Do you ever look at your child, the child you waited so long to adopt, who you would walk over fire and take bullets for, and why you even thought you’d be a good adoptive parent? Same. Almost daily. It is exhausting trying to figure out what is happening that is making your angelic princess of a child into an unholy union of a Tasmanian devil and a honey badger with bad behavior. Not to brag, but my ability to dodge a shoe flung at my face is pretty impressive. But seriously. 

What’s worse is the feeling I get talking to other parents whose kids haven’t suffered any major trauma and trying to explain why your child just sat down and started screaming because a stranger looked at them in a way they didn’t like. Yeah, sometimes all kids make weird choices and have hard struggles. I used to think that adoptive parents must have just not understood that. But adopted kids, kids who have suffered trauma, have their own brand of hard. It’s difficult to explain to people not living with it. 

While you might not ever be able to make other people truly understand why your child is struggling, I can try and help you understand, and maybe reframe some of what’s happening so you don’t feel as confused. 


Bedtime is something that many adopted children struggle with. This has nothing (or very little) to do with them being willful, spiteful, or trying to make you upset. I understand that as your cherubic-looking 4-year-old is telling you you’re not the boss of them when your deepest desire is to go to sleep, it feels personal. It feels like a child choosing to defy you. It’s not. Yes, some of it is about control. Because of the lack of control they’ve had over their situation, often kids will make a grab for control with bad behavior wherever they think they can. 

Several things contribute to bedtime being especially hard for adopted kids. Often bedtime leads to kids being alone with their own thoughts. For little kids that might mean feeling lonely or missing their biological family. It could be memories of people that hurt them. It could be that they’re afraid of the dark but don’t want to say it. It could be a bedtime routine was different or nonexistent. It could be they are tired but can’t sleep. They aren’t trying to be difficult. They’re using whatever way they have to avoid the thing they don’t want–even if it’s bad behavior. 


One way to help is to have a regular bedtime routine. It can be as elaborate or as simple as you want and will work for your family. Routine is good for all kids, but for kids who are anxious about what might or might not happen next, having a schedule is so helpful. 

Talk to their doctor about recommendations for sleep help. Some kids’ brains won’t slow down enough to give them rest. I don’t think every kid needs medication, but for some it is a difference between a good night sleep or no sleep at all. 

An important mantra to remember is “This isn’t about me.” You’re the closest person, so you’re in the splash zone when kids are hurting. I tend to be the default adult in my kid’s lives. This means I am both the person the kids want the most attention from and the person they blame whenever anything goes wrong. It is crazymaking to sit in a room with a kid who will follow you to the bathroom to keep talking to you and hear them say they hate you and your words don’t matter. 

The key to understanding behavior and eventually helping your adopted child succeed is realizing they might look an average kid, but their early life experiences have been far from average. What works with an average kid may make no sense for an adopted kid. For example, a normal consequence for negative behavior for most kids is losing a privilege. I have a kid who has lost so much in his life, there is literally nothing I could do that is worse than what he’s already faced. I can’t do or say anything to him to change the past or the permanent consequences that have come from it. I’ve had to step back and just offer the help I can when I can. It’s not about me. 


Do your kids ever tell humongous lies without batting an eye? I mostly can’t tell when my kids are telling me the truth or not. Some parents claim they “just know.” I do not have that spidey sense. It’s not that they want to tell lies. They want your attention and don’t know how to ask for it. Their sense of right and wrong isn’t what we think. For some kids adopted from foster care, lying was the difference between life or death for them. Overcoming that impulse with a child’s mind that is already bad at impulse control is an impossible task. This isn’t a moral, spiritual, or personal issue. Not really. It’s fear. They don’t want you to be mad, or sad, disappointed, or frustrated.


Sometimes kids who were adopted from foster care especially can struggle with things like hoarding. Their brain is afraid of not having something they might need. This can be common among people who grew up in poverty as well. The idea that they might need something and not have it creates a fear response that insists on hiding things. I had a kid who would hide yogurts under his bed. He knew it would go bad, but he couldn’t control that impulse. It’s heartbreaking to watch a kid do something that confuses him as much as it does you. 

So yes, all kids have hard behavior, and all kids struggle. However, adopted kids have another layer of hard to work through. Scientists are learning about how early trauma can affect a child throughout their entire lives. Try to imagine how scary their lives must have felt at times. How hard would it be to removed from everything they knew? Everyone thinks the way their home works is “normal”. To your child who was adopted, you are the weird one.