Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Ethnic Identity Development of Internationally Adopted Children and Adolescents: Implications for Family Therapists

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Ethnic Identity Development of Internationally Adopted Children and Adolescents: Implications for Family Therapists

Article excerpt

The life story of the internationally adopted child tends to be an emotional one. How the story is told and retold in the family can have lasting consequences for the child's adjustment and well-being. In telling the story, parents are faced with a unique challenge: To what extent is it desirable to encourage their children, who already struggle with identity issues related to adoption, to identify with their cultures of origin? Therapists working on these issues with multiethnic adoptive families can find little guidance in the family systems literature. To fill this gap, the present article reviews the literature on racial/ethnic identity development and the available research on ethnic identification, self-esteem, and the psychological adjustment of cross-ethnically adopted children and adolescents. Implications for practice include developmental considerations, identifying children and families at risk, and recommendations for those in need of intervention.

"Amy and Jack Lewis" seek help for their 13-year-old son, "Bobby," who has become increasingly sullen and withdrawn over the past year. Bobby spends all of his free time surfing the Internet. Amy and Jack are angry at Bobby and even more angry at each other. They argue about parenting-Jack is permissive, Amy strict. When the Lewises come for their first appointment, the tension is palpable. No one speaks considerately of anyone else in the family.

The therapist immediately notices the racial differences in this family. Both Jack and Amy are blond, blue eyed, and fair skinned, whereas Bobby has light brown skin and hair and facial features suggesting a biracial heritage. Bobby's adoption is mentioned early in the interview. Amy and Jack believe that Bobby's problems can be traced to unexpressed feelings about having been adopted. Despite his parents' encouragement, Bobby not only refuses to discuss his adoption but also denies that it has anything to do with the dramatic change in him in the past year.

The therapist hears desperation in Amy's voice. Inquiring about it, she learns that Amy's mother is terminally ill and lives at a considerable distance. Jack, a computer analyst, works over 80 hours a week, and Amy feels overwhelmed, lonely, and abandoned by her husband. With this information, the therapist formulates a number of tentative hypotheses about the family's troubles. Perhaps Amy is holding on to her son too tightly because of marital problems and her mother's deteriorating condition. Perhaps Bobby spends so much time on the computer because he is trying to attract his father's attention, sensing his mother's despair and feeling his own need for a role model. Perhaps Jack is pulling away from the family because he feels helpless in dealing with his son and has difficulty responding emotionally to Amy. Perhaps Amy and Jack have unresolved feelings about their infertility that affect their relationship with each other and with Bobby.

It would also be easy for the therapist to conclude that the heart of this case is Bobby's adoption. The parents' narrative suggests that the adoption story is a central one, and Bobby's silence on the subject seems to support that conclusion. There is, however, another important point to consider, one that the therapist may overlook. At no point in the interview have the racial or ethnic differences in the family been mentioned.

Of course, it is likely that all of the therapist's systemic hypotheses play a role in this family's difficulties. The factor that she may overlook, however, is the one most salient to Bobby. There are important reasons why he is reluctant to discuss his sense of ethnic identity with his parents. When his mother questions his feelings about adoption, Bobby senses that it is a painful subject for her, one that she would really rather avoid. Bobby does have confusing emotions about his birth family, but he is more caught up with what it means to be a person of color. …

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