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Parents of Teens and Young Adults

One2 Year Old Son Refuses to Follow the Rules

We adopted our oldest when he was 4 1/2 from foster care and he is now 12. He has some attachment issues, but compared to some of our other adopted kids, it has always been relatively minor. This year, as he has made his way into adolescents he has become extremely difficult. He doesn’t do anything to our face and there is no raging or fighting, but he refuses to follow any of our rules. He lies, steals from us, breaks every rule. He rides the bus to and from school and has been walking from school to the high school to get on the bus there even though the bus yard has told him as have we that he is not allowed to do it. He gets caught in everything he does, but it does not stop him. He stole a kid’s iPhone at school to use because he lost his after posting inappropriate things and even after we gave him chances to earn it back he just kept doing it. His answer to any of this is “I don’t like the rules” as if this justifies the lies and dishonesty. He acts hurt every time he gets caught, but continues the next day to do the same thing. There are no more restrictions or consequences we could possibly give. I am at a complete loss on what to do and concerned for how this behavior will escalate as he moves into further teen years if this is how he is acting already at 12. What can you do? I only listed a few things but the list of what he does is pretty extensive and literally everyday he take the opportunity to at least try to break the rules behind our backs. I am so tired of it all and it has only been a year. I fear this is going to go on through is teenage years and I don’t know if I can take that. It has me concerned for what is going to happen when my next eldest who is 10 gets to his age as well.


The title must have changed the 1 to a one. Should say 12 year old son, but it won’t let me edit it now and just keeps freezing. Sorry.

Posted by Spazzerville on May 16, 2017 at 7:48am

Often adoption issues become more serious at this age of identity formation. Does he know his story? Why was he in foster care, what happened to birth family etc? I would call some agencies and ask for a referral to a therapist who knows about attachment and adoption.Even though he is not the worse behaved child he still needs help

Have you ever read Parenting the Hurt Child by Keck? or

Seven Core Issues of Adoption

He may be processing abandonment/loss issues or he may have made contact with birth family on the net.

Posted by Regina on May 16, 2017 at 1:20pm

Yes, he knows his story and about his birth family. We have pictures that he looks at occasionally and he knows I email his birth mother with updates. I have read Parenting the Hurt Child and several other attachment books, but nothing seems to work with him anymore. It has been hard to find a therapist that know about attachment. The last one he was at I had to pull him out of because she tried to suggest that triangulation wasn’t a bad thing. I find I am usually explaining attachment things to the therapist and then it just becomes a waste of time because they are hurting more than helping. 

Thanks for the link. I will check that out and I hadn’t thought about if he had made contact with his birth family or not.

Posted by Spazzerville on May 16, 2017 at 8:05pm

These years can be incredibly difficult. Few things in terms of framing his behavior - possibly testing you and your endurance, testing to see if your love is actually unconditional or not. Testing to see if you’re up for the task, if you can take him, your authority. Also, in terms of identity - possibly trying on his birth parent’s identity even if he’s never met them…

There are times when it makes sense to consider a higher level of care such as day treatment programs. I’m not assuming, just mentioning that safety is what’s most important, especially if it feels like individual therapy isn’t enough.

Here’s my piece on setting limits from my book, Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Teen Years”  in the May issue of Adoptive Families.
I often run parent groups and workshops, some online. Just finishing a few groups up but if you’d like to be updated, feel free to join the e-mail list at

Posted by Katiejae on May 17, 2017 at 4:12pm


This sounds oh so familiar to me. Sigh. But my daughter has major attachment issues and was adopted recently in her teens, so it may be for different reasons.

Many older kids often are afraid of what will happen when they leave the home, and just aren’t ready.

It is really important what the cause of this change in behavior was. See if you can figure it out. Did your son get involved in drugs? Did something happen in school? Or elsewhere? Someone act mean? He had a loss in the family? Bad grade? Something he is ashamed of?It really helps in resolving this to understand what was the cause. In our case I didn’t figure the whole of it out till months later when I learned there was a failing grade mid quarter on a progress report that I never saw. There were other contributing factors, but it just never made sense till then.

I feel it is really important to not let bad behavior slide.It is exhausting to keep applying consequences but even as a single mother, I knew I had to stick it out or it would only get worse. Consequences like taking him to school and picking him up yourself, keeping him out of school to go to a therapist, limiting his allowance, or limiting time with friends, etc. are important.Taking away the cell phone was the right move. Just keep on till you make sure you get to the bottom of this and back on course.

