Not Up to Parenting a Kid with Problems

Dawn Davenport


Adoptive Parenting

We talk about the troubles and difficulties of adoption a lot. But, there is a lot of joy and love in adoption.

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

15/06/2010 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog, Fostering, Fostering Blog | 26 Comments

26 Responses to Not Up to Parenting a Kid with Problems

  1. Avatar Von says:

    “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.” There’s your clues!! Why is it that adopters do not see or undestand the connections between the unresolved and how well they parent.When will the time come when what is reality for adoptees is not seen as prejudice against adoption? Any study that tells you adoptees are doing just fine is either funded by the adoption industry, self-completed by adopters or does not take into account the experiences of adult adoptees. No, adoption is not different now, it is still based on loss and traumas as it has always been.All those adoptees you know who are just fine now, perhaps you can report back on in twenty years time if you can get them to tell you their real feelings and not the ones they think you want to hear!

  2. Avatar Britt says:

    Thank you so much for all the great information. Adoption should be considered with the heart and with the head. In our situation I know that we are not emotionally ready for adoption because we are still grieving our losses (one of which is the idea of a biological child) but those are our issues and have nothing to do with a “problem” children. Personally, I believe (and I know that not all have the same belief) that my God is in the business of healing broken hearts (mine included) and that any child (biological or adopted) can be healed.

  3. Avatar Rach says:

    I get what you’re trying to do but you will never convince everyone nor change their mindset unfortunately. And while not everyone may agree with what she said, she is entitled to her opinion and there will be many who agree with her.

    Here for ICLW
    Rach @

  4. I find it so interesting that folks assume that our children have been even made available for adoption because they are/have problems. To come to this conversation with that as the underlying assumption is very disrespectful to the child. And, to me, undermines the system with yet another of those judgments or stereotypes. I’ve not faced it directly yet, but this post reminds me that it’s something to be prepared for, in order that I might have an educating and tempering response.

  5. Avatar Christy says:

    I am bothered by the inference that a child adopted into a two parent family that stayed that way is inherently better or more stable than one raised by a single parent. It’s far more important to have an informed, intelligent, thoughtful and loving parent raising a child than it is to have a pair who may ill-equipped to parent or one staying together unhappily for the sake of the kids. I think recent studies show that more children in the US are being raised by single parents than married couples, and it’s been that way for several years. So if you want a truly accurate picture of how the kids are doing single parent families should not have been factored out of the adoptive or the birth family sample.

  6. Avatar Amanda says:

    THANK YOU Dawn for your always well researched and well written articles. I am both an adopted person and a waiting adoptive parent. I grew up proud of my background and never ashamed to share my adoptive status. However, I also received my share of “pity” from people who would project their own personal issues/stigma/lack of understanding on to me as though my adoptive status was something for which I should feel shame. Perhaps afraid that I was somehow damaged, or different.

    Now that I am a waiting adoptive parent, I share that news with pride too, and again receive those looks of trepidation. Not to mention the all too common, “oh wow, you must be such a good / patient / saintly / crazy person” look, as though I’m setting myself up for a lifetime of trouble.

    Thankfully I am surrounded by a wonderfully supportive group of family and friends who are open to learning, and can understand that there are many factors involved in the development of healthy identity, self-esteem, social competency, academic performance and general well-being, of which adoption is just one small part.

    I too feel excitement and joy when I see studies such as the one mentioned above, and hope that such studies make their way into the popular press, so that not only people directly involved in adoption can increase their knowledge and understanding, but so too can teachers, health practitioners, families, friends, acquaintances, and that lady with the rude comment at the grocery store.

    Thanks for listening, and thanks again for the fabulous resource that you provide.

  7. Avatar Peggy says:

    I never really imagined adopted kids as being troubled or having mental health issues until I started trying to educate myself about adoption. My husband and I desperately want to adopt an infant and we have been signed up with some agencies for about 6 months or so. We knew it would be difficult, but we have only gotten a few calls to have our profiles shown and these birth moms have been mostly regular drug users. I have also done a lot of reading on the internet and seem to find a lot of angry adoptees. I already know that my husband and I are not perfect and will have much to learn about parenting, but it is discouraging to think that a child we potentially adopt is just going to end up angry because he/she is adopted. And we are afraid of what the effects of some drugs are going to have on a child’s develpment and overall health.

