Current Issue of BDINews
We have several issues with our 4 year old adopted daughter. She has been with us for 2 1/2 years ....
Temperament and Parenting
A Newsletter About Caring for the High Maintenance Child by Kate Andersen, M.Ed.
Assisting Children to Understand Feelings & Learn Coping Techniques.
Volume 22, Number 4, Nov/Dec, 2019
Letter to Kate
We have several issues with our 4 year old adopted daughter. She has been with us for 2 1/2 years and the adoption was what she wanted. She also has an excellent relationship with her paternal birth family, excluding birth dad. So we do not feel that these are actually affecting her problem areas. The one thing we can't seem to get a handle on is her need to destroy. If she has pictures, books, papers, etc., she tears them into little pieces. If she is having a nice, quiet, cuddle time, she will often suddenly strike out at us. She also hurts the animals and her friends with no warning, usually while being very friendly and happy. None of these things are done with intention to hurt and none seem to be done out of anger. These only occur to people and things that are important. Basically this child is a good and loving child, but she does show some strong signs of bi-polar and some milder signs of other disorders. Any ideas, suggestions, etc.. would be greatly appreciated. She is a very high maintenance child, but there are a few things we can't seem to get a handle on at all.
It seems that some adopted (and non-adopted!) children have very complex genetic backgrounds and learning histories which can make sorting out the basis of any behavior problems very difficult for parents and professionals. It sounds as though you and some professionals are working on trying to put together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. At your daughter's age, it will be difficult to get any firm diagnoses but if you need help at preschool and, later, in the school system, you should fight to make sure you obtain it. You daughter is young and has time on her side. With your commitment and the involvement of properly-trained professionals she could do very well.
One thing that is worth keeping in mind when a child destroys things she "likes" and "loves" is the possibility that, from an early age, her reward-punishment system got all mixed up. This can happen with children who have attachment problems, and/or have been abused, with children who have had painful illnesses mixed in with loving attention. The child has difficulty discriminating between the friendly and unfriendly aspects of the environment and acquires a distrust of, or confusion about, "pleasant" feelings (and the people and things that evoke them). The child's confusion provokes the bizarre behavior towards "good" people and things.
Paradoxically, it may be that talking about the past, as well as dwelling on her background and her adoptive status would prolong these confused responses. You would also need to evaluate whether exposure to her biological father triggers any of this behavior "by association", even if he himself never acted in anything but a loving fashion. Even if her biological father is unwittingly triggering these episodes "by association", consistent care from all who love this little girl, with a clear distinction between rewards and punishments, might cause this reward-punishment confusion to go away with time. The problem is that it is difficult for the most patient of caregivers to respond very consistently to destructive behaviors and your confused responses would likely only increase her own confusion.
Another (related or unrelated) possibility is that this child is obtaining some kind of reward from the feeling of tearing things up or from the responses of the animals and people she hurts. This might arise from the same factors as above or might reflect a differently-wired reward system in the brain (which may be part of her 'bi-polar' and other disorders).
Either way, I would suggest seeking help from a very skilled behaviorally-oriented child psychologist to help you fine-tune methods for changing the destructive behavior without worrying too much about the causes in the distant past or in her own make-up. Just by way of example, and not intended as specific advice, I could imagine such a therapist seeing if "tearing up paper" is rewarding by redirecting the child from books and giving her waste paper to tear up instead, along with teaching her clearly the difference between "okay" and not-okay" things to tear. If this didn't work and she continued to want to tear up "not okay" things, you now have a little better information about the possible dynamics involved - possibly the attention gained from breaking rules - e.g. caregiver attention or anger, other child's reaction, animal's yelping. Further analysis might show that this type of attention is more strongly rewarding to this child - right now - than cuddles and positives. And so the trial and error approach would proceed. If this type of systematic approach and adjustment of the program fails after a reasonable amount of time, you would be wise to explore different types of treatment designed to meet her individual needs, possibly including medication.
What you don't need are people who have not had experience with such behaviors giving you advice that might work with children with more normal backgrounds and profiles but which do not work with this little girl. Nor do you need wacky therapies based on pseudo-science. There are many organization for adoptive parents, including some for "special needs" adoptive parents, and you will likely learn a great deal from associating with those other families who can really relate to your situation. As well, these organizations can often steer you towards professionals experienced and skilled with these complex issues.
I hope this helps.
to some common questions about behavioral style.
Origins, impact on parenting, risk for behavioral issues, relationship to ADHD, and other topics.
Goodness of Fit
How temperament is assessed.
Poor fit can lead to stress and possibly emotional or behavioral problems
When professional help is needed
There are qualified individuals from several disciplines who counsel parents and children.