i Discipline

Some Questions about Emotions, Acting Out and Discipline
Emotions are untidy. Most adults will very likely avert their eyes if they see a couple arguing or someone crying. And when it comes to kids acting out in the supermarket, adults cluck their tongues and “blame the parents”. Worse, for adoptive families with transracially adopted children, there’s the possibility of authorities being alerted as they try to contain a child in a tantrum. The transracially adoptive family doesn’t look as if the members belong together – so the assumption is that attempts to contain the child may have a sinister intent.

What is it about emotions and ‘acting out’ that makes most of us withdraw? What makes them so “untidy” to adult eyes? What is it in a toddler tantrum or an older kid acting out that makes us quite so unsettled? We adults have learned –maybe the hard way – that emotions can be draining even if cathartic and most certainly “can waste time”. Adult lives are busy. We have schedules to meet, trains to catch, papers to read and write. Emotions quite simply get in the way of our adult ‘civilised’ planned daily diary. And of course maybe as children our parents encouraged us to “be good” and didn’t like us very much when we misbehaved. We learned to conform to their expectations, but are we left with its residue? Are we scared of emotion?

And so, when what happens when parents add a child to adult plans? A thwart here, a tantrum there, mixed in with screams, ‘won’ts’ and sullen looks, and it’s the end of civilization as we knew it. Children take time, sucking it up like suction Hoovers. And so we discipline our children. We teach them to put aside their childish ways, their outbursts, contain them, hush up; who was it originated the adage “children should be seen and not heard”? Should they be? And should we be disciplining this way?

Adoptive parents and professionals alike need to deconstruct what “disciplining our children” means. It has many facets. For adoptive families there is the added twist of knowing how to “discipline” an adopted child who joins the family (and its ethos) at older than newborn. There very well may be issues of grief and loss (about previous history) most probably presenting.  What do adoptive parents want from disciplining a child – and what does a child get from being disciplined? In fact, what is discipline? Containing problem behaviour? Learning social skills? Getting a child out adult hair?

Emotions – the call to contain them
Adults aren’t immune to emotional outbursts; rather we have learned reasonably well how to contain them.  Most adults know with whom it’s safe or right to get emotional …. In fact, when we see an adult being emotional out in public view we may mutter “Oh How Childish!”   Adults ‘shouldn’t’ behave like children. We adults have learned how to get our needs met by skilful negotiation and bargaining, mostly with our “peers”. Moreover we’ve learned that an emotional outburst or an attempt to wangle a boss will not normally serve our cause well in getting what we need. In fact, the more we have learned from those who guided our learning process, and the more empathetic they were, the more skilful we will be in interpersonal relations.  Research into adult attachment styles shows that adults with poor interpersonal skills very often had parents who were not skilled in parenting with commitment and empathy….but adults can change their attachment style with the support of partners and friends - http://www.helpguide.org/mental/eqa_attachment_bond.htm

But children ARE children. Even teenagers, even the most successfully brought up young adults we could meet, are still not adults. One of the hallmarks of an adult is handling emotion appropriately. One of the most important aspects of growing up for a child is learning how to handle emotion. When a child is in the throes of an engulfing emotion, we can say the same as we say to an adult – “HOW CHILDISH!”  This time, it’s appropriate and right that they act childishly. Children react with the emotions of needs unmet – because they are indeed children.

It’s parents’ job as both parents and adults to meet children’s needs. A child’s job is to find out boundaries by pushing, not just how far s/he may push parents in a tantrum, an emotional outburst. A child’s job is to find their place: who respects them and who doesn’t.  How parents respond defines how a child learns to respond, and who to respect. Parents are the teachers that matter, the child follows the parental lead. Many experts feel that children need their parents as team leaders if they are to learn how to be themselves safely in society. Textbooks call this regulation of the self. It’s learned.

