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Disciplining a child who isn’t “yours” can feel uncomfortable. Adding to that challenge is a child you might not know very well or not know how they are used to being disciplined. Adding to that challenge… you have a child who is going through a very traumatic time in their life and might be acting out in new ways as they process the difficulty of their situation. 

This is not easy and you will have to adjust the strategies you use based on the situation but going into these situations blind will only make matters worse. Underestimating the complexity can lead to more problems down the road. 

Don’t Make the Problem Worse

As the adult, you need to be the calm person. If you aren’t able to have a measured reaction in the moment see if you can step away and gather yourself. Maybe there is another caretaker (spouse or very close family member) who can take over and you can tap out. If you have no other options try to take it slow and allow yourself to breath or your body language could escalate the situation. Doing a joint breathing exercise with the kid can help both of you get to a more rational state and comfort the child to know you are in this with them.

Diagnose Why They Misbehaved

Do they need attention? Maybe they came from a home with multiple children and only so much adult attention to go around. They may have learned to act out as the only way to get one-on-one attention. This can take time to overcome but the more positive attention you can give them when they are doing well or simply when they are alone will help change the way they cry for help.

Did they not really understand the rules? It might be clear to you but if the child has lived in multiple homes they are having to constantly remember what rules apply to them at the moment. Yes, you might have just told them to pick up their room but do they have the same definition of “clean”? Make sure you are on the same page and when you use these as learning moments for the kiddo instead your forgiveness will go a long way. 

Are they trying to prove they are a bad kid? The guilt and confusion they feel can manifest in strange ways. If they feel partly to blame for being in foster care or having their parents taken away they may act out with irrational behaviors to show us they are bad and prove they don’t deserve to be loved. If you simply try to ignore the behavior they try escalating until you have no choice but to punish them. In these situations, you should try to talk to them about what they are feeling, reduce the attention on the behavior, and see if they can open up about the real cause. 

Determine the Right Time for Discipline

It’s often best to address and correct behavior immediately but it could be a really sensitive time and adding a punishment might do more harm than good. For young children that are still learning right and wrong it can be really confusing to have a consequence added later so resolving everything in the moment is most constructive.

With school-age kids or kids that are really struggling with their self-esteem, having the consequence discussion later can prevent a larger blow-up. You really should make it clear there will be a consequence so it isn’t a surprise and doesn’t feel as though you haven’t forgiven their mistakes. The second conversation can go really well if you have set the expectation in advance and keep a positive tone that doesn’t dwell on the behavior. If you can have the conversation at mealtime, during dessert, or while you are doing a joint activity together it can be easier to keep the child from overreacting or running away. 

Find Constructive Consequences

Stay away from excessive punishments as that will only frustrate the child and make them feel like you are against them (are you really going to ground them until they are 35 years old?). Adding reading or studying time can be a good option to also help their academic growth; be wary of them seeing school work only as a punishment though if this is the only solution you use.

If you are able to discuss the options with the child and involve them in the punishment it can help them feel their voice is heard and empower them. Giving them options or asking for their ideas can be a good way for them to process the impact of their actions. Avoid sending them to timeout alone in their room; this can be very isolating and can lead to emotions festering and spiraling. If necessary, try a “time in” where you take time to sit with the child as they process their emotions.

Where do we go from here?

You might be mad and you might be really hurt by what happened but you have to forgive and forget. Letting go after the incident is critical for the child to move on. They need to know that they are not just the sum of their mistakes and just because they aren’t perfect 100% of the time it doesn’t make them a bad person.

Foster and adoptive kids can struggle to believe a non-biological parent actually forgave them the same way their original caretakers would have. They might think any negative behaviors they exhibit are a big inconvenience to you that you don’t want to deal with and you wish they didn’t live with you anymore. It is a complex relationship that requires additional patience and forgiveness from the parent until trust is built and the child knows your relationship is stable. Do your best to “flip the switch” and focus the conversation on something positive to move on.