Verdict on Teens Adopted at Birth: The Kids Are Alright

Article excerpt

The teenage years are tumultuous for most people, and for a long time many experts believed adoption added an extra, darker dimension. Studies showed that many of the children on therapists' couches had been adopted.

But a major new investigation into the mental health of teenagers adopted as infants has found that adoption isn't a handicap. Instead, adopted teens report higher self-esteem, more empathy and more friends than a national sample of public school peers. In fact, for most surveyed, adoption is "a fact of life that is accepted with relative ease," according to Search Institute, a nonprofit research organization in Minneapolis.

Adoption proponents say the findings were a long-overdue affirmation of what they had known for years. "Our 17-year-old is extremely well-adjusted.... She's the class social worker," says Sarah Brezavar of New York, who is the mother of two adopted daughters.

Many of the 715 families surveyed in the four-year, $1 million study described adoption as a "very positive" experience, but it hasn't always translated into family happiness. Wrenching ordeals such as last summer's battle over "Baby Jessica" attest to this fact.

Indeed, adoptive families are filled with ghosts, writes Betty Jean Lifton in her new book, journey of the Adopted Self. "The adopted child is always accompanied by the ghost of the child he might have been had he stayed with his birth mother and by the ghost of the fantasy child his adoptive Parents might have had," to mention just two issues.

Indeed, the Search study, "Growing Up Adopted: A Portrait of Adolescents and Their Families," found some trouble spots in adoptive relationships:

* Although adopted teens scored higher on mental health issues when compared with public school teens, they showed more likelihood to have problems when measured against a psychological test's norm group.

* Asked whether they had attempted suicide, 17 percent of adopted teens ages 16 to 18 answered yes, compared with 14 percent of their peers.

* While an overwhelming majority of the study's 1,262 parents described adoption as a rewarding experience, 4 percent reported a negative impact on their families. About 20 percent of parents agreed that adoption "put a stress" on their marriage.

Problems may stem from adoption agencies' past policies which kept adoptions closed and told adoptive families they were identical to biological families, says Robin Allen, executive director of the Barker Foundation, a 50-year-old adoption service. …