if you decide to take something away from the child. Example:

    The child is supposed to do his task (taking the dog for a walk), but he refuses and will not stop playing Nintendo. In this case it would be over the top to take every electronic device and lock them away for a year. You start with taking the Nintendo he is playing and tell him he can have it back after he walked the dog. Then you take it and lock it away until the dog has been out for a walk. It is important to lock it away as long as the child is actively in power struggle with you. They will have to learn that there is no way out once a consequence is given. It should not become a game where the child tries to get it back, then you want it back and something physical develops. I have a wooden toolbox in the kitchen with a padlock. If I take something away from my children, it ends up in the box and there is no possibility to access it until I give it back. This box is also the storage place for lighters, candles, scissors, medicines, etc. Prevention is the key.

When you implement a consequence it is important to follow it through properly otherwise the consequence has no meaning to the child. If your child refuses to eat then the natural consequence will be feeling hungry. Not eating would mean that the child will have to wait until the next meal before eating again. If you feel sorry for your child because he complains about being hungry and you give her something to eat in between meals the consequence has no meaning, all the child learned was to manipulate the parent. It is very important to follow through on what you tell and be consistent.

Relate a consequence directly to the unacceptable behaviour. There is no point taking a favorite toy away from the child who does not eat, as there is no relation between this toy and eating. Examples of consequences that make sense:

    - If your child is asked to vacuum their room and you come in and the floor looks dirty, let them vacuum the hallway and stairs as well, as it just means they need to practice a bit more.

    - When your child wants to play outside but they refuse to put their old clothes on, this means they have to play inside.

    - If your child refuses to put the sound of his radio down then he can listen to his radio in his own room or use head phones.

    - Ask your teenager what they are going to sell (and if they don't you might) in order to pay someone else to do the job they refuse to do.

It is also important to be concise when you give a consequence: do not allow any discussion about it.
Be aware of the child's limitations before you speak, realize that when children are stressed they may 'forget' English words they previously knew. So speak in very simple terms to the child, do not use any more words than strictly necessary.

Using bribes is not helpful, a bribe is a reward in advance, giving bribes is setting yourself up for more trouble.

Try not to pile consequence on top of consequence: initially the child is grounded for the afternoon, then for tomorrow also, then for a week, a month...... The child is not going to take you seriously as you will not be able to follow this through, and it would be an abuse if you did follow through.

And last but not least, do not give up after a few times as some children need to experience the consequence many times before "the penny drops". In order to be effective and having a lasting effect on behaviours you must be consistent over long periods of time. Children learn from consequences that they are in control of making choices, that they are free to make the choice they think is best, but every choice carries a consequence. Some are good, some are better to be avoided. If you are aware how to avoid conflict and how to make your child more compliant, the use of consequences is just an extra tool for the parents to use when necessary. It is all about finding a balance, creating a positive environment for the child and family, understanding the child's emotions, and being a safe parent who is in control of their own feelings.


My name is Jeltje Simons and I am a single adoptive mother of 2 boys age 7 and 12. Both of my children arrived a few weeks before their 6th birthday; my oldest - 7 years ago, my youngest - 18 months ago. Both children have significant special needs. Before my eldest's adoption I worked many years as a nurse in residential settings for children and adolescents with special needs in the Netherlands, Ireland and UK. But soon after my older son’s arrived it became clear that in order to meet his severe needs I could not continue working as a nurse.

Now we live at a remote small holding in Sweden where my boys are actively involved in care for the animals, and love the outdoor life style.

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Difficulties with socialization and peer interaction in older internationally adopted children


Boris Gindis, Ph.D.

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Difficulties with socialization and peer interaction in older internationally adopted children

Surveys of adoptive parents (McCarthy, 2005, National Survey of Adoptive Parents, 2010), research (Meese, 2005, Gunnar, 2007, Bruce, 2009), and my own clinical experience (Gindis, 2006) suggest that a disproportionally large number of internationally adopted (IA) children fail to establish and maintain age-appropriate peer relations during their formative years. It is particularly evident in so-called "older" adoptees, those who were adopted after the age of 5. Difficulties with peer relations are, in a certain way, their "trade-mark": teachers and parents in unison report that too many IA children are less socially successful than their age counterparts. In this article I discuss their difficulties in the process of gaining the knowledge, social skills, and appropriate language that allow for integration into a peer group. This process implies accepting, either consciously or subconsciously, the values, attitudes, norms, social roles and manners of interaction that are prevalent in the group (Ryan, 2000).

The Consequences of Negative Peer Relations

In all periods of childhood, but particularly during the pre-adolescent and adolescent years, peer interactions and friendships constitute the core of socialization and provide a feeling of belonging and self-validation, a context for self-disclosure and emotional security (Ryan, 2000,Thompson & O'Neill, 2001). Peer friendship is a form of attachment, while peer rejection and bullying are psychologically traumatic. Inadequate socialization causes adjustment difficulties, emotional instability, and anxieties. Rejection by peers has a negative effect on a child's self-esteem and contributes to development of loneliness and gloominess (Ryan, 2000, Thompson & O'Neill, 2001, Ronk, 2011). Rejected children often gravitate towards one another, thus escalating each other's depressive or acting out behavior. International adoptees have a tendency to associate with younger children, children with learning or behavior issues, and those who are the least popular (McCartney, 2005, Gindis, 2006). If this issue is not properly addressed, IA children may accumulate the experience of being rejected - a typical background for future emotional and behavioral problems.

