What is normal behavior? It’s a hard question to answer, especially when we are talking about kids. Recent advances in brain science tell us with certainty that kids are different than adults, and their behavior reflects that. Add trauma on top of that, and you’ve got a difficult task ahead of you if you want to figure out what’s going on with your child.

Why do we care whether behavior is the result of normal childhood development or adolescence, or it comes from adoption? I think the reason is twofold. First, if it comes from the trauma that can be associated with adoption, it is important to treat the behavior differently than if it is simply the result of normal development. Second, if it is from trauma and the trauma is left undiagnosed and untreated, it can result in problems down the road for your child.

Trauma can result from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which can cause behavioral issues and long-term health problems. The original ACEs study, conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the mid-1990s, showed that individuals who experience ACEs as children are more likely to have health and social problems as an adult.

Being an active listener, observing, and responding with empathy to your child can help them to open up.

While ACEs are measured by a series of questions, including those related to physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect, one of the ACEs questions is, “Before your 18th birthday, was a biological parent ever lost to you through divorce, abandonment, or other reason?” This question demonstrates the impact that losing a biological parent can have on a child.

We all know it’s difficult to get straight answers out of kids. Being an active listener, observing, and responding with empathy to your child can help them to open up. If there is a negative behavior, it’s best not to just rush to judgment about where it’s coming from. Yes, kids need to be held accountable for their actions. But what does being held accountable really mean? And, even more importantly perhaps, what intervention might be most effective to prevent the same behavior from occurring again? Traditional punishment is not necessarily the answer.

Be mindful of your child’s tendencies and reactions, not only when they display negative behaviors, but all the time. Take the time to talk with them when things are calm, ask them how they feel about adoption. Mention some of the other ACEs in casual conversation to make sure they understand what they are and ensure them that you are always there to listen to them without judgment. That will make them more likely to trust you and speak about any issues they may be dealing with, adoption related or not.

If your child is indeed dealing with trauma, it might be a good idea to speak with a school counselor or outside therapist to get some guidance. Your child may not necessarily need some assistance from these professionals, but they are available to help in instances where you don’t feel qualified to handle things on your own.