A while back I published a blog titled “Why Not Just Adopt” about why adoption wasn’t a cure for infertility and was not a viable option for everyone. The blog was popular and I continue to get comments and emails. Last week I received an email from a woman which read in part, “Thanks for understanding that some of us are not up to parenting a kid with lots of problems.” Sigh. Mark Twain was right: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
I don’t know why the myth of the troubled adoptee is so prevalent, but it is. Another Twainism sums it up well: “A mistruth can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” At times I want to scream, but instead, I’ll share the facts, and hope they help the truth tie up its laces and get the heck to the starting block.
Adopted kids and adults have been studied out the wazoo. For the most part, the findings of the larger longer studies are consistent–on all measures of mental health, adopted kids are doing fine. This is not to say that adoption doesn’t present obstacles and issues for adoptees to deal with. It does. So do lots of things in life. What these bigger studies show, however, is that for the most part, adopted people fare about as well as non-adopted people.
Let’s look more closely at the largest study of US adoptive families conducted by the Search Institute, a nonprofit providing research on child development. (Growing up adopted: A portrait of adolescents and their families; Benson, Sharma, Roehlkepartain) This is the type of research that sets my heart aflutter—large and randomized. Oh my, I’m almost giddy! Large randomized studies produce the most meaningful results, but are the most expensive to conduct; and therefore, not as common. This study was supported by a $1 million dollar grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Seven hundred fifteen families participated in this study, including 881 adopted adolescents, 1,262 parents, and 78 non-adopted siblings. The sample of families was randomly selected from the records of 42 adoption agencies –both public and private–in the four states of Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. The children were adopted before they were 15 months and were between the ages of 12 and 18 at the time of the study. The study included transracial and same race adoptions, and international and domestic adoptions.
The Search Institute study found that adopted kids and non adopted kids were about the same in all areas of mental health, including self-esteem, identity formation, attachment to parents, academic achievement, social competency, at-risk behaviors, anxiety level, and externalizing and internalizing behaviors. In fact, on several measures of psychological health, adopted adolescents scored higher than a comparison group of non adopted adolescents. The researchers concluded that “when the focus is on agency-assisted infant adoptions, the journey through adolescence appears to be, on average, less stormy.”
Although the kids are doing fine, how are the parents faring. Many couples enter adoption carrying the burden of infertility. I often hear people worry about their unresolved feelings about infertility, feelings of failure, discomfort in talking about adoption with their children, discomfort with birth families presence in their lives, feeling stigmatized as an inferior type of family, to name a few. Fortunately, these “handicaps” presented few long term problems for the adoptive parents in this study, at least by the time their children were teens. The parents overwhelmingly felt attached and very well satisfied with their parenting experience.
It’s true that the kids and families in this study had a lot going for them. The kids were adopted young into two-parent families that remained intact. (Only 11 % of the families divorced, compared to 28 % in a comparison group of families.) Adoptive families in this study “typically evidence a high level of strength in terms of warmth, communication, discipline, and cohesion.” Although indeed these kids and families are blessed abundantly, it still seems clear that adoption is not, in and of itself, a liability to kids or parents.
This study conclusion runs counter to conventional portrayals of the troubled adoptee. Adoption professionals are partly to blame. We don’t want to gloss over the potential for problems because we want families to be prepared. In our haste to acknowledge the potential for what can go wrong, we forget to acknowledge the potential for what can go right. Yes, things can go wrong; kids and families can struggle, adolescence can lose their way. When this happens in adoptive families, we blame adoption. When it happens in non adoptive families, we blame parents or peers or just plain bad luck.
I have my doubts whether this blog or the growing evidence of research will change the misperception that adopted kids have lots of problems. At times I feel like I’m shouting in the wind. But, to round out my Twainathon with a paraphrase, at least you’ve got the fact, now you can distort them as you please.
Image credit: smr+lsh