The Causes of Peer Rejection

Rejections may occur for a variety of reasons. As noted by their parents, a typical base for rejection of IA children by their peers is their aggressive or odd (quirky, "strange") behavior. Because of their immature and at times challenging behavior, IA children may require more supervision and thus are less likely to be invited to their friends' houses. Adoptive parents, in turn, are concerned about their child's behavior when they cannot monitor it, so they are also reluctant to permit play dates away from home. Rare after-school contacts do not facilitate companionship and offer no opportunities to develop the closeness between friends that encourages self-disclosure and the provision of emotional support. So, what is behind those "atypical" behaviors in IA children and what are its manifestations?

Aside from personal qualities, there are objective circumstances in the former and current environment of IA children which make it difficult for them to acquire new social norms and skills. By the time of adoption, their psychological profile already includes many characteristics that can hinder interpersonal connections. Let's look at these characteristics in order to better understand how deeply they may be ingrained into an IA child's psychological makeup and how to help children overcome these traits after the adoption.

Poor Self-Regulation

Starting life in a dysfunctional family and then experiencing a peculiar combination of rigid routine with ongoing turnover of caregivers and frequent transfers of children within and between institutions creates unpredictability in living arrangements and leads to a tremendous sense of instability and lack of control. With virtually no personal choices and no private possession such as toys or other goods, there is a minimal need for behavioral self-regulation, long-term planning, or goal-directed consistent behavior. And, of course, there are no adults in their lives who can model and support self-regulatory skills. Orphanage residents live in a "reactive" mode, surviving one day at a time. Limitations with self-regulation of behavior and emotions are evident in emotional volatility, difficulty with delaying gratification, making transitions between activities and, most of all, in difficulties with resisting acting on an impulse. Imagine a nine year old with these characteristics trying to engage with a group of peers playing organized sport or working on a group project in the classroom.

Mixed Maturity

The development of many international adoptees was mediated by a chain of traumatic events in their early childhood such as abandonment, hunger, deprivation of basic physical and emotional needs, abuse, institutionalization, and finally adoption to another country. This pattern of development may result in what is known as Developmental Trauma Disorder, adversely affecting the entire maturation of the child by inhibiting the integration of cognitive, emotional, and sensory functions into a cohesive whole. Victims of DTD present with "mixed maturity" (Cogen, 2008): at times they may demonstrate the behavior of an older child and at times of a much younger one. For example, in terms of self-care, alertness to the environment and basic survival skills post-institutional children may be well advanced for their age, but in reaction to stress and frustration they may act like a child several years younger. Their reactions to social events, interpersonal relationships, academic learning, and their overall adaptive behavior are often different from what is expected at their age. As a result, it is difficult for them to interact with peers, to share interests, to participate in conversation, to engage in play, sports, or learning activities. They may be isolated in Scout groups, excluded from different spontaneous "projects," and left out during parties.


One of the most typical features of the emotional make-up of IA children of both genders is a constant state of hyper-arousal - continuous readiness for fight or flight (Gunnar, 2007, Gindis, 2006 & 2008, Bruce, 2009, Merz, 2010). Frequent traumatic events in the past have reinforced the sensitized neural pathways of a child's Central Nervous System for a heightened fear/stress response. With an over-reactive nervous system, objectively typical day-to-day events may be easily misconstrued and cause withdrawal or aggressive and otherwise socially inappropriate responses. Because of the constant state of hyper-arousal, an IA child may present patterns of behavior often associated with ADHD, such as restlessness and impulsivity. Hyper-arousal may result in proactive aggressiveness, edginess, recklessness, and unpredictability in sheared activities. No wonder peers prefer to avoid a hyper-aroused child during common activities.

Post-Institutional Behavior

We all intuitively understand that orphanage life and the kind of circumstances that led children there are the breeding grounds for the specific behaviors among children who are continuously traumatized and often forced into survival mode - no human being can escape such conditions unscarred. We can now see the psychological effect and consequences of those prior conditions. These are behavior habits - deeply embedded patterns of survival skills known as post-institutional behavior (Gunnar, 2007, Gindis, 2008).

Post-institutional behavior is a cluster of learned behaviors that could have been effective before adoption but become maladaptive and counter-productive in the new family and school environment. These traits are powerful factors in destroying peer relationships, family life, and school functioning. Practically all parents can observe in their IA children at least some patterns of behavior caused by deeply imbedded patterns of institutional behavior which now problems for proper socialization and peer interaction. Let us look at some prominent features of these patterns:

Controlling and avoiding behavior

A global sense of insecurity results in controlling and avoiding behaviors, which take different forms in school and at home. In school, with their fragile and vulnerable sense of competence and being too sensitive to failure, these children tend to avoid classroom assignments or activities that they perceive as difficult. They prefer to present themselves as non-complaint rather than non-competent, as that is less painful to their self-perception. They can present open defiance or hidden sabotage, but their behavior is rooted in their overwhelming need to be always in control, to be on known and manageable "turf." Such an attitude discourages teachers and classmates: any shared activity is difficult given this stance.