  8. Avatar Renee & Todd says:

    This is unbelievable. There is still so much prejudice against adopted kids and families that adopt that I could just scream. Bio kids aren’t perfect, there parents just think they are!!!!!

  9. Avatar Waiting Lisa says:

    Great post. I read it when you first posted it and now I am reading it again for ICLW. Thank you.

  10. Avatar Brittany & Lexi's Mom says:

    I LOVED this. I know the fear so well. I’m past it now and look back and wonder what took me so long, but I still remember it. My kids aren’t perfect, but they are so mine. Thank you for what you do. I LOVE your show.

  11. Avatar kimberly says:

    I know I was so afraid before we decided to adopt. I was so worried about the problems we would face. My “problems” are now 8 and 10 and are almost perfect. Sure, we have some parenting issues, but less than most of the people I know and less than my sisters who have bio kids. I LOVE your show btw. I suffered from Infertility for 6 years before we adopted and I can’t believe what is the same and what has improved.

  12. Avatar Worried and Confused says:

    Dear Dawn,

    Thank you so much for writing this blog and running this website.

    I know I’ll probably get reprimanded for making this comment, so I apologize in advance to all adoptive parents, adopted children and birth mothers. My question rises from fear and perhaps ignorance, not hate. Or in other words, all readers, please answer me in ways that will help me put my mind at ease, rather than make me feel ashamed.

    I imagine I am similar to the person who sent you the email which has started this posting. I, too, have been struggling with infertility for many years, am considering and trying to learn about adoption, and am afraid of raising “a kid with lots of problems.”

    The reason for my confusion is this: In my mind, the myth that adopted children suffer from higher rate of emotional problems makes perfect sense. Some children are given for adoption due to the inability of a birth-families to raise them due to mental health problems, which may have a genetic factor. Children who are given to adoption are often exposed prenatally to drugs, alcohol and nicotine. Children who are given to adoption more often suffer from traumas before and after being separated from their birthparents, including but not limited to long stays in institutions. Higher probability of genetic problems, poor intrauterine care and a history of trauma can predispose children (and adults) to mental health problems, as well as cognitive and developmental ones. I don’t want to believe this, I want to confidently and lovingly adopt a child, but I’m afraid.

    A few weeks ago I read your blog – “A snapshot of adoption in the US” (4.6.10) – and followed its link to the National Survey of Adoptive Parents. According to that survey, adopted kids, in comparison to children being raised by their birth-families, are twice more likely to suffer from depression, 2.5 times more likely to suffer from ADD/ADHD, 4 times more likely to suffer from behavioral conduct problems, and 12% of them suffer from attachment disorder. Reading this, I felt like my worst fears have just been confirmed.

    So – to which survey should I believe? The optimistic one presented here, or the more pessimistic one presented in April? Can adopted children really be as healthy as biological ones, given all of the above risk factors?

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Dear Worried and Confused, you asked such a great question. I can’t do justice to answering it right now, but I will do my best by using this as a blog topic as soon as I get back from the ESHRE conference next week. So, look for a blog response in mid-July. Thank you again for asking such a thought provoking question.

  13. Avatar Sandy says:

    The study in my opinion is flawed and very old. The question of whether or not adoptees are over represented in the mental health during teen age years really is irrelevant if you are wanting to determine if being adopted impacts the whole person.

    Study published in 1995 – 15 years ago when we knew better than to say anything negative about adoption due to the stigmas our parents faced and we faced.

    Study conducted by mailing out questionaires to families – what child living at home, having loyalty (and adoptees do feel extreme levels of loyalty) to their parents is not going to provide a glowing report?

    Study limited to children through the age of 18. This does not give a true snapshot of what the adoptee experience is – which is life long. Feelings about being adopted may not come forth in thought and words until adulthood when the adoptee has left the nest and experienced life events.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Sandy, thanks for your input. This study is supported by the vast majority of research that I’ve read. However, I hear what you are saying– being adopted can affect the whole of who you are. The research is simply saying that the mental health of adoptees in general is not necessarily adversely affected. That should not be read to negate your pain, which is clearly very very real.

  14. Avatar Lee N. says:

    I have this beat:

    My husband and I opted for a public adoption through Los Angeles’ CPS. We opted out for a baby as we knew that the list for babies extends for miles while most parents will not look at anyone that’s outgrown their “cute”.

    I cannot tell you the negative stories that people felt the need to tell us. In all fairness, when we went through the mandatory classes, we did meet people who fostered children for the money (not a lot of money, I’ll tell ya): they were uncomfortable people, to say the least.

