Don't Miss Underlying Adoption-Related Grief

Article excerpt

NEW YORK -- Adoption is founded on loss, and a child's reaction to being adopted often can be best understood with a grief model.

The unresolved, uncommunicated, and unvalidated grief that some adopted children may feel often goes unrecognized as an overlay that accompanies more typical psychiatric disorders in adopted children, David Brodzinsky, Ph.D., said at the meeting.

In other cases, adopted children might act up and present what looks like a serious psychiatric problem, but closer examination shows it is an adjustment reaction or other low-level problem that occurs as an adopted child struggles to understand the meaning and implications of adoption, said Dr. Brodzinsky research and project director at the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in Oakland, Calif.

"I see two kinds of cases. In children with clinically relevant problems, such as depression, anxiety, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, the grief model is secondary to understanding and dealing with the psychopathology they have. But there is an overlay that often gets missed, a sense of loss that often is not treated because what you see is depression or anxiety, and that has to be dealt with first. But we need to be sure not to miss the underlying sense of grief and loss. It's not always present, but we need to look for it, and when it's present, it needs to be dealt with," Dr. Brodzinsky said in an interview.

The second type of case involves chil- dren who have what might appear to be depression or anxiety but rather are symptoms that result exclusively from adoption-related grief that has not been appropriately validated.

However, the vast majority of adopted kids do not experience unvalidated grief and are "well within the normal range and do quite well," he said. 'Adopted individuals are highly variable in the way they experience adoption-related loss."

If a sense of loss occurs among children who were adopted as infants, it usually appears before age 5-7 years. Children can begin to have a feeling of separation from someone about whom they don't know much, which can lead to anxiety, sadness, and anger. In some children, "the experience of loss may be quite subtle and not easily observed by others."

Children who were adopted at an older age are more likely to have a more traumatic reaction, but again their understanding of adoption and their reaction to it varies over time as they age. "As children begin to understand the implications of their adoptive status, they become increasingly sensitized to adoption-related loss," Dr. Brodzinsky said.

The sense of loss that some adopted children develop can stem from several different factors and realizations, including loss of birth parents and loss of their entire birth family; loss of their biological, ethnic, racial, and cultural origins; loss of prior nonbiological caregivers; loss of status among their peers; loss of their emotional stability; loss of their feeling of fitting in with their adoptive family; loss of privacy; and loss of their self-identify. …