It is also really important to focus on the good qualities you love in your son at the same time. Children often feel a lot of shame when they mess up, and self disrupt because they expect you will be done with them, or that they are themselves no good. Children are usually frightened when things go out of balance, so I found it helped my daughter and me when I told her that we’d work this out and get whatever help we needed to do that, and she should not worry. Also I often repeated that I knew she’d find it easy to follow these rules once she decided to do that and pointed out the way she had done that before or some other successes.

For us it was really important to get experienced and educated support. Even therapists who are familiar with adoption may not always be helpful or the right fit for your family. The best help we got worked with us as a family, educating my daughter in a very respectful and wise way about the effects of not having a family there for her early on.It made a HUGE difference, when she started having some perspective on effects beyond her control on her own behavior and life. Can you get any suggestions from the agency you adopted through re good therapists, or find parent adoption support groups (where you might get that info)?Or come on here and post more info on your home state to get some suggestions?

Also try and increase your own support or time off. You need it now more than ever. Even if it doesn’t immediately resolve anything it is a help to turn to family, friends and community. It is essential (though never easy) that you the parents hold that balance when your kids go off the rails!

Hang in there. Your son is still the same boy you’ve know and loved. Hope you resolve this soon.

Posted by Happy Camper on May 18, 2017 at 5:17pm

If he was adopted at 4 1/2 he had some trauma. Now that he has better cognitive skills he may be processing that or loss of birth family or identity.

Does he like movies? You might watch some adoption themed ones with him…The Antwone Fisher story, Juno, The Blind Side, Disney’s Tarzan, First Person Plural,Philomena,Good Will Hunting,hotel for dogs, Martian Child, Pinnochio, there are a million more. If he balks Watching one with you would be a great consequence.

Posted by Regina on May 18, 2017 at 7:13pm

I agree with Happy Camper, that both you and your son need to focus on the positive.  What’s that rule they say for toddler parents?  5 positives for every one negative comment?  I think that’s how it goes?  I found with my daughter (who is also 12) that if I could find things she was doing right and compliment or congratulate or celebrate those, she was much more amenable to following the rules on her own without threats of consequences.  Even if it was only “thank you for not swearing when you got angry this time, it’s a big improvement!”

Also, I ask her for suggestions on consequences when I do have to administer them (she’s a lot harsher and more creative than I am - I would never have thought to insist she clean the cat’s litter until she pulled her science grade up!).

And in the middle of this… are you taking some you time?  Because I can hear the stress in your post (heck, I LIVE that stress some days) and you cannot help your kid grow into a fabulous adult when you’re running on emotional fumes yourself.  You’re a good parent, or you wouldn’t be recognizing the issues and reaching out here for help!

Sending you some virtual hugs - you WILL get through this.

Posted by nsparks on May 19, 2017 at 3:55pm

This is a late response but I am just now coming back to this site after several months away.

Our daughter came to us at 12.5 years and we adopted her at almost 14.  She has never followed the rules.  I don’t want to discourage you but in our case, she did exactly what your son does in that she simply doesn’t believe it’s necessary to follow our rules.  I’ve discovered that the suspicions I’ve had over the years were true so as a result, I’m much more realistic about what is likely to happen and prepare for it.  E.g. I am starting to lock personal papers, etc. because she refuses to follow our rules about what areas of the house she can spend time in and we discovered she was going into my office and taking personal papers, passwords, etc.  She felt no guilt when we told her that was not okay.  As a consequence, I now lock my file cabinet whenever she will be in the house alone.  Similarly, we discovered that she was driving our car when she wasn’t supposed to be so we lock up the car keys.

It’s not fun to do this but I’ve She/we have had all kinds of counseling to no avail.  I’ve learned we can’t rely on her to follow a single rule. She’s had some trouble at her fast food job as well because she doesn’t follow all the rules there either. My advice to you is to be realistic and trust your gut.  I think some kids really don’t follow any rules and it’s best to be realistic about it. I hope as our daughter matures and becomes more independent she will learn the importance of following rules and being honest but for the time being that’s not where she is.

Posted by western mom on Oct 23, 2017 at 2:18am

You also might want to read Toddler Adoption. Although he is not a toddler (just acting like one) he was adopted pre-school age and often they process the adoption differently.

Posted by Regina on Oct 23, 2017 at 3:06am

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