Adoption changes everything. Its ripple effects spread like a boulder thrown into a pond — carrying out all the way to edges and impacting every part of life. Many of these ripples are amazing. The positive results of adoption appear continuously, both for adoptive families and birth parents. But, as with anything worth doing in life, some of the results of adoption are hard. For all the joys, there are also challenges.

Let’s talk about the kids, because those challenges can be especially hard for them. Children who come into a family through adoption go on a unique journey that other kids may not experience. Sometimes this is difficult to navigate. It’s normal to experience bumps along the road at different stages. Still, reacting as a parent can be hard. How do you handle an outburst or hurtful words from a child?

Of course, adoptees are not the only children impacted by adoption. There are also potential siblings, either in the adoptive family or the biological family, who have their own struggles. They have questions and concerns. As kids, they may not always handle those things well. In moments of anger or confusion, what do you do when your child shouts something that strikes straight to the heart?

Why Kids Lash Out

Mother consoling her small daughter while embracing her at home.You’re working through your own struggles as a parent, and your children are doing the same in their own little minds. Reacting appropriately when kids say things that hurt isn’t easy, but that’s the burden of parenting. Moments that hurt are opportunities for healing, even when the pain is strong and those joyous ripple effects of adoption seem far away. There’s always hope.

Start here: When a child says something that hurts, there is a need behind that behavior. In most cases, a child’s goal isn’t to hurt. Most likely, they are feeling hurt themselves. They are trying to figure something out, but they don’t have the mental toolkit to resolve problems like this yet. So, they lash out. Behind a scream or an angry, hurtful word, there’s a need. As a parent, you can meet that need.

The Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development at TCU has done extensive research on this, and they’ve created resources for parents that provide practical help and applicable responses. In its work, the Institute has found that the primary neurological need of children exhibiting this kind of behavior is to feel connected and safe. In most cases, it is a child’s feeling that they lack connection or safety that is behind the outburst. Whereas the immediate (and understandable) reaction from the parent may be to respond with judgement or correction, the Institute’s work shows that the best way to turn hurt into healing is through loving connection.

How to React as an Adoptive Parent

The moment when your child yells, “You’re not my real mom, anyways!” is a shot to the heart. It’s awful to hear. How can you respond? It’s okay to take a moment to catch your breath. Then, try to see the need. This isn’t a child trying to be mean, it’s a child trying to work out their complicated story and figure out who they are. It’s a child searching for connection who doesn’t quite understand how to find it. If you can do something in your response that helps a child feel that connection they’re longing for, it will be a big first step toward healing.

How to React as a Birth Parent

What about on the other side of this? What about biological children who say hurtful things? The same is true here, too. Hurtful words are often disguised cries for help. Even though everything in you doesn’t want to respond with grace, it’s the best way forward. Harsh words in response to hurtful words only escalate the situation, making reconciliation with your child even harder to reach.

Reconciliation takes time. Even if the intent wasn’t to cause pain, hurtful words from a child can strike you in the worst way. You may need time to heal from that, and they might need time, too. Adoption and parenting are lifelong journeys. It won’t happen overnight. But, it is possible to find your way back to those beautiful effects of adoption, even when the moment feels harder than you expected.

When your child says something that hurts, the best way to respond is with love. Take a breath, see the need behind their behavior and try to find a way to build a trusting connection. Even when it really hurts, there’s always hope. You and your child can create a beautiful relationship.