The early childhood experiences of deprivation and insecurity force a post-institutionalized child to fight for control at home. This fight may assume ugly forms and can be very upsetting for parents. Controlling and avoiding behavior is often considered to be the core of "attachment disorder," though it's often a learned social behavior that served quite well in the orphanage and is now failing the child in his/her social relatedness.

Pro-active aggressiveness

Children who are neglected and traumatized during their early formative years tend to display higher levels of aggressive behavior. A heightened alertness and vigilance, combined with an inability to correctly interpret the emotional side of the situation, are typical for many IA children and often result in inadequate social interactions both with peers and adults. In such situations boys can be "tough" and proactively aggressive in their urge to dominate peers and protect themselves from the "expected" hostility of their environment. Girls can be aggressive or present themselves in a seductive and promiscuous way, trying to control the situation by means unexpected in their new environment.

Extreme attention seeking

Orphanage residents constantly seek adult attention, approval, and encouragement. No matter what it is that they do, their motivation is to evoke a reaction from the grown-ups, not to solve a problem or achieve some goal. This urge to win an adult's attention and approval is typical for children in general, but in IA children it often reaches extremes; this does not facilitate peer interactions. Extreme attention seeking may at times take the form of learned helplessness. Children in orphanages have been conditioned to get more attention from caregivers when they appear helpless: the more independent children are, the less attention they receive. Some children have deeply internalized this behavior and manage to appeal to a wide audience with demonstrated helplessness. Learned helplessness is tolerated by society much longer than is acting-out behavior. Many of these children actually have the needed skills or knowledge but will resist any attempts to encourage them to act independently. Learned helplessness is an acquired survival skill for achieving attention as understood by a traumatized child, but it may come across as a "strange" behavior for peers.

Feeling of entitlement

The dictionary defines "entitle" as "to furnish with a right or claim to something." When a child whines and screams, demanding a new expensive toy she sees on the store shelf or a new pair of sneakers he saw his classmate wear - this is the feeling of entitlement. Children raised in orphanages are conditioned to the notion that if one member of a group has something, the other members of the same group are supposed to get the same thing, too, whether they need it or not. In former orphanage residents this is a survival skill determined by institutional care. As such, it is only one small step away the feeling of entitlement to obtaining things through theft or deception.

Lagging Social Language Development

Communication with friends increases dramatically during pre-adolescence and the adolescent years. The content and dynamic of verbal exchange is characterized by rapid topic changes, slang expressions, subtleties of irony and sarcasm that infuse peers conversations and, of course, by rich nonverbal language cues. Adolescents with limited language skills cannot efficiently participate in the rapidly changing, emotionally tense social language processes in peer groups (Turstra, 2003). On the other hand, having well-developed, age-appropriate language proficiency highly correlates with successful peer interactions and friendship. An adolescent with good language skills is successful in detecting and using humor, sarcasm, persuasion, deceit, empathy, and flattery. In negotiation or conflict situations, he or she can understand their partners' motives and collaborate to achieve a mutually acceptable outcome (Ryan, 2000).

In typical development, social interaction skills are mastered during the process of maturation without any conscious effort or formal instruction. Comprehension of the language of communication comes to us simultaneously with the 'reading' of non-verbal clues (facial expressions, body language, tone of the voice, etc.) and the understanding of the context of communication (previous knowledge of the subject of conversation). There are, of course, individual differences in the level of proficiency and sophistication of a child's mastery of communicative skills, but there are certain societal expectations as well: we have different expectations for a 4-year-old and a 12-year-old, and we may easily recognize "immature" or "advanced" social language skills in a particular child.

With all their diverse ethnic, age, and cultural differences, all IA children have to live through the period of rapid native language attrition and learning of a new language. For the majority of them, the abrupt loss of one language and much slower acquisition of another is no less than an interruption in language development (Gindis, 1999, 2006, 2008).

For international adoptees, learning English is a survival skill. In less than two years after joining the adoptive family, most adopted children don't seem to differ from their peers. They can chat on everyday subjects and it looks like they managed to move on with their lives and blend into the new lingo-sphere. Alas, that's true only at the first glance. The recorded conversations of adopted kids with their peers and parents reveal a lack of age-expected language mastery. Their speech is full of circumlocutions, with simplified and at times wrong grammar. The child does not pause to search for a word, but it's more babble than substance. The content carries little informative value with frequent fillers. Another, not immediately apparent distinction, is that their word meaning understanding may be extremely literal. Once I was testing a girl who has been in the country for eighteen months. Her native language was gone without a trace, and the assessment was conducted in English. I explained the problem: use the cubes with different side designs to recreate the pattern shown on a card. "This is the cube's top," I pointed. "Here are the sides. Now, show me the bottom." We were sitting in my office, separated by the desk and facing each other. I shuffled the cubes. "Bottom?" she echoed, with her eyes rounded. Then she slid down the chair, turned around and pointed to her buttocks. For her bottom had a precise, unambiguous, mono-semantic meaning.

