This paper develops the earlier work of the author and his colleagues,
with the hindsight of a further twenty years of caring for disturbed adopted children.
It examines the
themes of attachment/detachment, trust/distrust, gratitude, obligation and belonging, major difficulty in identity formation,
response to obfuscated adoption motivation and high levels of conditioning and control that are the lot of those adopted children
who are fortunate to be brought up in a family where they can remain until at least middle adolescence.
model is used, and the work of Stierlin is drawn upon in understanding psychosocial separation issues of late adolescence. The thesis is put forward that adoptive children have more difficult and less culturally
supported developmental tasks to achieve than those in a moderately functioning biologically related family. It puts a plea for more education of adoptive parents in these special difficulties, as they also suffer
severely as a result of ignorance of these mostly inevitable processes.
OF ADOPTED CHILDREN
model of human development is epigenetic. This is to say that each stage
of psychosocial development is built upon the previous stage or stages of development and their outcome. For example a child who has a significant sense of basic trust, will seek autonomy and test
it behaviourally without readily falling into shame and doubt. Or obversely
a child with poor resolution of shame and doubt issues will have more trouble
developing initiative unclouded by excessive guilt.
developmental stages form a developmental pattern at the same time as the child’s primary school education is beginning
the serious years of acquiring literacy and adapting to the whole theme of continuing education.
In an adoptive
family the child has nearly always been told he or she is adopted, often long before the conceptual notion of the word is
within his range. In an adoptive family with a successful marriage with mutual
motivation to adopt - as well as the capacity to grieve their infertility, and
assuming the absence of mental illness including alcoholism, the child has adapted to their new parents’ idiosyncrasies
sufficiently to have arrived at this stage of development with their own pattern of function.
Note, that for the purposes of this paper, we are talking about those adoptive families still functioning as a family.
To Erikson, Primary
School is the time of development where the maturing nervous system and psyche is being shaped by education, nurture and activities. He sees the time as one where the development is one of industry and the psychosocial
alternative is a feeling of inferiority.
In common speech
the issue of these years is, “Am I an okay kid?”
Not only must
he or she be ‘okay’ in parent’s eyes, but now the teachers and peer group are becoming more and more important.
Working at education
and development is always to the standards of the family where they are brought up, and the school chosen. This is one place where the fit between adoptive parents and child does matter. Biological parents readily recognise their own behaviours and temperament in their children, which might
lead to compassion or even over-reaction at elements of themselves they accept. Adoptive
parents are, with good reason, often bewildered. The child has different abilities
and interests than they had, they seem to relate to other children in a manner that is unfamiliar; their spontaneous reactions
to shock or frustration seem strange. At this stage the child is being tested hard by his social field. When he goes home and relates this, he or she needs every bit of validation by mirroring in hearing,
“You’re okay.”, that is available.
It is from being
an okay child with a sense of self that the adolescent finds his or her identity. Identity
in our culture is an underrated issue for the reason that those who have an identity arising from a greater family background
and strong sense of self take it for granted. They don’t know what it is
like to struggle for an identity. Those who don’t have one, are depressed,
lack direction, are distracted by substance abuse, settle for destructive relationships and stop trying.
In the greater
family there is nearly always significant contact with other children, most commonly cousins.
Cousins are a common source of information, some of it wrong or distorted. The
material has its origins in the aunts and uncles’ discussions about the circumstances of the adoption, and snippets
of gossip or speculation about the original mother and father of the boy or girl. A
child who is not informed derives information readily from other children; cousins are a frequent source; many crises may
occur from wrong information, sometimes far-fetched, and even information that is roughly correct.
For an adoptive
child one alternative to this is no information whatsoever, a total wall of silence about his or her origins. Some adoptive parents provide information that is fed to them by agencies to be used at the appropriate
age. Often this is edited, distorted or simply not factual, even the result of
European culture has a background of centuries of successful breeding techniques long before it received help from science
or the discipline of genetic research. Every family has its myths of who took
after whom, and what the family was noted for in abilities, character and appearance.
It is hard for an adoptive child to “…know what I am really like.” Other difficult notions are there for the child, such as “had to give you up for adoption.”,
and “we chose you.” The culture doesn’t help the
adoptive family either, because common culture says, “It will be just as if you had your own children.” The family are let down by not being supported by the culture in which they are supposed
to exist as if adoption had had not occurred.. Confusion and insecurity readily
occurs, particularly if one of Erikson’s first three stages has left some mistrust, shame, doubt or guilt as a problem
for the child.