The adoption twist? Adopted kids may need boundaries set differently to other kids. They need taught that adults and parents are safe, care for their children, and will structure their world to meet their needs and keep them safe. They may need helped to understand that parents care to and indeed can contain their needs. The children will need help in trusting parental containment. The strategies required by adoptive parents may be different to those required by parents of biological children - and may need to change as the child settles into family

How to handle emotions through discipline
Before looking at how to contain a child with overwhelming emotions, it’s worth taking a quick look at what discipline means. In its origins it means “following the teaching of” which puts a whole new complexion of what discipline ‘is’.  Discipline in its root sense is much more about modelling appropriate behaviour. This puts parents in a position of trust in terms of the child’s overall development. How parents discipline a child – modelling the acceptable and empathising with outbursts – tells the child what we ourselves feel about emotion and appropriacy and how to respond to feelings… Yet most people think that ‘discipline’ is how parents punish a child or direct a child to meet parental demands in any struggle over behaviour. It’s an ingrained misunderstanding.

Moreover, how adults were disciplined and taught by their parents will colour how they discipline their children. It takes adults time to rethink and get to an approach that is not their parents’ and one which is more appropriate to their own children’s needs. In addition, thinking an approach is simple, but what happens when the child acts out and pushes all parental ‘buttons’ all at once”? Typically, unless parents have trained themselves very carefully in their own approach to discipline their own particular child, what comes out with knee-jerk certainty under pressure is parenting in the mode that parents were parented... How many parents have reacted to their child – and for a frozen minute seen in the children a reflection of themselves as kids on the receiving end of parental ire?

How do parents train themselves? Parents need to look after themselves as well as looking after the approach to discipline! If parents are to be certain not to lose their cool with their children, they need to well nourished and strong, physically and emotionally. If parents are the ones setting limits, parents need to be sure the limits are safe ones.

Meeting emotional needs through empathy, care and containment
Children’s emotional outbursts are from the child’s core. They represent an unmet need. Their needy behaviour speaks the only language that a child has in communicating sophisticated inner turmoil. Body language!  No matter that this is the behaviour that adults so often want to stuff away as fast as possible, out of the sight of other judgemental adult eyes OR their own inability to handle their children’s feelings, this is precisely what the child is trying to do: engage the parent!

There are many different routes that parents might take in “disciplining” a child, helping them learn how to regulate. It really depends on the child’s needs, how hurt they are, how stable their sense of self is and their sense of needing mothered. Adopted children come into family with many different emotional hurts. No matter that, what the child needs to learn from parents is that they heed the emotion. And more, the child needs to hear and see from parents how we act round emotion so that there is a learning opportunity each time parents model feelings in daily lives.

There’s old adage:  do as you would be done by. As adults we jostle to be heard. We learn how to gauge when to speak, who looks friendly. Again, it’s appropriacy. For a child, frustration often kicks in way before s/he has worked out how best to get a need or want going unmet dealt with by a parent. The strain of the emotion bursts out. It’s a tantrum! But before parents rush to contain it, shouldn’t they also try to understand it? Do as they would be done by?

Author and child welfare expert Patty Wipfler http://www.mothering.com/articles/growing_child/discipline/tantrums.html  suggests that a child’s natural equilibrium (before any traumatic interventions) is a state of joy.  After a tantrum, or other behavioural blip, to return a child to this natural state requires empathy for the other feelings (sad, mad, and fearful). These are the feelings that have caused the dip away from the equilibrium. Looked at this way, none of other emotions are wrong, just what happens when the natural balance is tipped. Learning occurs when the balance is tipped, but not if it gets to a negative tilt, where joy is no longer the natural balance round which the other emotions satellite. Wipfler suggests in a wonderful quote that “tantrums are emotional sneezes, designed to get rid of foreign bodies”. In essence, tantrums and acting out can often be a child’s way of sorting out and processing difficult issues.

