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4 Tips To Help Foster and Adoptive Children with Boundaries

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When a child is born, caregivers determine where the child will go. The child’s domain usually consists of a crib, the arms of caregivers and loved ones, or a place they are buckled into such as a bouncy seat, carseat, or stroller. As the child grows and starts to become mobile, their caregivers allow them increasing areas to explore. These areas usually start with a playpen and gradually increase to a gated room, a floor of the home, the backyard, the street, and eventually the neighborhood. Once teens get their driver’s license, their reach extends as they practice being young adults.

The perimeters, or boundaries, we set for our children keep them safe. The boundaries should reflect the development of the child and their ability to be safe in the area in which we allow them to roam, whether physical, behavioral, or virtual. All children test the boundaries set for them, and sometimes they show through their behavior that they are not quite ready for the increased limits we set. So what happens when children show that they cannot be safe outside the playpen? Well, most parents put the child back in the playpen. And what is usually the child’s response to having their freedom restricted again? It is usually a very angry scream!

Sometimes, however, the child shows or expresses relief at the safety provided by the limits placed on them. Maybe the skinned knee hurt, and the child is glad for the training wheels being put back on the big kid bike because the child realizes more practice is needed with the help of the training wheels. We have had one child who was often so grateful to be metaphorically put back in the playpen, having old boundaries reimposed. As parents, the gratefulness at first was so surprising, but this child had enough self-awareness to know that the limits were needed because the child’s impulsivity or the temptation to push through the limits was just too much for the child.

So much of the child’s response depends on our approach. If we react to their behavior solely with anger and punishment, the child often does not learn anything from the situation, and our relationship suffers. So what can we do to help the child not rebel and scream at being put back in the playpen? On the child’s level of understanding:

  1. Acknowledge feelings – Acknowledge the child’s feelings. What feelings was the child having before, during, and after crossing a boundary? Help the child understand what they may be feeling, whether it is anger, frustration, fear, or so on.
  2. Express nurturing concern – Talk about your own feelings and fears resulting from the boundary the child crossed. Discuss with the child things that could happen as a result of crossing the particular boundary. It is important to let the child think through potential consequences and come to their own conclusions as much as possible.
  3. Express teamwork – Rather than just imposing boundaries on the child, expressing an attitude of teamwork and coming alongside the child to help them manage and control their actions has a huge impact on their reactions to boundaries.
  4. Express the child’s value – Leigh Anne Goldstine of the Built 2 Bond Attachment Institute in Knoxville, Tennessee, has taught us that one idea children in foster care or who have been adopted often struggle with is that making a mistake does not mean that they are a failure or that they are unlovable. This often results in either internalizing the mistake and feeling they personally are a failure who cannot do anything right, or they refuse to accept responsibility so that they can believe they are still lovable.

These steps are not in any particular order. You may need to do one before the others dependent on the situation. It is also super important to remember that if the child is in a state of “fight, flight, or freeze” or is in some way out of control, they are mentally unable to think because the child’s brain is physically unable to access rational thought, logic, or reason.

I will admit that I often respond to a child breaking boundaries with a knee-jerk attitude of anger and punishment. It never makes the child or me feel good about the situation, and it does not aid in our attachment. But when I have employed the strategies above, the results have always been increased attachment between the child and myself and growth for the child. Recently, one of our kids had a big behavioral regression and had to be “put back in the playpen” in one area. Limits had to be put back in place because the behavior showed the child could not handle the increased limits. I started to respond with anger and punishment, but I stepped back a moment and went back to the child. I used the approach above, and what resulted was an extended time holding this precious young person, discussing how to prevent the boundaries from being broken, making the child feel valued, and connecting over discussing what happened. At one point, the child broke down and cried and apologized for causing stress for us. I cupped the child’s chin in my hand, met the child’s eyes, and said that it was an honor and a privilege to be the child’s mom. The thanks and happy tears and connection that followed was a huge win, and we were able to move forward as a team to work towards healing and growth. I could have missed that moment!


Here are some great books to help children learn some important concepts related to behavioral boundaries, mistakes, and feelings:

  1. Books to Help Children Understand They Are Loveable and Valuable Even When They Make Mistakes:
    The Mermaid Who Couldn’t
    by Ali Redford [Our Review]
    What Do You Do with a Problem? by Kobi Yamada [Our Review]
    I Love You Through and Through by Bernadette Rosetti-Shustak [Our Review]
  2. Books to Help Kids See Adults Mess Up Too:
    Ellie Jelly and the Massive Mum Meltdown by Sarah Naish [Our Review]

Share with others:

What resources have you used to help your child with these concepts?
What other tips do you have for helping children with boundaries?


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Adopting the Hurt Child – Adoption Book Review

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From the Cover of Adopting the Hurt Child: Hope for Families with Special-Needs Kids by Gregory C. Keck, Ph.D, and Regina M. Kupecky, LSW:

“Fewer and fewer families adopting today are able to bring home a healthy newborn infant. The majority of adoptions now involve emotionally wounded, older children who have suffered the effects of abuse or neglect in their birth families and carry complex baggage with them into their adoptive families. Adopting the Hurt Child addresses the frustrations, heartache, and hope surrounding the adoptions of these special-needs kids.

