So many families that I have the honor of working with describe the immense amount of joy they have experienced through fostering and/or adopting; however, this does not come without its fair share of challenges. A question I am often asked in both clinic and private settings where I have worked with families who have fostered or adopted children is, “How do I set limits?”
While every child is unique and there is no cookie-cutter approach to setting limits, I have a few tips for you to consider with children who have been fostered or adopted:
Be mindful of your child’s past experiences. Many of our children have experienced or witnessed trauma, abuse, neglect, and other negative experiences early on. They may be triggered by situations or memories that are not obvious to us. It is important to be mindful of their past and seek to disarm their fear response. Additionally, they may have missed out on building skills early on because they were never taught. Ask yourself:
- Am I expecting my child to do something that he or she is physically, emotionally, or socially able to do?
- Is this behavior intentional and manipulative or is my child is still learning self-‐control and regulation?
- Is this a skill-‐building opportunity because my child has not yet learned these skills?
Understand that limits are necessary and important. While we should be mindful of early childhood experiences, this does not mean our children need less structure. Limits are essential for all children; they help the child to feel safe. If a child thinks there are no limits to his or her behavior, that can often lead to more anxiety, as the world becomes a very unpredictable place. Having appropriate boundaries ensures that the child knows what is expected of himself and his world. It also helps the child to function successfully in other environments outside of the home. Here are a few helpful guidelines to consider when you need to set limits:
Be consistent and follow through. Remind your child of the rules and consequences, and be consistent with those consequences. Follow through with what you say, as this gives the child a predictable experience. This leaves no question about what will happen.
Calm yourself first. You are allowed to have strong emotions. It is completely understandable that you become frustrated, angry, and upset at times. It is unrealistic to think that you will handle every situation perfectly every time, but the outcome will most likely be better when you approach situations in a calm, patient, confident manner. Take some time for yourself if needed before you intervene with your child.
Look for the need behind your child’s behavior. Think outside of the box. A child’s behavior is often a form of communication about a specific need. Think to yourself: What is the need behind this behavior? What purpose does the behavior serve? For example, some children have learned from previous experiences that adults will not provide appropriate comfort when they are distressed, so, instead, they may act as if they do not want comfort and even act out aggressively. If you look beyond this behavior, the child often needs someone to help regulate their emotions and provide nurturing.
Allow for “re-do’s.” Dr. Karen Purvis from Texas Christian University’s Institute of Child Development speaks about this in her book Empowered to Connect. Sometimes our children need a chance to practice the new skills we are teaching. When you catch your child engaging in a behavior that is inappropriate, intervene immediately and give the chance for them to change the behavior. For example, if you are working with your child on respect, you could interrupt the behavior by saying, “Let’s try that again with respect.” This gives children the chance to succeed.
Listen and label feelings. Labeling feelings helps your child regulate themselves. By validating your child’s emotion, you acknowledge their feelings; however, you are also teaching them that they can manage discomfort in an appropriate way. It helps them understand that the feeling is okay; however, the behavior may not be. It also provides an opportunity to discuss behaviors that are appropriate and build problem-solving skills. An example of this might be, “I understand that you are mad because you want that toy, but you may not hit. Now, try using your words to say what you need.”
Connect and repair. It may be helpful to connect with your child by getting down on their level and making eye contact. Perhaps a simple touch can help redirect your child. If misbehavior is frequent, add in some “special time” each day with just yourself and your child as a time to enjoy one another and reconnect. Spend time talking about upsets with your child when he is calm and is able to reflect on the behavior. Discuss new ways to manage the problem in the future.
Remember the power of praise. If you only discipline through negative consequences, you will miss many opportunities for growth. Remember to praise your child when you see positive changes in behavior. Labeled praise is even better; it shows your child exactly what you like about the behavior, which increases the likelihood that they will repeat this behavior. For example, “You did a great job of sharing today,” or “Thank you for speaking to me nicely.”
My last tip is to give yourself some credit. I saw this quote the other day, and I thought to myself that it couldn’t be truer. “The struggle is part of the journey.” You are doing the hardest job on the planet, especially combined with the struggles specific to the foster and adoption systems. Although you may not always do it perfectly, that deserves recognition.