Psychologists have given us a concept of non-verbal communication that makes an incredible amount of sense in the context of adoption — it is called inducement.

Those of us who live or work with adopted children need to understand that inducement is the language of the abandoned. Inducement is the most important conceptual tool we have to understand why children act the way they do.

Inducement and abandonment

Inducement is simply defined. With no words required, one person sets up a situation to make another person feel what he or she feels. To a greater or lesser extent, all of us do this; it is certainly not unique to abandoned children. A classic example is when we come home from work after a terrible day. While we may say nothing, our actions cause everyone else in the house to feel as angry or upset as we are. However, abandoned children are experts at setting up a situation to make someone special feel exactly how they feel.

There is no question that children in foster care whom we place for adoption are filled with negative feelings — the “baggage” we hear so much about. What is the common experience that all children placed for adoption share? Abandonment, or, better stated, perceived abandonment. There are many birth parents who made plans for their children and perhaps even walked away to ensure that their child would have a better life. Yet, as we have learned directly from adoptees, the sense of having been abandoned is central to the adoption experience.

Abandonment is the most awful experience that any human being can endure. Then think about when adopted children are abandoned. It usually happens at a very young age — often when the child is pre-verbal—timing that adds to the sense that words cannot adequately describe an abandoned child’s painful feelings. Adults, however, can easily list some of the feelings that perceived abandonment engenders: isolation, guilt, loss, sorrow, rage, a sense of worthlessness, hopelessness, helplessness, and most of all, feeling crazy. Unfortunately, “crazy” makes a great deal of sense if one defines it as feeling that one’s inner self is totally out of sync with the outside world.

Think of a child moving to a new home: feeling sorrow when everyone else is happy; feeling anxious when everyone is saying, “Don’t worry;” and feeling lost when everyone is saying how lucky he or she is. Then add to that intensity. A child who feels abandoned feels intensely alone, intensely angry, intensely sad, intensely mad, and intensely crazy. Intensity is one of the qualities of all inducement. The other quality is that all the feelings a child shares in this non-verbal way are negative. Anyone working with adoptive parents has surely heard them complain that they are experiencing intensely negative feelings as a result of what their child is doing. In fact, they often use the same words that describe an abandoned child’s feelings:

  • “I feel so hopeless.”
  • “I have never felt such rage before.”
  • “I just feel so sad.”
  • “This child is making me crazy.”

That is solid proof of inducement. In short, the difference between general inducement and inducement by adopted children is that the feelings the children induce in their parents are specifically the horrible feelings of abandonment — hidden in the children until they feel safe enough to communicate them. We have long recognized that foster children keep their most negative feelings buried deep inside. If they were to communicate them to their foster parents in the non-verbal way that children most often communicate, it would create a cataclysmic explosion. The children would be removed from the foster home and probably institutionalized. We know that foster children, understanding that they don’t have a permanent family of their own, have developed a thick skin as part of their coping mechanism for survival. To maintain that thick skin, all of those negative feelings must be tucked away.

When bad is good

What makes a child finally start to communicate those horrible, deeply buried feelings?
We believe that children open up when they feel safe within a forever family. As a result, a child’s communication of deeply buried feelings is a good thing. It is proof that an adoption is a success and that a child has accepted his adoptive parents as real parents — it is only to his or her real parents that a child will want to start to get rid of that lifetime of negative feelings.

Yet, how does that success often look?
Very bad. How does it feel? Very bad. How does the outside world see a child who is acting out her negative feelings? As an out-of-control child; as a child who doesn’t want to live there any more; as a member of a family in bad shape.

To summarize, if communication is good, and if a child communicates by acting out, then what looks bad, and feels bad, is really good. What looks like a failing adoption is really a strong and successful adoption.

What is the purpose of inducement?

Is inducement simply a way for children to communicate how they feel to their parents? Not completely. Like all unconsciously motivated behaviour, inducement has more than one purpose. Its biggest purpose is to express the child’s cry for help to the parents. The children induce terribly painful feelings in the adults—perhaps only a fraction of what the children themselves feel — and then they sit back (unconsciously) and watch what the parents do with their feelings. If the adult can’t handle such awful feelings without rejecting the child or doing something else negative, then what chance does the child have to handle those same feelings constructively?

Separating the message from behaviour

At those critical moments in a placement, when a child has opened up and begun to heal by communicating some horrible feelings (without even being aware of what is happening) and letting a parent feel them, what is the worst thing a parent can do? The worst thing is to blame the child — even though that is an understandable reaction.

Instead, a parent holding a child accountable for his behaviour makes the child feel safe. The child is deliberately choosing the way in which he or she acts out, though is often unconscious of what really motivates the behaviour. The parent who understands that there is good communication going on will deal with the behaviour, and respect the message behind it for its tremendous value.

If, as sometimes happens, the adoptive parent, worker, therapist, school, or child protective services uses the child’s acting out to decide that the adoption is a failure, they are doing exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. Not only are they feeding the confusion and feelings of craziness already within the child, they are breaking up a solid family and interrupting the child’s healing process.

We must emphasize two points about inducement.

One, for a child to act out sufficiently to communicate negative feelings to adoptive parents, he or she may have to do some pretty terrible things. Children have a strong unconscious sense of how to engender negative feelings in others.

Two, and usually more surprising, inducement is a dynamic that enters an adoptive family even if that family was a child’s foster family for a dozen years. It is only when a child believes that he is finally going to be adopted, and will finally have a real family, that inducement begins. Most foster families are not trained, or warned, that becoming a child’s adoptive parent changes the entire dynamic in the home.

My agency, Family Focus, has placed hundreds of older children and teens who absolutely believed their adoptive parents were going to be there for them forever. Upon adoption, the natural next step for those children who finally felt safe was to start to open up and communicate those feelings. As expected, many of those families experienced terrible acting out because of the child’s need to induce negative feelings in the adoptive parent.

Fortunately, our families are forewarned. They are trained to understand that inducement is a good thing that feels bad at an intensity that is almost shocking. Those families have lots of negative behavior to cope with, and no easy time. The answer for parents who understand and believe in the concept of inducement, though, is never disruption. They hold on and do what all parents must do.

So, what are adoptive parents supposed to do during the inducement stage? There is no magic answer. However, the knowledge that inducement is healthy communication should take a great deal of weight off parents and stop them from worrying that their adoption is failing.

Beyond that, parents must keep dealing with their children’s negative behaviours as other parents would. Such behaviour warrants appropriate consequences, and positive behaviour must be rewarded. Parents must show children how to deal with anger, or sorrow or disappointment by talking about their feelings, and talking about what they are doing about them. It is part of the lifelong parenting job.

Family Focus presents workshops and talks about inducement to help others comprehend its challenge and value. We strongly believe that the more families and workers understand — and see inducement as a healthy adoption dynamic — the more the adoption field, like the children, will thrive.