There is insecurity
on both sides of the adoption. The child is insecure in not knowing how strong
is this bond from adoptive parents – how committed are they to staying with it. And insecure children, despite their
relative health, test out the adults of their family. Sometimes they do it aggressively,
other times by adopting the behaviours of a younger care-eliciting child. When
this goes on and on, and the child’s temperament appears strange and unfamiliar, some adoptive parents are tested too
much in the same way as a fostering placement is tested and is unable to go on. Crisis
phenomena occur and the more committed families seek help instead of giving up or blaming the child.
who are insecure about adoption are outwardly distinct from the secure ones.
The secure ones
know quite a lot about children generally and are interested in what the particular child is like and how they will develop. If this development requires straight answers or testing their origins, they make
that possible without giving prejudicial information. They are able to let the
adoptee differentiate into an adult with adult interests and finally develop a good adult/adult relationship with them. If they are anxious about reunion, it is that the adoptee won’t suffer a major
let down or be rejected. They are usually interested in the biological family
and what they do without deprecation. It is rare to see a mother and an adoptive
mother become good friends, and it can’t come about any other way than with real trust, but I have seen it be ultimately
good for the adoptee and his family.
The more insecure
the adoptive family, however, the more they are worried that the child will leave them, judge them, and not want to know them,
the more they will make up myths or stories to make the child think they are better off with them than they would have been
otherwise, and the more there are stories that their mother couldn’t keep them or didn’t want them. The messages to the adopted child about biological parents may be blatant: such as: “You’d
have been starving in a humpy outside some little town.”, or subtle and projective, “Your ‘birth mother’ seems rather brittle don’t you think?” Insecurity
is not all or nothing: there are degrees of insecurity, and varieties - reflective of the adoptive family attitudes
and preconceptions. Unfortunately there is no known way of
screening out which adoptive families will be insecure, but there is the opportunity to educate them in the hazards and help
them with common insecurities. It is to be remembered that most of the
ones we are discussing are in the middle or top group of adoptive families, and not ones who are drunk, drugged, divided or
displaced. They are essentially people who are trying their best and are deserving
of our compassion for their own insecurity and distress.
insecurity is: Am I a good enough kid and grateful enough for you to see me through my development without wanting to get
rid of me? - their attachment is essentially anxious.
The adoptive parent’s
insecurity is about, “Did I really do well enough to have justified my having somebody else’s child to rare? How do I keep the deep down guilt feelings quiet?” An adoptive parent who has open communication with his or her spouse might be asking, “Did we
do well enough…?”, and even that sense of them doing it together is of immense value to the adopted
parents want school results and trophies on shelf, and, if they just happen without anxiety and pressure, that is fine. But the adopted child is left with a burden of feelings of how to come to terms with
obligation and expectations of gratitude. The secure adoptive parent can talk
openly about this aspect of adoption and express what they themselves are thankful and joyful about. The insecure adoptive parents want their due.
One aspect of
‘wanting their due’, is control and maintaining the relationship on their own terms through later life. Stierlin has studied the ‘mission’ that families give to children and
that begins to be acted on in a deeper manner when they are in later adolescence. In
many adoptive families it is to be outstanding in some manner, and generally to give the message of what a great family they
were brought up in. If the pressure behind this is not too great and the means
to this is flexible, it is restricting, but not too damaging. If the pressure
is great and the means inflexible, then the child is often under unbearable stress.
To prevent age
appropriate separation from the family at the age where their peers are becoming adults is another insecurity issue. The mechanisms seem to be universal in Western Culture. To do everything for them so they are dependent for living skills is a simple one, more serious is
to undermine their sense of their own capacity to cope with adult life and relationships and live by their own decisions (this
is a shame and self-doubt theme) and the third is about the triggering of guilt – guilt themes and guilt games are painful,
the response often set up in very early life; and, at a deeper level, linked in the adoptee to his or her fear of abandonment
that is easily displaced later onto their mother and how they will feel when they meet her.
As I have pointed
out in my earlier writings about the selection of adoptive parents, adoption motivation is very strong. I have already discussed such motivation factors as mutuality and a genuine interest in children as good
outcome factors, and indicated that we are not discussing the family broken up by alcohol, or where a difficult marriage was
to be temporarily propped up by the advent of a child. However it is important
to remember that strong motivation themes, which may be very different between the couple and indeed their relatives, is a
background to the development of an adopted child. The grandparent who rejects
her adopted grandchild in favour of cousins for example, or the child with one parent who was not ‘the adopter’
in the first place, where the issue might be indifference: what difficulties does this make for a child’s understanding
of their place in the world? I mention these issues here, but they are available
in more detail from my earlier writings.
terms, the stages of industry and identity in psychosocial development are a hard time for the adopted child, and, because
they are the foundations for the later stages of intimacy and generativity that lead on to the child accepting themselves
and their life, they are pivotal in the making of the person and the family of the future.
While there are even echoes of adoption in society all parties to adoption require our compassion and support.
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