The example of literal understanding of an English phrase or word by their IA children are often brought up by the parents: "One evening early on, after a particularly insane dinner, I held up my forefinger and thumb and exclaimed, "I am this close to the edge, and when I go, it won't be fun". My 5 year daughter, adopted at age 4, hopped out of her seat, came over and hugged me saying, "It's OK Mama, I go with you!"

Another parent recalled: "Nina was at home to about a year….we were leaving to go somewhere; I looked at her and said: "OK, let's hit the road." She replied: "Oh no...that hurt." I realized she assumed I meant literally go out and hit the road surface."

Difficulties with Identifying Other Individual's Feelings

In my clinical practice I have found that many IA children are proficient with recognizing simple emotions based on facial expressions, but have notorious difficulty in "mind reading" other individuals, in interpreting socially complex emotions such as irony, sarcasm, or disdain. For example, the, majority of IA children perform close to age expectations on the NEPSY-II "Affect Recognition" subtest, however, on the "Theory of Mind" subtest they show weaker comprehension of other people's perspectives and experiences. The first test reflects "survival" skills, while the second indicates a level of socialization.

Another example is the "Perception of Emotions" test from the Neurocognitive Assessment Battery. The child's assignment is to match a picture expressing certain emotions (facial expression, body posture, and gestures) with a word that describes this emotion, such as sad, in doubt, angry, calm, etc. Reaction time between exposure and response is measured. I found that in many cases the reaction time was unusually long, well exceeding the average for the age group - IA examinees took a longer time to process social/cognitive information so they could accurately recognize the emotion. At the same time, these children acted impulsively before they were able to recognize the emotion. As a result, they made an unusually high number of errors. In the next few seconds they might have been able to recognize the mistake and correct themselves, but the harm was done. Unfortunately, in real life situations they may perform the same way: be too slow with cognitive information processing and too quick with acting-out behavior. In many ways internationally adopted children's ability to infer emotional reactions in social situation is similar to one found in children with severe language impairment, as described in Ford & Milosky (2003).

Social Skills Development

We know that social skills depend on proper application of both verbal and nonverbal behaviors. What types of behaviors are associated with competent group entry? Research (Ronk, 2011) suggests that socially competent children use a range of entry tactics from 'low risk' to 'high risk.' Low risk behaviors are those that are unlikely to evoke either positive or negative reactions from the peers a child is trying to join. For example, a low-risk strategy would be hovering near peers who are playing together and just observing their activity. Using this approach, the child could gradually get a sense of the group's activities and norms, and eventually comment on what was going on, e.g., "looks like a fun game - mind if I watch for a while?" Through these kinds of actions, the competent child manages to gradually blend in with the group. Less socially competent children either never move beyond the 'hovering' stage or engage in 'high risk' strategies that may yield either positive or negative reactions. This includes comments and questions that divert peers from what they are doing and call attention to oneself. Less skillful children have a difficult time matching their activity to the group's 'frame of reference' and unobtrusively blending in. My observations and parents/teachers reports (using different behavior scales) suggest that many IA children have an initial tendency to engage into a "high-risk" social behavior.

Differences in Cultural Background and Values

An IA child's arrival to a new country is typically accompanied by confusion and anxiety. They are often disoriented and overloaded with information they cannot process: a classical "cultural shock" with a clash of cultures, full of misinterpreted social patterns and confusing situations. Their perception of basic social/cultural conventions can differ from their parents' and peers'. Cultural stereotypes are ingrained so deeply that we don't perceive them as culture-specific and as a hindrance in communications. Such pseudo-universal conventions include:

  • Expression of emotions. Hugging and returning "I love you, too" is almost reflexive in many American families. At the same time, in many other countries a normal and expected behavior is the opposite: reservation and timidity. Instead of "sorry" when pushing someone unintentionally, a child recently adopted from Ukraine may exclaim "Oy!" and give a guilty look. They may interpret asking forgiveness as a weakness, outward emotions as insincerity, smiles as trickery.
  • Interaction with adults. Children coming from Eastern Europe and China have a much stronger understanding of social distance separating them from adults than do American kids. Some languages promote this, implementing a special respectful form of addressing adults; a child would never confuse grown-ups with peers and must maintain this distinction by understanding roles and responsibilities.
  • Gender interaction. Gender equality is far from an everyday reality for most foreign children. They differentiate male vs. female behavior. They may shake hands with a man but not a woman, etc.
  • Manners and mannerisms. The ways people eat, talk, accept help, or express disgust are different in different cultures. Before being upset with the child's conduct, the parents need to understand its cultural component. Nonverbal communication differences among cultures are evident but are not necessarily known and understood in the families of IA children

From the cultural perspective, adoption erases or at least modifies the child's pre-adoption socio-cultural mold. In most cases the new social imprint has to be developed from scratch. One example of such re-training is language attrition. The old and the new languages are tenants of the same psychological space. Instead of peaceful coexistence, in case of IA children one aggressively pushes the other out. The cultures are no different in this aspect. It takes time to get rewired for the new culture. The time of transition depends on age, social conditions, and individual factors, but eventually most adopted children do transition. However, cultural differences may affect peer relations months and years after adoption. In fact, misunderstanding and misinterpretation of various behaviors by parents and children alike are often the beginning of the incompatibility, hurt feelings, deep disappointment, extreme reactions, and, in some cases, the renowned "Attachment Disorder" diagnosis for the child.

