Strategies for Understanding Difficult Behavior

Part 2 of 3 in a series

Moms and dads often find that they wear many different hats when parenting their children.  Sometimes they put on a nursing cap and bandage boo-boos, other times they wear a chef hat as they cook and provide meals.

As their child moves into middle and high school, they often don a chauffeur hat and drive their children from place to place.  One hat that is often overlooked is the detective hat.   

Parenting adoptive and foster children is not just about meeting obvious, visible needs. Many times parents must get out their complete detective uniform so they can figure out what is really going on with their child.  Words or behaviors do not always tell the full story of what the child is thinking and feeling or why they exhibit certain behavior.

As we discussed in part one of this series, ?Are you Misreading Your Foster or Adoptive Child?s Behavior?, foster and adoptive parents should also look at additional categories of need when responding to their children.

Today we are going to discuss six strategies for trying to figure out what is the real meaning behind your child?s behavior.  These ideas will be helpful not only for foster and adoptive parents but for teachers, relatives, youth pastors and anyone who comes into contact with foster and adoptive children.

  1. Look at patterns– Keep a chart or daily log of difficult behavior.  Do you notice that your child gets dysregulated at certain times of the day or after certain activities?  Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel offers parents the HALT acronym to consider.  Is your child Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired?  One mom told me recently that she noticed that her son got in trouble at school every day at 10 o?clock in the morning.  She added protein and additional food to the child?s breakfast and his problem behavior went away.  Also, foster and adoptive children often get out of sorts when there is little structure or too much free time in their schedule.
  2. Think Trauma– Trauma disrupts the emotional regulation part of the brain.  A child who has experienced previous trauma or neglect often has a very sensitive response when faced with a situation that causes fear.  It may seem that they immediately go into fight, flight or freeze when they feel unsafe or are around trauma reminders.  Some common things that cause foster and adopted children to be fearful are: food (not getting enough, missing a meal, getting less or not the same item as another), transitions, nighttime, saying goodbye, being or feeling rejected, people leaving or anything that reminds them of their trauma including sights, smells or sounds associated with painful memories.
  3. Check the Date, Time or Season– Birthdays, holidays, and seasonal changes can be difficult for every child but these times can be especially difficult for some children. They may remind the child of when they left their biological or foster family, joined their new family, or experienced abuse and neglect.   At these times, children can also be reminded of their losses; losing their first family, country, heritage, language or name.
  4. Look at Beliefs– Children who have experienced trauma and loss often have difficulty trusting and do not feel secure. Inside they often feel shame or that they are defective and flawed.  They may have an underlying belief that they were a bad baby or child which caused them to have been ?abandoned?, ?given up? or ?taken away?.  They may be overly helpful, controlling or angry. A negative self-image can cause difficulty getting along with other children or adults.  Children may be excessively shy or have attention seeking behavior.
  5. Consider Sensory Processing or Other Issues– Sensory integration occurs in the brain, starts in utero and develops as a child learns, grows and is exposed to new experiences. Sensory integration disorder can have many symptoms but a few that could be misinterpreted as willful defiance or difficult behavior are:  frequently bumping into things, not knowing where one is in space, being too rough or not understanding one?s own strength, being impulsive, fidgeting and moving a lot. Some other issues found among adopted and foster children are auditory processing difficulties, developmental delays, fetal alcohol syndrome, attention deficit, learning disorders, and digestion difficulties.
  6. Discover Your Child– Your child is a unique individual, created by God with his or her own personality, likes, dislikes, gifts and strengths. Get to know your child.  What preferences do they have?  In what environment do they really thrive? What activities do they quickly abandon?  Try to think of your child as a unique, separate individual that God has crafted together.  They may not like the same things as you and that is okay, we are all different and that is one thing that makes life exciting!

So, many times these more subtle, hidden factors drive our child?s behavior and we might misinterpret the clues and draw the wrong conclusion.  It takes time and effort to determine the real underlying factors that are driving our child?s behavior, but you can do it!  I?ve created this FREE WORKSHEET for you to chart behaviors to help you determine the root cause.  In part three of this series, we will explore how you can meet with child?s need without the use of harsh consequences or punishments. Stay tuned…

Renee works as a life coach and specializes in working with foster and adoptive families. She meet families in Louisville area, coaches in the family home and via teleconferencing.  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