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Our Kids are Doing Just Fine

The groundbreaking University of Minnesota SIBS study has more good news for adoptive families.

by Susan Freivalds

Two years ago, in our March 2002 issue, we said “stay tuned.” That’s when we first reported on the Sibling Interaction and Behavior Study ( articles.php?aid=246). SIBS is a landmark study launched in 1999 by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Twin and Family Research to study family dynamics and sibling interaction. With 400 adoptive and 200 biological families generating more than 5 million items of information, it has the potential to answer a multitude of questions about family functioning.

When we last reported on SIBS, more than one-third of the 600 participating families had been assessed in day-long interviews, testing, and observation. The first results were reported with the caveat that things might change. However, with more than 90% of the data now in, the preliminary results we reported have been confirmed:

  1. There is virtually no difference in the psychological functioning of children raised in adoptive families and those raised in biological families. Measures of well-being and positive characteristics----as well as those of delinquency, substance abuse, and other problem behaviors —were virtually identical.
  2. Sibling relationships were equally close and loving among all kinds of sibling pairs (adopted-adopted, bio-adopted, and bio-bio).
  3. Parents and children felt as attached to each other in adoptive families as in biological families, but adopted children reported more conflict with parents than did biological offspring. This did not, however, appear to result in more behavior problems outside the home.
  4. Despite the absence of genetic links, adoptive siblings are psychologically similar to one another in significant ways—in IQ (although not as similar as biological siblings), motivation and achievement, and problem behaviors, such as substance abuse and disobedience.

Major New Findings

The SIBS data is a gold mine for adoption researchers. The latest results reveal:

  1. Adoption per se does not appear to be a mental-health risk. The study does not find differences in psychological adjustment (such as depression) between adopted and biological children. Although other studies find higher rates of mental-health problems in adoptees, SIBS researchers speculate that these differences may be explained by the fact that earlier studies were of smaller samples that included adoptees who had experienced early neglect or abuse. The SIBS study, which includes only adoptees placed early in life (under age 2) through adoption agencies, found no major problems.
  2. A positive sense of adoption and ethnic identity are predictive of good mental health. However, adopted children growing up in the same family did not necessarily have the same attitudes about these issues. Researchers suppose this is due to a person’s innate adaptability or overall sense of well-being—believed to be genetically determined—or to influences outside the family.
  3. The dynamics of “blended families,” those with both biological and adopted children, appear more complicated than those of families with only biological or only adopted offspring. Although the parents in blended families said they were equally involved with their children, the adopted children perceived a lower degree of parental involvement than did biological children. At the same time, there was no greater mental health risk to the adopted child.
  4. In general, adoptive parent mental health is not a true predictor of children’s mental health. Only maternal depression increased the likelihood of problematic behavior in children—both bio- and adopted. The effect, however, was modest.
  5. There are similarities in the likelihood of drug use and delinquency between siblings, whether genetically related or not. Generally, researchers are surprised when they find such strong relationships between individuals who are not genetically related. These findings could be due either to common parenting or the effects of siblings in modeling behavior, supplying drugs, or encouraging their use.

What can families with an only child who was adopted learn from this study? Researchers say that while this family configuration was not specifically studied, the overall well-being of adopted children applies.

Follow-up Study

The SIBS study has obtained funding to follow up on the adoptive families from the original study. They will be reevaluated approximately three-and-a-half years after their first assessment, so the target adopted child will be, on average, 19 years old at the time of the second assessment. The study will see if findings from early adolescence hold up as the child enters early adulthood, specifically looking at the transition to college, romantic relationships, family closeness after the child leaves home, and continuing effects of sibling relationships. Preliminary results will be available in 2005.

Upcoming Results

With their original data set nearing completion, SIBS researchers plan to release more results later this year. Some of the questions they’ll cover:

  • What are the effects of being the only adopted child in the family?
  • Are there any results specific to families with single parents?
  • Does growing up in a small town or a big city make a difference?
  • Where does the critical comfort level with adoption and identity come from? How can this be enhanced?
  • How should adoption-agency staff help parents prepare for adoption? Is their usual advice appropriate?

Again we say, “stay tuned.”

Susan Freivalds is the founder of and editorial advisor to Adoptive Families.

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