What Has to Be Done?

The importance of social and cultural competence cannot be overestimated as it is associated both with peer acceptance and with academic achievement. IA children are not represented in research related to social skills training, but some findings about children with different medical conditions, such as Autism or ADHD, can be applicable to them as well. Basically, there are two ways to help IA children with socialization: direct teaching and environment organization.

Direct instruction in social skills

It is necessary and possible to increase social interactions for international adoptees by explicitly teaching them specific, new, and often culturally different social skills and values, raising their awareness of the need to see another person's perspective. Consider these methods:

  • Take the role of an instructor in friendship "know-how" by modeling, explaining, and practicing specific social skills like greeting, parting, welcoming, declining, etc. according to the child's age. Model appropriate behavior when your child has classmates or neighbor's kids visiting him/her at home.
  • Selecting skills valued by peers and teachers increases the odds of their use and reinforcement. Pay special attention to social skills that are of critical importance, such as sharing, accepting criticism, giving and receiving compliments, taking conversational turns, respecting others' personal space, following directions, controlling anger, etc. Skills teaching can be embedded into everyday life activities or become "special sessions" during "quality time" when alone with the child.
  • Model how to be emotionally aware of other person's feelings by recognizing your child's emotions, listening to them empathetically, and trying to understand the situation from their perspective. Validating their emotions does not signify approval, just understanding. Your interpretation of their emotions and the causes of these emotions could be instructive educationally and healing therapeutically (that is what "talking" therapy is all about).
  • Teach your child how to deal with bullies. Despite the schools' effort to prevent bullying, harassment can be subtle and still painful. Many typically developing children experience the stress of bullying and rejection - it is a part of normal maturation. IA children, however, experience this stress to a much higher degree than can be considered "normal".
  • At an age-appropriate level, try to provide social skill analysis, discussing with the child after the fact what the child did, what happened when the child did it, what the outcome was (positive or negative), and what the child will do the next time.
  • There are a number of interactive, developmentally appropriate computer games that develop social skills. Most of these technologies have been developed for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (see ). However, some of these programs, particularly those designed for high functioning autism, could be useful for international adoptees. Some, like the Anger Control Games at, have been highly praised by many parents of IA children.
  • If your child has an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) at school, social skills improvement goals are to be clearly formulated and included in it. Those goals may look like this:

    a) John will understand and respond appropriately when others accidentally or intentionally do something he doesn't like (ex. talking loud, touching his things, etc.).
    b) When frustrated, John will choose and apply one of several prior scripted strategies of self-regulation and self-calming.
    c) When wanting the attention of another person, John will wait for the appropriate time to speak.
    d) John will share preferred object or activity with peer upon request with minimal adult prompting.
    e) John will be taught how to understand and respond appropriately to the nuisances of unkind jokes.

Direct instruction in the English language and American cultural background and values

  • Familiarize the child with American books, stories, games, songs, sayings, jokes, tales, and environments (ex.: Disney characters), which they may have missed by arriving into your family at an older age. Try your best to close cultural gaps - this alone will help children tremendously with better and quicker understanding of various cultural references used by peers. Go back culturally to the beginnings - everything that surrounds a child born into this culture has to be introduced into your adopted child's life and reinforced through multiple repetitions and references. It's just as important as learning the ABCs. Go as far back developmentally as you can, making sure every new piece of information and experience is linked to something they have already acquired.
  • Talk to your children: explain and use double meaning expressions in everyday life, play word-based games with your child. Make sure the child indeed understands you correctly. There are a number of special educational programs that facilitate social and cognitive language development. One such program, called SmartStart, was modified specifically for IA children ( This program stresses the utmost importance of adult mediation, which was lacking in your adopted child's early stages of learning (Gindis, 2006).

Environment organization

Parents can help initiate and promote friendships through creating social opportunities for the child to be involved in different activities such as sports, art, dance, etc. The goal is to select the right activity and lead the child to at least a modest success in which they can showcase their skills and be appreciated by their peers. Every child must be successful in some activity, experience pride and be recognized as an achiever in something. This will build the platform for productive peer interaction (Reference to Simons?).

Use your immediate surroundings: your neighborhood, local organizations, and other gathering places to introduce your child to different social activities. Have your child enrolled in age-appropriate out of school organizations (e.g. local Scouts) and have him/her involved in different volunteer work. Cross gender and cross generation interaction should be a part of your child's social experience.

Be respectful of the child's cultural background, but concentrate on the cultural traditions and norms of this country: that's what your child needs to understand and internalize now. "Cultural camps" and "trips to the country of origin" are a mixed blessing, to say the least. They can be a trigger of psychological trauma and do not help in socializing here and now. Inept attempts to "keep the original culture" of adopted children can be an obstacle in their current acculturation. The appeal to honor an internationally adopted child's heritage and their "sense of identity" sounds nice, but the problem is that neither the child nor the parents can pinpoint, let alone keep, this elusive identity.

