Understanding Adoptee Behavior

Guest Blogger Robert Allan Hafetz, MS/MFT, shares the third and final installment of a series of adoption-focused posts.
angry-child-screaming-side-view-portrait-alphabet-letters-coming-out-her-mouth-isolated-grey-wall-background-negative-human-47339004The overwhelming number of adoptees, 85%, adjusts in ways that society regards as successful. (Kadushin, A.1980). The remaining 15% require intervention by therapists and counselors. Those that adjust successfully may still have serious concerns resulting from the adoption process that are in need of a resolution. The absence of a disorder or dysfunction is not an indicator of one who is achieving optimum development. Since creating the best developmental setting for children is the goal of parenting I am going to explore the causes and goals of adoptee behaviors. I believe that understanding why adoptees behave is the key to creating the best opportunity for them to develop. It also leads the way to effective therapy.

All human behavior is goal directed and purposeful nothing is random. When children misbehave that’s not the problem, it’s the child’s solution to a problem. In order for parents to deal effectively with behavioral concerns they must be able to understand the child’s goals. Adoptees are not like other children and the same behavior can have a very different purpose for an adoptee. We must learn to look at what drives behaviors more than the acts themselves.

“Usually no differences are seen in (adoptee’s) patterns of adjustment during infancy and preschool years” (Brodzinski, D. 1992). I have seen, in my practice that behavioral concerns begin at around the age of 5 or 6. This is Erikson’s stage of identity VS role confusion. At this age they begin to think about their place in the world and become aware that they have no genetic markers that connect them to their adoptive family. They are also now experiencing implicit memories of loss resulting from the maternal separation that is a part of their life experience. This is a normal adaptive response not a disorder. These memories are remembered as emotions and are not connected to verbal skills. The adoptee is feeling powerful emotions that cannot be verbally identified. This is unsettling, confusing, and frightening. The inability to understand these painful emotional memories becomes the motivator for the child’s goal setting. The child will act out or suppress the emotional memories. Some children will become numb or compliant x and I believe these are the more seriously injured. Problem behaviors occur because the goals set by the child are erroneous and don’t satisfy their needs. For example, a child who feels isolated and disconnected may choose to seek excessive attention. This can result in the child feeling even more isolated as the parent becomes frustrated and corrects the child reinforcing the sense of disconnection. This is not RAD or any other attachment disorder. The child is reacting, normally, to life experiences that attachments end badly. Think of these behaviors as attachment regulating behaviors rather then misbehaviors or testing. Attachment regulation is the adoptees way of changing emotional boundaries to feel safe. They can change quickly and without any external trigger.

Human beings have 4 crucial needs; The need to feel (connected), that one (counts), is (capable), and has (courage) to handle life’s adversities. These needs have been named The Crucial Cs. by Dr. Betty Lou Bettner. When adoptee’s behavior becomes a problem or arouses concern it is to acquire one or more of these crucial Cs. The behavior becomes a problem because the adoptee is not cognitively aware of the need. Consequently, the goal chosen is an erroneous goal. Relating behavior to the crucial Cs gives us a way to understand what is motivating the adoptee’s behavior. Adoptees are, normally, predisposed to be compromised in acquiring these needs. Premature maternal separation creates a feeling of disconnection, shame, disempowerment, and a lack of efficacy. Experiences in the adoptive family can heal or intensify these emotions. Experiences refer to the process I talked about previously in changing implicit memory.

When the child is triggered and acting out an opportunity for healing presents itself. When the child is at his worst the parents must be non-reactive. The most common goal for adoptees is the need to feel connected. The previous example of attention seeking to overcome a feeling of disconnection may play out like this. Parents come in to counseling complaining that my child argues with me, calls me names, is angry, and we struggle all the time. Power struggles often mean the child’s initial attempt to connect haven’t been understood by the parent. The attention seeking annoyed the parent who reacted by giving a time out or some other limit setting act. It’s crucial to know what happened before the power struggle started. Parents can’t win a power struggle and if they engage the child it can escalate to vengeance. If the need to connect is addressed in the attention seeking stage the chances are good the child may not escalate. I say may because adoptees can be very determined and headstrong.

