Consequences and discipline in an internationally adopted child's upbringing
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.
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.