Positive Discipline for Adopted ChildrenThree Part Series on Positive Discipline for Adopted Children

Part 2: Behavior is Communication

By Stephanie Williams, MA, LSW

All behavior is communication. Beginning as infants we cried when we were hungry, tired or soiled thus communicating to our caregivers that we had a need. Children have three primary goals:  They want to feel a sense of connection, a sense of belonging and a sense that they are capable. Beginning in childhood, individuals need to feel that they are valuable, worthy of care and they need to feel safe in their environment. Simply put, everyone wants to feel seen, heard and safe. If a child feels one of these needs is unmet, yet lacks communication skills, he or she will act out, misbehave or become dysregulated. When a child feels connected, they are more apt to display positive behavior, be compliant and work with their parent. A child who is securely attached to their parent has less need to act out.

Attachment develops through repeating the attachment cycle consistently over time: a need is expressed, a parent or caregiver responds to the need; the child feels the world is safe and that they are worthwhile. The attachment cycle usually develops in infancy, but if a child has had multiple placements or has lived in an unsafe environment, secure attachment can be still be developed through a reliable relationship with a safe and nurturing caregiver who seeks to understand the reason behind a child’s behavior.

Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) practitioners developed some easy mantras to help parents remember how to meet the child’s need when his or her behavior is communicating that they have one (or more) while also enhancing their attachment: Stay Calm, See the Need, Meet the Need, and Don’t Quit.

The first is to “Stay Calm”. One way that parents can do this is to remind themselves that the BEHAVIOR IS NOT PERSONAL. If parents can remove themselves emotionally from the moment and realize that the child is against them it will help the parent self-regulate. Other ways to stay calm include taking deep breaths, counting to ten, and using regulation exercises to stay calm during interactions. A child must experience co-regulation from a nurturing parent or caregiver before they will learn how to self-regulate. For a child to reach a calm state, a parent must be calm.

The next step is to “See the Need” by asking themselves, “What does my child need?” Parents can do so by taking a quick mental inventory of the current environment, previous events of the day, any known triggers the child has or making an educated guess. If age appropriate, parents can say, “Buddy, I want to help you. Can you use your words to tell me what you need?” in a calm, non-threatening tone.

Then the parent can “Meet the Need”. By meeting the need, parents are strengthening the child’s trust in them. This can be accomplished through giving the child choices and compromises rather than punitive consequences or isolating them in time-out. Choices and compromises give a child a sense of felt-safety and allows the caretaker to appropriately share power with the child. Meeting the need can be done through playfully engaging with a child. Playful engagement meets a child’s need for joy and deep connection with a safe adult. By identifying and meeting children’s needs, they feel seen, safe and understood.

Finally, parents need to remember to remain consistent and persistent with their connection and becoming attuned to their child. “Don’t Quit” reminds parents to do so, as well as to surround themselves with a strong support system to help them.  Support systems are vital for any parent so that they have a sounding board, an empathetic shoulder, meeting their own connection needs and refreshing themselves through rest and respite.

Parenting is never easy, but understanding that a child’s behavior is communication and strengthening the bond of attachment can help parents better navigate relationships with their children.