When the attention seeking becomes annoying that’s the time to address the adoptees behavioral goals. In order to change the limbic memories the child must be in touch with them at the same time the contradictory experience occurs. I suggest a question to bring the memory out into consciousness. “Are you feeling alone?” Children often answer with I don’t know. It doesn’t matter because they actually don’t know what they are feeling. Then validate their emotions by saying “it’s alright to feel that way.” The parent has now aligned with the child and together they will solve the child’s goal to feel connected. The parent must now, nonverbally, create a secure attachment experience. Words are useless because the limbic brain system doesn’t understand words. You must communicate directly with the child’s emotional memories in order to modify and heal them before reconsolidation. Touch, eye, contact a soft voice, and body language are your vocabulary now. Touch gently first then ask permission if you can hug the child. Go slow this is a very sensitive area. In this moment of the child’s triggered fears the brain can rewire its limbic memories.

Misbehavior is the child’s solution to not feeling one or more of the crucial Cs. Instead or punishment or limit setting I advise collaborative problem solving which will become a bonding experience. Use eye contact, touch, and body language to communicate. Do not engage in power struggles you can’t win them. Validate the child’s emotions not the behavior. Praise effort more then success and say I believe in you before you say I love you.

The Process

A memory of the loss of the primal mother is recorded in the infant’s limbic system. “Neurobiologists have established that the brains limbic system stores and controls the activation of all schemas involving intense emotions of distress, such as fear and anger, along with the knowledge of how to be safe and self-protective. (Pansskepp, J., 1998). The amygdala compares current perceptions to these attachment related implicit memories triggering a self-protective response. This is why adoptees may react with anxiety to attachment. At the same time they crave attachment and the need to feel connected. “Due to the entirely nonverbal nature of the limbic brain, experiential rather then cognitive methods are required for successfully engaging and changing its schemas.” (Ecker, B., 2011). “A dynamic neural process now known as reconsolidation can actually unlock the synapses maintaining implicit emotional learnings” (Nader, K., et al. 2000).


“Further research has established that in order for synapses to unlock, the brain requires not just the experience of reactivation of the memory—it’s also necessary for a second, critical experience to promptly take place while the memory reactivation experience is still occurring. That second experience consists of perceptions that sharply contradict and disconfirm the implicit expectations of the reactivated memory.

(1) Fully reactivate the target implicit memory so that the emotional experience is occurring.

(2) While the target memory is fully reactivated and the emotional experience is occurring, promptly create an additional, concurrent experience that sharply mismatches (contradicts and disconfirms) the expectations and predictions arising from the implicit memory.”
(Ecker, B.2010, Psychotherapy Networker)

Nader K., Schafe, G.E.,& LeDoux,J.E., (2000). Fear memories require protein synthesis in the amygdala for reconsolidation after retrieval. Nature, 406, 722-726.
Panskepp, J., (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. Oxford University Press.
Ecker, B.,( 2011). Coherence Therapy Practical Manuel and Training Guide. Coherence Psychology Institute, Oakland CA.

Robert Allan Hafetz MS/MFT Adoption Education & Family Counseling LLC Education Director

Robert Allan Hafetz was born January 28, 1951, in the Door of Hope Salvation Army Booth Home, in Jersey City, New Jersey. A late in life graduate of Temple University, Robert was awarded a BS/CTRS degree in Therapeutic Recreation. Robert then went on to Holy Family University to complete his Master’s Degree in marriage and family counseling. Robert received The Bill Dayton Award from Temple University for work with the physically disabled. He was wheelchair weightlifting coach for McGee Rehabilitation Hospital, and his team holds two world records in the Para-Olympics. During the past 15 years Robert has worked as an adjunctive therapist serving acute inpatient adults and attachment compromised adolescents in residential treatment. In 2005 he published Not Remembered Never Forgotten an adoptee’s search for his birth family. In 2008 the second edition was published. A member of New Jersey Care and State Representative of the American Adoption Congress Robert has testified many times before the New Jersey Senate and Assembly on pending adoption legislation. He is the founder of Adoption Education & Family Counseling LLC devoting full time to adoption education and support for all members of the adoption family.