What's the cultural identity of a Gypsy child from a Romanian orphanage, who was mistreated just because she was a minority? Or a kid neglected in an Estonian orphanage simply because he was ethnically Russian? Or a Tatar boy from the Ukrainian orphanage, teased for his almond-shaped eyes and dark skin? For a social worker a Romanian Gypsy is a Romanian. The same goes for the Estonian and Ukrainian children, even though these children themselves are acutely aware that they are not welcomed in those countries. What language and culture should be saved and reinforced in the Russian children adopted from Kazakhstan who speak mostly Kazakh?

Cultural artifacts along with native language can be a definite post-traumatic stress trigger for many IA children. Even toddlers associate their pre-adoption language with the orphanage and English with their family. Depending on location, micro-cultures exist in rural and urban settings, always diverse and often incompatible with one another. For vast countries like Russia or China, there are further regional distinctions with separate traditions, mythologies, and languages. The memory of the orphanage with its rules and patterns of behavior and poorly understood remote regional customs is not necessarily something a family needs to cherish to help their child fit in here and now.

Consider this parent's testimony: "My adopted son Gregory is a Kulmyk, which is yet another ethnic minority from the Caucasus area in Russia. The more I learned about the political situation in Russia, the more I realized that this was a situation which would require some handling. He looks Asian, but came from Russia at the age of 7. He fiercely resists when people call him Russian. He said he was teased and beaten up by older children in his orphanage because he was not Russian. Now he is our son, Jewish and an American. I told him once, just before his bar mitzvah, that he should be proud of who he is and he should love his Russian heritage. He got immensely upset and said 'It is not a good thing. I am American and I am Jewish"' Last week we talked about Russian attitudes towards those from the Caucasus, based on news stories I have read and things we have learned over time. All these discussions upset Gregory. My rabbi (we belong to the Reform synagogue) keeps telling us that we have to respect his heritage and his culture. I am confused, indeed, because Gregory refuses even to hear about all this cultural stuff."

The intentions behind "keeping the child's culture" are noble (Jacobson, 2008), of course: diversity leads to social tolerance. We all strive to be unique and special later in life. But at twelve the effect is the opposite. At this age, the difference may lead to isolation and an inner sense of shame. It's especially true for singled-out adopted children. Quite often the emphasis on minority status in a teenager triggers not only mental but physical abuse. When adoptive parents think about teaching their child about cultural issues, they have to understand the entire subject first and foremost from their child's perspective and care about their child's mental health and emotional well-being.


Social difficulties with peer interactions are very common among children adopted internationally. As presented in this article, there are two major groups of factors that are responsible for this situation: subjective and objective. The first group of factors includes such typical characteristics of an international adoptees as complex childhood trauma resulting in mixed maturity, hyper-arousal, emotional fragility, and the learned survival skills known as post-institutional behavior. The second group of factors is the lack of language, culture, and age-specific cultural/social skills. A lot more research would be required to quantify and describe the interrelations between these factors, but in practical terms, a clear understanding of their presence may be enough to help parents approach each factor through a specific methodology which already exists.


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Boris Gindis, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist
Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment and Remediation (BGCenter)

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Article Title

Finding an Extra-Curriculum Activity for an Adopted Child


Jeltje Simons

Posted Date



I want to give you 'the world' dear child, but unfortunately whatever I give you is lost, broken or thrown away after 4 hours, so my gift to you is not of a material nature but my time and patience so you can learn to appreciate beautiful music and play a musical instrument.

As an adoptive parent do you have difficulty finding a hobby or club that your child can participate in?

When my child came home, my first thought was that he needed to meet children and play with them, after all he had been full time in the company of children the first 6 years of his life. He was at home for 18 months before starting school (what was compulsory at that point - he was 7.5 years old), so I was looking at activities where he could play and be together with his peers. I tried several and here were the first experiences mixing with children in different activities.

I tried scouting with him, but this group was poorly supported and not very structured. After attending 6 times he was bullied, the other children did not want to stand next to him, give hands, etc, he was basically excluded. He was still going around with a big smile on his face but he also began asking why the children did not want to play with him. I had to withdraw him as the benefit of being with other children would not outweigh the problems, in fact I did not think this situation I had put him into was healthy for him.

Than we started judo, this was very structured and he did well; we did this for 8 months or so before he had to move on to an older group. The group he was in had children from 4 to 6 and was very gentle; he was 7 at the time but he was rough with the 4 year olds, running over and into them. He really needed to move to the group with older children. As he has a bleeding disorder this was not a straightforward decision, and after discussion with his doctor we decided that the risk for injury was too high in the older group aged 7-13.

We did some swimming lessons but they were not successful either as he had one mission, and that was hanging around the teacher's neck. His total focus on adults and interactions with them as his most important goal in life diverted him from learning a thing. While he was busy smiling at the teacher and pretending to be scared, the teacher responded by giving him loads of attention. Totally understandable behaviour if you think of how he had to fight for attention in the orphanage, but not handy when you need to learn new skills. The other children learned to swim with a floater, but not him. He did learn it later that year when I took him daily to the lake and let him swim every day 25 meters before allowing to play, but then there was nobody around to 'help him' (except myself).