And of course this thinking illuminates how many of adopted children are, emotionally. Joy for them isn’t necessarily the equilibrium, or natural status-quo, so entrenched has become their traumatically-induced dip away from a natural state of joyousness. Behaviour that disturbs is a cry to be heard.

It is the job of adoptive parents to find a way to help their children learn to regulate emotions age appropriately.  That job obtains whether the child has “normal” unmet needs (the needs that help all children grow emotionally) or unmet needs deriving from deeper hurts. More, it’s important that adopted children know that parents know that their emotions are safety valves. When the child finds the safety valve has become a blown gasket, parents have to be there with the right tools to keep that child’s emotional balance steaming along the track.

The proposition therefore is that a child acting out is a child who needs understood. Nice theory, but what’s the practice when parents are at home or outside? What do parents need to teach the kids about emotions and regulating them, and how do parents do it? Patty Wipfler again suggests some practical tools for dealing with kids acting out in public places in her article http://www.parentleaders.org/csArticles/articles/000000/000040.htm Being With your Child in public Places
She maintains that it’s part of being a child that tantrums occur, and suggests some tools for getting parents out of the heat of the moment – and away for the scrutinising eyes of adults who find a tantrumming child difficult to watch. Is the scene hard for so many adults because we were parented poorly or we parent poorly ourselves?
Wipfler suggests

  • Parents plan public trips, and be very connected to the children kids before they embark on these trips
  • Parents tune directly into a child whom they recognise is going to act up – stopping to listen/watch hard for what the child us trying to tell
  • Parents plan strategic exits ( remove child and if necessary shopping to a quieter place)
  • Parents devise one-liners to deal with other people’s curiosity/upset about the tantrum

This is discipline. Parents working for and advocating for adopted children’s safe journey to an adult emotional balance. And it is done day-by-day in tiny steps. Each time parents deal successfully with acting-out, they give the children the gift of discipline. Adoption professionals seeking to support families  should ask their families – what is it  that they want to achieve when trying to bring a disregulated child back to the social ‘ordinary’ of the family – and the kind of calm the child needs


Everyone involved in helping parents discipline their children appropriately needs to consider – what is appropriate discipline?  Are time-outs appropriate for an adopted child who seemingly wrecks family calm? Are calls from outsiders for parents to ‘sort it’ appropriate – when the child is new home?  Adoptive parents may need support in strategising how to discipline their children.  Adoption professionals will need to know the kind of support parents need on regulating a difficult child’s behaviour.  What is the degree of ‘containment’ necessary to keep a child who is acting out safe – and the family safe from him or her, too?

For parents, in deciding on how to discipline is  probably a matter of ‘who’ they are, the kind of family they want to be, probably with a good dash of how they were brought up (action and reaction) and hopefully lots of thoughts about the kind of people our children are. Moreover, therapeutic parenting doesn’t mean necessarily working within the “box” of an agreed therapist’s views on discipline or regulation, it means finding the right solution for a particular child – and that in itself may change over time and according to changing circumstances.  So, disciplining adopted children means parents have to be attuned to their changing needs. It also means parents have to be thinking around the various approaches that are “on offer” to parents for building both a child’s esteem, routine – and family ethos. Adoption support professionals need to be aware of the various ‘routes’ available to adoptive families.

Professionals will need to know and be able to discuss the safety and effectiveness of different modes of regulating and disciplining children. Below are summaries of a few approaches to disciplining children. Hopefully in any discussion of the issues presented here, these will generate comment. More to the point, families will have the tools to discuss a range of approaches.

Approaches to Discipline: - from ‘control’ to ‘understanding’.

  • “Do as I say or else”.

Is this the cry of the out-of-control parent? The parent who’s reached the end of a personal tether? This type of disciplining rarely will lead to a child feeling that the parent is hearing their need, let alone empathising with it. For adopted children, who have to learn to trust parents, this style of parenting is probably counter-productive.

