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We have adopted a couple of children. Through the orphanage they found that if they threw gigantic fits they would get whatever they wanted.  In our home it is structured and fits are not allowed.  We are at a crossroads with one of our daughters.  Her state at this point in time is that we love her older sister better, her older sister has everything and she has nothing (which of course is not true at all), and what we have given her is not at all appreciated because she of course deserves so much more.  That being said, I certainly do not think this is specific to adoption as our two biological boys have gone through the exact same scenario.  Although I was able to snap them out of it quite quickly, hers seems to be a monumental issue.  What would you suggest in disciplining her?  Do we take away things we have given her and give them back as her attitude changes?  Time outs do not seem to be working and now she is resorting to telling her older sister (whom is also adopted) that she has heard us say we like our biological children much more than our adoptive children and blurting out cruel statements to get our older daughter into a state of complete despair and sobbing.  Thoughts?


Hello Sara.  My name is Penny Davis and I am one of the people who answers questions sent to the website.  I have been a parent educator and counselor for almost 30 years and have two grown daughters of my own.  I have also spent many years working with foster and adoptive parents.
It’s a bit difficult to know specifically what might be going on here, since there are so many variables I don’t know (your daughter’s age, how long she’s been in your home, how long she spent in institutional care, what her life situation was prior to that time, whether your two adopted daughters are siblings, etc).  The best I can do, is give you some general feedback and perhaps you yourself, knowing your child, can make some decisions about what seems to make sense.
All children (and all humans, actually), once their needs for food, shelter and safety are met, have a basic emotional need to belong and feel important. This need is normally met by our initial primary caretaker(s), assuming this person (people) is consistent, caring, and nurturing. 
When these needs are met, children are basically encouraged, and tend to behave well most of the time.  Many children who have been removed from birth parents, who have lived in institutional care and/or those in the foster care system who have been moved several times, often have not developed a well-defined sense of belonging and significance.  In fact, they sometimes feel that they DON”T belong and ARE NOT important and so have developed a mistaken belief about how to achieve it….and this is through misbehavior.  We can often identify what this is by how we (the adult or parent) feel in the situation.  For example, if the parent feels threatened or challenged, it may be that the child’s mistaken belief is ‘I only belong or am important if I am proving that I am the boss, or that no one can boss me’…..what the child is really saying underneath this is “Let me help, give me choices”.  If the parent feels hurt, the child’s mistaken belief might be ‘I only belong and am important if I can hurt others as I’ve been hurt’….what the child is really saying is ‘I’m hurting, validate my feelings.

It is this underlying need for belonging and importance that needs to be addressed, rather than focusing on the behavior, which is what most parents do. This is why traditional time outs, and taking things away from children often don’t work – they just add to the hurt and lack of belonging that these children already feel.
From your letter, it also sounds like your daughter got lots of attention for her misbehavior in the past, which certainly did not help (she was rewarded for her ‘mistaken belief’).
 So, here are some suggestions:
1.    First, pay as little attention as possible to any statements she makes about how you love her less than the others, or how she has less than the others.  Do not explain, justify, of defend yourself. Simply acknowledge her feelings, with a statement like ‘sounds like you feel sad (or hurt).’ Do not take anything away from her, do not pay attention to her attitude.  Do not take it personally.
2.    At times when you and she are having fun and/or relaxed time – reading, playing a game, driving in the car, eating together or whatever, make sure the message of love gets through to her – tell her how much you love her, you are happy she is part of your family, what special personal ways she contributes to the ‘wholeness’ of your family.
3.    Again, at times when she is calm and relaxed, try talking with her (not AT her) about how life sometimes seems unfair to all of us, and that all of us get mad, grumpy, frustrated, etc sometimes.  Ask her if she can think of some ways to handle these feelings that would not be hurtful to others.  Again, without knowing her age, it’s difficult to suggest specifics, but here are some examples.  With younger children (3-6 or so) we suggest a ‘positive time out’, which is a place where children can choose to go when they are upset that is a place that has books, play doh, pillows, stuffed toy, etc that will help them feel better and get back in control (rather than the punishing place that normal time out is).  For older children, they themselves often suggest things like taking a walk, spending a bit of time in their room listening to music, etc.  What you want, long term, for your daughter, is to understand and be able to deal with her feelings in a constructive manner, and to know that you also understand and are ok with them.
4.    Look for ways always, to involve her in contributing ways in the family – helping with the business of the family (setting table, helping with meal prep, choosing the meal once a week, folding laundry).  One of the best ways for children to feel ‘significance’ is contributing to community, the first of which is family.
5.    Ask curiosity questions, which are ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions.  These are helpful in exposing children to decision-making and problem-solving.  Examples are ‘what happened?’ ‘How did that happen?’ ‘What can you do differently next time”.
6.    Most of all you want her to know that you love her unconditionally, no matter what her behavior.

All of these tools and more can be found in the book Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen, which I recommend.  I think you would find it very helpful, in parenting all of your children.  Good luck to you.


Some children who have been in orphanages and or foster care have had their share of traumatic experiences.  Because these traumas have come at a relatively young age when children are making life long decisions about the world (is it safe or dangerous), about others (can I trust them, or not) and about themselves (am I worthwhile or not) they impact how the brain develops and how children make meaning of their world later in life.  Children who have had trauma early tend to be hypervigilant, tend to avoid things that might re trigger their trauma, and tend to react to "normal" events in ways that other children would not.  They can have fearful, enraged, or avoidant emotional reactions to small things that would not bother securely attached children.  Trauma specialists like Bessel van der Kolk remind care givers that "because these children are prone to experience anything novel, including rules and other protective interventions, as punishments, they tend to regard teachers and therapists who try to establish safety as perpetrators."  (You may find his full article useful.  It can be found at )   This doesn't mean that you should stop setting limits, or ensuring safety. It does mean that you'll have to be very attuned to seeing the world through her eyes, and being careful to be clear that you want to be helpful not hurtful.

Jody McVittie

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