Adapting to Adoption: Adopted Kids Generate Scientific Optimism and Clinical Caution

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, August 13, 1994 | Go to article overview

Adapting to Adoption: Adopted Kids Generate Scientific Optimism and Clinical Caution


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Welcome to the adoptive family, where home life takes on a decidedly different look depending on whether it is refracted through the lens of mental health clinicians or behavioral researchers.

For more than 40 years, psychiatrists and others who treat emotional and behavioral problems have noted that adopted children and teenagers make up a disproportionate number of their patients. About 2 percent of children under age 18 in the United States are adopted by unrelated parents, but they make up 5 percent of children in psychotherapy, 10 to 15 percent of youngsters in residential treatment and psychiatric hospitals, and 6 to 9 percent of those identified in schools as suffering from various learning disabilities. An estimated 1 million children in the United States now live with adoptive parents.

Clinicians have focused on the roadblocks to an adoptee's healthy development. According to various mental health workers, adoptive parents and kids often struggle to form strong emotional bonds. The parents tend to ruminate about a child's biological parents; the children begin to realize at age 5 to 7 that one set of parents rejected them and to struggle with a sense of loss and bewilderment about their biological roots. Their self-esteem drops; they cannot seem to make close friends. Adolescent adoptees show a propensity for delinquency, depression, and a confused self-image.

Search movement advocates, who lobby for giving adoptees access to their adoption records so they can seek out their biological parents, take this position further. Adopted people need information about their genetic origins in order to feel whole and secure, they argue; those who lack this knowledge stumble through life feeling isolated and incomplete. Some in the search movement press for the elimination of adoption.

Yet in the past decade, a growing body of research on adoptees who do not receive psychological help indicates that parents usually develop warm and secure relationships with their adopted infants, whose emotional health and self-image throughout the school years equal those of children living with biological parents. Rates of psychological and behavioral problems rise in youngsters adopted after infancy, probably due largely to neglect, abuse, and multiple changes in caretakers before adoption, according to these investigators.

Organizations representing adoptive families consider such findings a refreshing antidote to the clinical emphasis on adoption's inherent problems and to the widespread unease about parents raising children conceived by others, especially children who come from different races or nations.

"This issue is a tangled ball of yarn, and adoption research is only in its infancy," asserts Anu R. Sharma, a psychologist at the Search Institute, a Minneapolisbased organization that studies children and teenagers.

"Useful guidelines for adoptive parents are in short supply, while the adoption process itself ahs become more diverse," adds Steven L. Nickman, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "Adoption is a highly political issue."

Consider interracial adoption. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers branded the adoption of black children by white parents "cultural genocide," a position it still holds. Most adoption agencies try to place children with same-race parents and avoid interracial matches. About 500 black children get adopted by whites annually.

In the case of the approximately 10,000 children adopted annually from abroad by U.S. residents, officials in their countries of origin often confront home-grown pressures to bar this practice.

Some countries allow international adoptions for a short time, then suddenly withhold children from foreigners, as happened in Rumania. South Korea, the major source of babies for international adoption over the past 40 years, plans to phase out such placements by 1996. …

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