  • Start Again from Nothing

Source: Ron Federici, Help for the Hopeless Child. Children are taken back to the bare basics, and made to depend on carers. If not they are stripped of all that matters, and need to earn it all again. It is said that this approach works for the desperately hurt child for whom all other approaches don’t ‘contain’ enough. The parent becomes the driving brain for the child. Very hurt children have no sense of self other than power, and need to be nurtured by the parent as if new born (and helpless/owning nothing). That way they learn that parents can contain the child, and thus the hurt.

  • Tough Love

Source: Nancy Thomas www.nancythomasparenting.com . Consequences are set for infractions of home rules. This approach was developed for kids so hurt they have no consciences about getting what they want by whatever means. These are the kids who will kill animals, destroy property, lie, steal, and defecate – so that they can get what they want.   Thomas has extended her work to assist children with lesser needs. “Natural Consequences” are served when the child is unable to behave as would be expected in ordinary family life. Kids are grounded, chores given; parental approval has to be re-earned. Respite may be sought from external sources – secure schools, mental health professionals. The aim is to make the kid learn to respect himself and his parents by serving the “time” on the chores, etc. Parental injunction on how to behave assists the child in literally changing how his/her brain works – neurological integration – of new modes of coping.  Cynthia Hockmann-Chupp offers a description of a newer Thomas approach which may help children with disregulated small and newly home adopted kids – Taming the Tiger - http://www.a4everfamily.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=185&Itemid=121

  • Love and Logic

Source: Foster Cline www.loveandlogic.com.  This approach aims to teach kids that parental love is not all about parents giving: parents’ job is also to instil in kids a sense of responsibility for actions. So, if a child breaks an agreement to complete a chore/homework/ whatever, the parent does not leap in to save the child from consequences.

Programs like Howard Glaser’s Nurtured Heart Scheme  www.difficultchild.com  may fit here – acting out is given consequences while appropriate behaviour is noted and rewarded, thereby nurturing the child’s heart, and emphasizing that appropriate behaviour gets the better reward of parental attention

  • Iron Love in a Velvet Glove

Sources: Dan Hughes Building the Bonds of Attachment, Deborah Gray Attaching in Adoption. The child’s needs are thoughts best served by staying close to parents. Child is assessed for emotional age, and returned there, no matter the chronological age. So a child who is not emotionally able to follow loving direction is re-directed to the stages s/he missed and together the parent/child serve them out. Sometimes the approach, with a nod to Martha Welch’s Holding Time is called ‘holding without holding’

  • Working to understand why a Child Acts out from the viewpoint that a child IS a child, with needs. Patty Wipfler and the Parents Leadership Institute – www.parentleaders.org
  • Mutual respect theories, embracing non-coercive discipline. Theories and practical suggestions as to how parents teach their kids they will respect how they feel, but in addition the child learns that the parents have needs and feelings too. The whole family tries to work out solutions for emotional crises round practical events. The work of Rosenberg Non-Violent Communication, Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training http://www.cnvc.org/raisekds.htm; http://www.naturalchild.com/guest/thomas_gordon2.html
  • Non-coercive parenting approach where children are viewed as competent beings who KNOW what is right for themselves and we parents should heed their inner knowledge and learn from them, e.g. Taking Children Source: Taking Children Seriouslyhttp://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/node/35 and the works of Alfie Kohn Unconditional Parenting” and many other books and articles (www.AlfieKohn.org   Advocates that a child should never be forced to conform to parental regimes because children are individuals and as such need to make sense of the world their own way in order to make it a valid world for them.
  • Redo out –of order behaviours with support from parents.
    Source:  The “Connected Child” by Dr. Karyn Purvis, Dr. David Cross, and Wendy Lyons Sunshine suggests that parents over their kids the opportunity to do-over mistakes in behavior. Empathy and the opportunity to ‘do-over’ make for a connected child


© Sheena Macrae 2008, All rights reserved

Please contact Carrie Kitze for information on obtaining reprints of this article for pre and post adoption kits and seminars.


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