My boy did not do well when it came to interactions with other children, he was really interested only in the adults. Gradually my thoughts changed from "he needs children to play and interact with" to "he needs me around to feel safe before he is able to interact with other children in a healthy way." The behaviours he displayed when interacting with other children might have served him in the orphanage; in real life children did not like to be bossed around, they did not understand his intentions and he often gave wrong non-verbal cues.

So there I was having a child with poor social skills, poor motor skills, poor working memory, and not being able to go anywhere alone, as his behaviours were not appropriate when dealing with unfamiliar adults or other children. Just dropping him off at the local ping pong club was and is not an option. He is too friendly, manipulates adults around him, creates chaos by telling tales and lying, and has a strongly developed feeling of entitlement. These are all very common behaviours for children who lived in orphanages, but they make finding an activity where the child can be successful without causing trouble tricky for parents.

So I was basically looking for an activity that would be good for my boy's motor skills, an activity where he would have contact with other children and where I as a parent would be allowed to be present (up until he went to school he had never been in the care of others except me). It also needed to be something he enjoyed, but this would never be a deciding factor when it came to a decision to continue or not.

My boy is always overly enthusiastic with every new item, experience, situation. Unfortunately this enthusiasm never lasts long, as he always wants something else or it is never enough, but the activities become 'boring' after 3 times or so. This behavioural pattern was to be expected looking at his past, but that does not mean it is always easy to deal with. I am not saying that he has to stay with my chosen activity forever, just that I would re-evaluate it only after a year or so. I observe behaviours, listen to what comes out of his mouth but do not take that as 'the truth' necessary.

I want to give you 'the world' dear child, but unfortunately whatever I give you is lost, broken or thrown away after 4 hours, so my gift to you is not of a material nature but my time and patience so you can learn to appreciate beautiful music and play a musical instrument.

So I decided that I would sent him to music lessons, with piano being a good basic instrument! "Later he could always choose something else after a few years" - that were my thoughts anyway.
As my oldest has singing and piano lessons, I spoke to his piano teacher, who I only occasionally meet as the lessons are at school, and asked him if he could take my 6 year old. To my surprise the answer was 'no', as children here in Sweden start official music lessons at 9 years old. But there was Suzuki violin or cello class where children started as young as 4. And so we became involved in Suzuki violin lessons.

What is Suzuki music education?

Suzuki music education ( is based on the thought that Every Child Can Learn. "That sounds positive," were my first thoughts. The method from the Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki is called the mother tongue approach. Suzuki realized that all over the world children learn to speak their first language with ease, and this he transferred into the learning of music, the playing of a musical instrument. Basically the method is implemented by listening to music, practicing the instrument, private lessons and group lessons.

Group lessons? This was something I had never heard about but it sounded like the thing I was looking for: a structured activity with other children where my boy would be part of a group, but not face any of the challenges in previous activities. The group lessons and performances are very important as children learn to play together and motivate each other.

The Suzuki method is based on constant repetition of listening and playing, just as with a child learning to speak. They first listen endlessly to language around them (ironically our adopted children never had this experience), then they start to make sounds and speak. It is the task for the parent to make sure that listening to the recordings and practicing the instrument occurs daily, and it is enjoyable (with the help of games, reward charts, praise, etc.).

Listening to classical music and the repertoire the child plays is a very important daily task. This listening can be done anywhere, in the car, while playing with toys, as back ground music. The main reason is that when the child starts to learn a new piece he is already familiar with the tune.

When the child starts playing, a daily repetition is necessary. Remember how a child learns to speak? They practice the same phrase over and over, and even when a word is learned it is still used frequently. Unlike traditional music lessons where you learn a piece and then move on, in Suzuki education everything what is learned is repeated ideally daily (until the workload gets too big and the pieces will be rotated).

Suzuki's idea was that children learn to talk first before they learn to read; for this reason music reading is delayed in Suzuki education. Every piece needs to be memorized. Depending on the child's age and development, they generally start learning to read music somewhere after the first book. (The Suzuki method provides 10 books to study). After playing a year I have noticed that my son began to memorize his pieces faster. I hope that this memory training also will help him in school.

Why are Suzuki violin lessons working so well for my family?

My child is a 'slow learner', following instructions is often a challenge, he is easily distracted and has a fulltime assistant in school to help him learn and function. For him this system of listening and daily repetitions works very well. As my child has a lot of challenging behaviours, it was such a relief for me to have found this activity that is performed daily, that brings a certain structure to the day, and that will help him not only with motor skills but also with memory and focus. Playing and practicing with an instrument does activate the brain (the Corpus Callosum of musicians is better developed than in people who do not play an instrument). I think my child can benefit from this brain activation.

Another important reason has to do with the behaviours my child displays, his constant need for attention, positive or negative, and the follow up correction of less desirable behaviours. It is so nice to have an activity, for which he can have 100% attention that he so desperately craves and generally positive interactions in a very structured setting. The music that goes together with the Suzuki method is mainly Baroque and very pleasant to listen to.

How to practice

My main goal is to keep the practice sessions fun and enjoyable. It has to be expected that at times the child does not want to practice and will display behaviours that can be challenging. My child is no exception here, I just deal with them as they arise. It will help when practice schedule is not negotiable, and in the same "this is what we do every day" category as brushing teeth, eating breakfast or getting dressed. My child plays 2 times on most days: the first time when he comes from school, and the second time after supper before the bedtime routine.