Children who have endured emotional and physical atrocities, failed reunifications, and myriad losses associated with multiple moves in the foster care system not only present unique challenges to their adoptive families but also impact greater society in significant ways. Integrating social, psychological, and sociopolitical issues, Adopting the Hurt Child explains how trauma and interruptions affect these children’s normal development and often severely undermine their capacity to function in a loving family and in society.

Written in a non-technical style accessible to a diverse audience, Adopting the Hurt Child brings to light grim truths, but also real hope that children who have been hurt—and often hurt others—can be healed and brought back into life by the adoptive and foster parents, therapists, teachers, social workers, and others whose lives intersect with theirs.”

Grade:

5 hoots out of 5

Transfiguring Adoption awarded this book 5 Hoots out of 5 based on how useful it will be for a foster/adoptive family. [Learn more about our Hoot grading system here]

What I Thought:

Early in our foster care and adoption journey, our family was on vacation, and before getting on the road to come home, we stopped at an outlet mall. While perusing through a book store, I saw Adopting the Hurt Child, read the cover, and decided it was a must read. On the five-hour ride home, I devoured it, dog-earing pages and soaking in the wisdom.

This book introduces 1) attachment and how difficulties arise due to abuse, neglect, and impermanence, 2) issues with the child welfare system, 3) placement issues, 4) dreams versus realities, 5) the challenges of international adoption, 6) adapting to life together, 7) sibling issues, 8) “giving your child a history,” 9) effective treatment, 10) failed adoptions, 11) successful adoptions, 12) and life in the process of hurting and healing. So many aspects of life with our kids began to make more sense as I read this book. I understood why some of their behaviors, which seemed very abnormal and pathological, were actually quite normal for their circumstances and came to understand how those behaviors developed.

This is one of two books on our shelves that I return to often as a reference either to quote something for someone else or to remind myself of certain realities or find hope. It is a must-read for foster and adoptive parents. Stay tuned for a review of the follow-up book by the same authors—Parenting the Hurt Child—which focuses more on practical strategies.

Buy From Our Links and Support Transfiguring Adoption:

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The Connected Child – Adoption and Foster Care Book Review

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From the Cover of The Connected Child by Karen Purvis, Ph.D., David Cross, Ph.D., and Wendy Lyons Sunshine:

“The adoption of a child is always a joyous moment in the life of a family. Some adoptions, though, present unique challenges. Welcoming these children into your family—and addressing their special needs—requires care, consideration, and compassion.

Written by two research psychologists specializing in adoption and attachment, The Connected Child will help you:

  • Build bonds of affection and trust with your adopted child
  • Effectively deal with any learning or behavioral disorders
  • Discipline your child with love without making him or her feel threatened”

Grade:

5 hoots out of 5

Transfiguring Adoption awarded this book 5 Hoots out of 5 based on how useful it will be for a foster/adoptive family. [Learn more about our Hoot grading system here]

What We Thought:

This book comes from decades of experience working with foster and adoptive children around the world. It helps families learn how to connect with their children and deal with special needs. We highly recommend any materials by Dr. Purvis and Dr. Cross, including this book, DVDs, and conferences.

This book should be on the shelves of every foster and adoptive home for several reasons:

  • Practical advice and strategies – The strategies in this book are easy to implement, though many take a change in mindset. Parents will likely have to work on one strategy at a time until they become habit, rather than trying to change everything at once.
  • Simple scripts to use with your children when you are at your wit’s end – When we lecture our kids in our anger or frustration, they tune us out and stop learning. The Connected Child gives simple, short scripts for you to repeat that become like mantras with your children. I recently reread the book and put a note in my phone with all the scripts for me to reference. Opening up the note gives me a few seconds to breathe and regulate my own emotions, and then I have the words I need to deescalate the situation and get a kiddo back on the right track to succeed.  
  • Easy to understand explanations of the science behind the challenges facing foster and adoptive children – This book explains in every day language what sets the brains—learning, connecting, and behaving—of foster and adoptive children apart from those of their peers and gives parents insight on how to work around these differences.
  • Explanations for why typical parenting and discipline techniques do not work – Foster and adoptive parenting is not parenting as usual, and our children do not respond to the same techniques that biological children do. The Connected Child explains why and gives alternative strategies.
  • Tips for everything from nutrition, medications, therapy, daily schedules, rules, discipline, school issues, teaching life skills, self-care, and much more
  • Extensive table of contents makes it easy to quickly reference needed information – The table of contents not only lists chapter titles, but it also shows all the subheadings in each chapter, making it a great reference without having to thumb through page after page to find the topic you need in the moment.
  • Self evaluations for parents to determine how they need to change their parenting – There are quizzes, checklists, and lists of reflection questions for parents to seriously examine their own parenting and attachment styles and how day-to-day interactions with their children are going.

Buy From Our Links and Support Transfiguring Adoption:


It’s Your Turn:

Share your thoughts and experiences with others here!

  1. What strategy from this book will you implement immediately?
  2. What strategy do you think will be most difficult to implement?
  3. What scripts do you find most helpful for your child?
  4. What was your result from the parenting quiz on p. 169?
  5. Is a checklist like the one of page 216 helpful for you to evaluate your parenting?
  6. Where do you think your child is on the levels of care on page 217?
  7. What did you learn about the role nurturing plays in your life from the questions on page 222?
  8. How do you refill your bucket?

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