Wednesday 17 January 2018

David Coleman Column: What can family do about adopted child's behaviour?

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Library Image.
David Coleman

David Coleman

I AM worried about my nephew who is 14 and is living with his adoptive parents and his natural brother, who is 12.

My nephew has recently been diagnosed with Asperger's, ADHD and ODD. Both boys were adopted through the British adoption system; they were aged two-and-a-half and four when adopted.

From the beginning, a very firm hand was needed, as they had been in three foster homes inside two-and-a-half years. My older nephew's behaviour has the family constantly walking on glass shards.

He is having one-to-one sessions to help with his anger, but I don't think it is working as he has kicked out five of the internal doors and has kicked and punched his parents.

They have had to call their neighbour for help on several occasions and the police on one occasion. He is also addicted to online games, and has used his parents' credit cards to buy additions to these games.

I also feel there are inconsistencies in the way his parents deal with him, but that is easy for me to say, because I am not dealing with him every day. I think they need help. Can you give me some direction as to whom the family needs to see professionally?

David replies:

I THINK that the different behaviours and 'symptoms' that your nephew has exhibited over the years, which have led to the diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Asperger's syndrome, are probably also explained by an underlying attachment disorder. You mention that your nephew was four when he was adopted, having been through several foster homes since he was taken into care. I can only speculate that in his first couple of years before coming into care, he probably had quite inconsistent care, perhaps even abusive experiences.

His first two to three years are crucial to his development of an attachment relationship with a significant and safe adult.

If his basic needs were not met, if he was emotionally or physically neglected, or if he was regularly mistreated, then he is unlikely to have formed this all-important attachment.

Then, he had a series of carers over a comparatively short period of time, again perhaps denying him the opportunity to rely upon and trust that an adult will always be there to meet his needs.

In practice, he probably learned not to trust adults and instead he unconsciously challenged and tested them.

He probably appeared angry, withdrawn, unpredictable, moody, even cruel at times.

I could imagine that he lived in a very insecure and frightened world against which he struggled.

Unfortunately, when attachment difficulties are not recognised, children's behaviour is simply seen as oppositional and so a whole series of negative, punishment-based approaches are taken in the name of applying "a firm hand" to keep them in check.

As those children get older, they trust adults even less as they deem them to be unfair, harsh, rejecting or punitive.

So, in fact, their relationships with the adults around them become very negative and simply confirm their core belief that you can't rely on anyone.

Also, as children get older, the potential for their anger, or their acting-out, to cause harm becomes much greater with their increased physical strength.

At age 14, your nephew's behaviour and underlying beliefs about the world are quite likely to be firmly established and so changing them, positively, will be very hard work.

However, a child and adolescent therapist who specialises in attachment will best support him and his parents to do so.

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