6 Reasons I’m Acting Out (An Adopted Child’s Perspective)

Identifying the reasons behind your child's misbehavior may help you get to the root of the problem and create lasting improvements.

Narda Emett June 23, 2016
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Every adoptee has a story. Their stories are their own. Every individual is unique, so I don’t mean to generalize and infer that all adoptees feel and behave the same. My goal is that as adoptive parents, we strive to understand what our children are going through and why they may be acting out at times.

As our children go through difficult stages of life, it is natural for us to think that we are making a great sacrifice and difference in this child’s life—and that may leave us wondering why they can’t appreciate us more. This is a big mistake many adoptive parents make. Over the years in the adoption community, I have heard this theme mentioned by many adoptees: “My adoptive parents gave me a guilt trip when I misbehaved or asked questions about my adoption. They said I should be grateful for what I have and the opportunities I’ve been given.”

The truth is most, if not all, adoptees feel pain or loss related to adoption at some point in their lives, even if they were adopted at birth. And while they more than likely feel love and gratitude too, they need to acknowledge the loss to be able to move forward. How adoptees react to pain and loss differs greatly, from feeling lonely to rejecting anyone who tries to love them.

So, next time your child acts out, try to frame it from their perspective.

6 Reasons I’m acting out:

1. I am afraid.

Fear is a powerful force. Fear manifests itself in many forms, from rage to wanting to be alone. Most people react to fear with “fight or flight.” Look for signs of fear such as startled reflexes, nervousness, and anxiety. When you see fear, give your child time to calm down before talking about the behavior. Help your child feel safe.

2. I feel unlovable.

Some adoptees believe they must be unlovable because they were placed for adoption. Tell your children from the beginning about the circumstances of their adoptions. Reassure them that they are loved. Express your love in words and actions.

3. I am confused or I don’t know how I fit in.

In some adoptions, children have to navigate multiple relationships. They may remember biological relatives and don’t understand why they can’t see them anymore. Or, they may still visit biological relatives and feel torn between loyalties to each family. Talk about relationships. Let them decide what name they want to call each person in their life, and be supportive if they decide they want to call you both “Mom” or “Grandma,” etc.

4. I remember neglect and don’t trust adults in my life.

Be consistent. Have a detailed schedule your child can see and refer to. As they see that you stick to the schedule and they are fed when the schedule says they should eat, and they have story time when the schedule indicates, they can allow themselves to trust again. This can take some time. Don’t give up. Look for professional help, if needed.

5. I don’t remember details, but I have triggers.

Your child may have witnessed traumatic events in his/her life. They may not remember them and may not be able to explain why something makes them angry or melt down. Keep notes of triggers. After a meltdown, write down what happened prior to the episode. Was there too much noise, were they in a crowded place, was there arguing or raised voices, etc. If you can find out what triggers outbursts, that may help you eliminate or reduce the triggers.

6. I wonder what could have been.

We are parents. We have to teach our children. With teaching comes discipline. As a child, you don’t see that the discipline is trying to shape your values and help you learn control. You only see “mean parents” who want to make your life miserable. For children who were adopted, this can lead to thoughts and fantasies about what it would have been like if their “real parents” were raising them. This is a natural feeling. Don’t worry about it. When they are older and have children of their own, they will get it.

They may also feel loss at not knowing who they look like, where their talents come from, and long for a relationship. This can lead to feelings of loneliness and sadness. Allow the grief. If they want to talk about it, listen without interrupting. Don’t take their feelings of loss as a rejection of you as their parent. Don’t remind them to be grateful for what they have. Just let them feel the pain and let them know you love them and will always be there for them. 

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Narda Emett

Narda Emett is a mother of six, four of whom were adopted. She has been part of the adoption community for over 16 years, serving on local and national boards for Families Supporting Adoption. She has adopted both domestically and internationally and is happy to be part of a transracial adoptive family. In her free time (does a mother of six ever have free time?), she likes to read and make amazing wedding cakes.


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