Are you Misreading Your Adoptive or Foster Child?s Behavior?

Part 1 of 3 in a series

When my family and I lived in China, we often purchased DVDs of family movies at the local market to watch together.? One afternoon, we sat down to watch our newly purchased film, but instead of fun and entertainment, we found ourselves confused and unable to understand what was happening.? It turns out, the subtitles for our family movie were actually made for a different video; an action-based film that included a lot of cursing.? It took a few minutes for our brains to connect that what was happening in the movie did not match the words that were displayed on the screen.

When children are babies, a good parent, becomes attuned to their infant?s needs, learns their cries and meets the child?s needs in a timely manner.? ?All cries carry a meaning and tell the parent a message such as I?m hungry, tired, dirty, hot, cold, sick, lonely, etc.? Since the child is not able to voice in words the need, the parent is coming up? with and acting on an idea or ?subtitle? of what is really bothering the child.

As foster and adoptive parents become attuned, label and try to make sense of their child?s behavior, so they can ultimately meet the child?s underlying need, they may feel confused.? Often times, they misinterpret behavior, assign wrong motives and instead of meeting a need, they discipline and punish based on a faulty ?subtitle? or understanding of what is really happening with the child.

There are many reasons that behavior exhibited from children who come from backgrounds of trauma and loss is difficult to interpret.? Parents have to navigate typical child development issues along with trauma symptoms and the losses associated with adoption.

The effects of trauma are pervasive and may affect the child?s body, brain, biology, belief system and of course their behavior. ?Some ways that trauma may affect the child are: difficulty trusting, sensory integration issues, emotional regulation struggles, and beliefs that they are a bad person or did something wrong for someone to inflict abuse or neglect upon them.

There also core issues affected by the losses inherent in adoption that may affect the child.? Some areas that adoptees may struggle are: continually fearing abandonment, anticipating rejection in life and relationships, feeling different from others and fear of getting close to others.

As parents navigate the muddy waters of trying to figure out why their child is acting the way they are, what might misinterpretation of behavior look like?? Here are a few examples:

  • Behavior:? A child is fidgety and cannot sit still through a church service.
  • Misinterpretation😕 Parents think the child is disobedient and disrespectful.
  • Possible reasons for the behavior: The child has sensory integration disorder.
  • Child?s Need:? The child needs more movement to calm, settle and organize their sensory system.


  • Behavior: A child is mean to peers or siblings.
  • Misinterpretation: Parent thinks the child is rude and unkind.
  • Possible reasons for the behavior: The child lacks social skills or is jealous of peers. ?They feel insecure and have a negative belief that they are a bad person or have no worth.
  • Child?s Need: The child needs help developing social skills or help getting past the negative belief that they are a bad person.


  • Behavior:? A child lies.
  • Misinterpretation:? The child is a liar.
  • Possible reasons for the behavior:? The child developed a habit in their previous situation to protect them and possibly keep them safe or alive.? The child does not trust the new caregiver.
  • Child?s Need:? Loving, supportive relationship building with the new caregiver.? Patient and positive help in breaking a habit.


  • Behavior:? An adopted teen has started breaking previously followed rules.
  • Misinterpretation:? The teen is defiant.
  • Possible reasons for the behavior:? The child is moving through a normal developmental stage toward autonomy. Parents and children sometimes have a hard time adjusting to this phase.
  • Child?s Need:? More choices and opportunities for decision-making and help planning for the future.

So, if understanding the behavior of foster and adoptive parenting and meeting the child?s underlying need is so difficult, what is a parent to do? Hold on, there is hope!

First, pray!? Remember what the Bible says in Proverbs 2: 1-3, “My child, listen to what I say, and treasure my commands. Tune your ears to wisdom, and concentrate on understanding. Cry out for insight, and ask for understanding.”

Second, stay tuned for my next few articles as we discuss?.

  1. Strategies for interpreting behavior so I can meet my child?s real needs?
  2. Should I use punishment and consequences for dealing with my child?s misbehavior?

Renee works as a life coach and specializes in working with foster and adoptive parents.? She helps families identify areas of concern,?provides training to help them understand the root cause of their struggles and through coaching, helps families apply proven tools and techniques needed to address their underlying difficulties. You can find more information about her services at or you may contact Renee at Her Facebook page is

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