I started with 10 minutes two times a day and built up practice time over a period of months. School is a difficult environment for my child and he often comes home very hyper. So before I even ask him questions about school and how his day was he will play the violin. It is really nice to see how he calms down and becomes collected again. I practice with him up to an hour, with a break for a drink and something to eat if he loses focus. Certain elements come back every practice: we play a scale and pay attention to intonation, he works on a new song, we play through every song he knows already (different speeds, order, with CD, without CD, etc) and we practice a bit of music reading.

We have certain rules to make practice a bit easier: he is not allowed to talk other than about violin playing; he has to start on time or we repeat the song (otherwise he would always be late); one toilet visit per practice session (otherwise he would have 'needs' to go 5 times); his attitude needs to be pleasant.
There are times when everything is easy, he follows directions nicely and is happy to play. Occasionally he 'hits a bump' and needs some motivators to get through. As he only watches TV about 2 hours a week, TV is a huge motivator for him. I might say if everything is difficult and he has trouble following directions: "First you play the violin then you can watch Animal Planet for 15 minutes."

Another time I would use a 'counter' (beads on a wire that you can move to count the rounds) and I would say: "We play this three more times and then you are done". I would move a bead after each repetition and he can see on the counter how many times he is still to go.

I try to make practice sessions predictable, so he knows generally what needs to be done. Sometimes I surprise him by practicing only one thing, and then I might say: "We play the song from the group lesson 10 times and you are done after that." I do that when he's tired and I have the feeling that practice will be a struggle. I practice daily with him because that is the easiest routine; if I skipped days, we would have endless discussions whether today is the practice day, and he would use every excuse under the sun as a reason why it is not possible today. Generally we practice before we go out, when visiting with friends he brings the violin. If there is a reason for playing being difficult, like when he feels under the weather, he plays just one or two easy songs.

My boy can have a bit of a temper, so it is important that he is reasonably calm when he plays, otherwise he might throw the violin or break the bow. If he's a bit unsettled I do not even start. I tell him to sit down until he's ready to play the violin, he just sits doing nothing. I do the same if he starts to be unsettled during the practice. He does not like having to wait very long and often his attitude changes in 5 minutes or so. If this 'getting ready for practice' takes long it eats into his 'free' time - a natural consequence of messing around.

I praise him a lot for good work and attitude, for good listening, for focus. I hope that he can get his satisfaction from playing the violin, not relying on me or others to praise him for talent or results, or to work for rewards all the time.

Another thing what works well if he is reluctant to practice is giving him some control and letting him choose between practice now or after we feed the chickens, he cycles outside for 15 minutes or we take the dogs for a walk. He always chooses 'the after' option but nearly always does his violin practice afterwards without problems.

He tells me different things when it comes to playing the violin. One day he loves playing the violin and tells me that violin is the most beautiful instrument in the world. The next day he hates the violin and wants to stop playing. My response is always the same: "It's alright, you can stop playing the violin after book 10; we just finished the first book, and this took us a year." As math is not his strongest subject, he accepts this answer for now.

A few weeks ago after he was done with the violin practice, he told me he hated it and after book 10 he would never play violin again. So I asked him what he was planning to do then because stopping would free up a lot of time. And he shouted: "Play flute." I thought that was funny as he had never even seen a flute close up. Another time he insisted he wanted to play cello. When I asked for the reason, the answer was: "Because then I can sit down!"

My child loves recitals and playing for people. (See the video snippets of his progress over one year). In the Suzuki program there are plenty of opportunities to play alone or with your group. Another nice feature is that there are summer schools all over the world and, because every child plays the same repertoire, it is possible to attend any summer school. As our home language is English, I plan to take him to the UK next year to attend summer school there. Good for his English and a lot of fun.

I hope that my boy will develop love for music, that over time it will become his choice, his passion and dedication. Playing the violin brings challenges he has to face, and it brings many rewards as well. He likes the lessons, he loves the performances, and he is aware that the reason for practice is to make it easier. When I show him a video of the very beginning of his practice, he realizes how much progress he has been making.

If you have a child who faces many challenges, playing a musical instrument intensively (like in the Suzuki method) might be a very positive experience. The Suzuki method is very much child oriented, it is not about how fast you can go through the material - some children go slow and some go faster, it is about the child's own musical development, the joy the music brings, the appreciation of beautiful music.

Sometimes I think that playing violin is my son's therapy, and I believe it is a very valuable tool in bringing up a traumatized child if implemented with joy and consideration.


My name is Jeltje Simons and I am a single adoptive mother of 2 boys age 7 and 12. Both of my children arrived a few weeks before their 6th birthday; my oldest - 7 years ago, my youngest - 18 months ago. Both children have significant special needs. Before my eldest's adoption I worked many years as a nurse in residential settings for children and adolescents with special needs in the Netherlands, Ireland and UK. But soon after my older son’s arrived it became clear that in order to meet his severe needs I could not continue working as a nurse. Now we live at a remote small holding in Sweden where my boys are actively involved in care for the animals, and love the outdoor life style.



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