    All during the classes people kept questioning our decision against a baby. It grew very wearisome.

    Then, we met a 14-year-old boy at an adoption fair. We fell madly in love with him. He’s wonderful, awesome, and desperately needs a stable home. We put in for him.

    Then, all of the naysayers felt the need to tear down the decision to move forward with a teenager. “Teens”, the naysayers cried. “You’re asking for trouble! They’ll steal! They’ll lie! They’ll runaway!” OMG

    Our child will move in sometime during the next few weeks. He’s wonderful. He’s not perfect and we may find ourselves with our hands full, but I cannot imagine not moving forward with this adoption.

    Now, we just need to get the word out about adopting the “non-cute” kids…

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Lee, I love your line outgrown their “cute”. All kids do outgrow their cute–except mine of course who are all still cute. (NOT!) In fariness, I think a lot of folks prefer young children because they want to experience the parenting joys and pains of parenting younger children. Or maybe they want to grow developmentally along with their child, learning as they go and trusting that the earlier stages will help prepare them for what’s coming next. Also, they might want to have more time to instill their values and to guide and nurture. BUT, all that being said, they shouldn’t try to dissuade someone who feels differently. It’s one thing to try to prepare pre-adoptive parents for an older child adoption, but another thing entirely to try to dissuade someone who is going forward well prepared. Different people want different things out of parenting. And you are completely and totally right that “older kids” are not damaged goods or something to be afraid of. I work with teens at church and have for 14 years. I can’t tell you the number of people who are afraid and distrustful of this age group in general. It gets under my skin. Humm, this may have to be the subject of another blog. Thanks for the inspiration and CONGRATULATIONS.

  15. Avatar Helena L. says:

    As an adoptee and a birth mother, I find peoples assumptions that adopted people have lots of problems insulting. I am closer to my mom than her child she gave birth to. I’m not perfect, but I don’t have lots of problems. My son is a happy, smart, and great kid. His parents love him and they are a good family. I want all this negative stuff to stop about adoptees being the spawn of______. We are just people.

  16. Avatar Forrest says:

    What a great blog! What a great resource you provide. I LOVE the show.

  17. Avatar Jessica says:

    You’re right: It often feels as if we’re shouting in the wind. But maybe if enough of us add our voices, we’ll eventually be heard. Thanks for telling the truth about some misperceptions.

  18. Yeah, but what if a kid isn't up to being parented by a person who has unrealistic expectations of the parent/child relationship. That comment "kid with problems" bugs me as you can tell by my rant I post on your the CAF website. Is the commentor herself with out flaws or issues?

  19. Avatar Kelly says:

    This study supports my theory – EVERY parent should have a home study before bringing home baby! My friends who got pregnant easily seem to think that parenting the child will be as easy and fun as creating it! Due to the home study, adoptive parents are often forced to be more prepared than biological parents – we’re spending hours in training, meeting professional standards, and creating extensive parenting plans. If parenting is my most important job, then I should be better trained for this job than for any other one I take on.

  20. Avatar Lain says:

    Ah, yes. The “fact” that bio children are always better/less flawed/more perfect than adopted. Excuse me for a moment.

    (Buh ha ha ha ha ha! Buh ha ha ha!)

    As a mother to 4 (1 bio, 3 adoptees- all adopted over the magic age of 3) I need all the laughs I can get. It has been my personal experience that kids are kids.

    Yes, kids who are adopted need some help to emotionally and educationally to catch up. But there are no guarantees with bio children either. My bio is on the Autism Spectrum, morphing every few years to a different diagnosis. What I do to help my eldest, is no harder or easier than the effort I put forth to help my adoptees. Just different.

    Parenting, when done right, is never a slide on ice. It isn’t easy. And it is okay, if adoption is something you are considering, to lay out then parameters in which you are comfortable.

    And we all know of bio children raised by wonderful people who make wretched decisions and are completely awful to the ones they love. They are the outliers. And so are the adoptees who have “lots of problems.”

  21. Avatar heather says:

    Just keep pushing…

    You’re doing great!

  22. Avatar Gail says:

    Too may television movies, news, and media show the negative stories of troubled adoptees. As an adoptee and someone who works in the social work field, I find myself having to educate mental health professionals who feel that all adoptees have emotional issues related to grief and loss issues. I know so many successful adoption stories in which the children are thriving. Keep educating the public through the wonderful work that you do.

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