Is It Adoption, or Is It Life?

Five of the country's top adoption experts discuss adoption therapy and normal childhood development.

Adoption therapy isn't always necessary

Your 7-year-old is going through a tough time. He’s having trouble making friends, isn’t sleeping well, and won’t tell you what’s wrong (if anything). Maybe it’s just the growing pains of first grade. But a little voice in the back of your head is asking, “Could this be about adoption? Should I take him to a therapist?”

When (and whether) to seek outside help for one’s child is such a universal dilemma for parents that we decided to present the question to five of the country’s top adoption counselors. What advice would they offer to a family in this circumstance? What kinds of consultations work well for the families they see?

To our surprise, all five made the point at the outset that, in their experience, adoptive parents may be too ready to assume that a child’s emotional or behavioral problem is about adoption, rather than a normal developmental stage of childhood — and too quick to sign a young child up for one-on-one adoption therapy.

On average, they point out, studies underscore that children who join their families through adoption are as psychologically healthy as children born into the family.

To be sure, all children go through normal developmental stages, and our children may have additional questions about their past — questions that may show up in different ways at different ages. When our kids have problems, adoption may be at play.

And so, our experts said, parents are right to reach out for advice when they are concerned about their child’s behavior. The first step they suggested is to schedule a parent consultation with an adoption-knowledgeable professional, one who can help parents decide what action, if any, is warranted. To guide you in making such a decision, our five experts share their experiences.

Holly van Gulden: What’s “Normal”

Holly van Gulden, director of the Adoptive Family Counseling Center in Minneapolis, and co-author of Real Parents, Real Children: Parenting the Adopted Child, says that normal childhood development issues can intertwine with issues of adoption.

For example, it’s normal for a 7-year-old to worry that he’s not liked at school. Van Gulden advises parents to educate themselves in order to understand whether their child is going through a normal development stage or one that’s common to most adopted children.

“Get a good child development book, like Touchpoints, by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., to read about the challenges children face at each age. Then educate yourself about the normal stages of an adopted child’s development, “says van Gulden. (AF recommends van Gulden’s Real Parents, Real Children and David M. Brodzinsky, Ph.D.’s Being Adopted.)

To help your child work through the normal tasks of an adopted child, van Gulden recommends getting together with other adopted kids. “To be in a room in which everyone is adopted is a phenomenally normalizing experience,” van Gulden notes. “At one event, I heard one kid say to another, ‘This is so cool, you don’t even have to explain the word adoption here.’”

If, on the other hand, your child is exhibiting persistent, troubling behavior that you think may be adoption-related, by all means don’t wait to consult with someone to see whether adoption therapy could be an option.

“The typical challenges of childhood change every six to 12 months,” says van Gulden, “so don’t let your child struggle for months. It’s better to talk to a specialist, sort out the problem, get some tools that you can use as a family, and decide whether counseling is warranted. All that worry is interfering with your ability to feel that your child is doing well.”

Joyce Pavao: Strong Parents

Joyce Pavao, Ph.D., author of The Family of Adoption, founded the Center for Family Connections in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1995 to provide families a safe place to discuss parenting concerns and develop tools to handle them.

Dr. Pavao offers this example: “I consulted with a family recently whose elementary age child asked frequently about her birth family. Her parents were afraid to tell her that she had siblings and wanted to know what to do.

Pavao says, “I asked them how they would feel if their daughter found out later. Together we came up with a plan to share the information with her.”

When a child needs therapeutic help, the Center involves the entire family and focuses on the family’s strengths. The Center’s family-systems approach is sensitive to adoption. “You need to address the presenting problem,” she says. “We may never mention adoption, but we understand how adoption may affect the situation.”

Whatever the problem, adds Dr. Pavao, “it’s really important to work with the parents. You can’t exclude anyone — exclusion is never helpful in adoption.”

Sometimes, the Center simply offers consultation over the phone. Dr. Pavao relates, “We consulted with a family from Seattle whose next-door neighbor traveled to Vietnam and found their children’s birth parents. We helped the neighbors understand that the parents needed to take over now.”

The center also makes referrals to adoption-sensitive therapists throughout the country.

Anu Sharma: Not About Adoption

Anu Sharma, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the Minnesota Institute of Public Health and a lead researcher on the University of Minnesota’s Sibling Interaction and Behavior Study (SIBS), reports that most adopted kids grow up psychologically very healthy.

“Adoption is often a subtlety in children’s problems — a part of who they are — but usually not the main issue.” Dr. Sharma believes that adopted children benefit from support groups or a mentor.

“Adoption agencies often have post-adoption workshops or summer camps. Any place where kids can be in touch with other adopted people in a non-threatening situation, a place where they can listen but don’t need to speak, is good.”

Sharma adds, “I’ve seen parents make the mistake of bringing their kids to see a therapist too early. They have a sense that something is brewing, and they want to try to pre-empt a problem. But unless the child has articulated what’s troubling him, the chance of finding a ‘solveable’ problem is remote.”

Thus, she advises parents, first and foremost, to step in and do the job of parenting. “If you suspect your child is smoking, drinking, stealing, or engaging in premature sexual behavior, talk to him about it.

“Sometimes parents are too afraid that they’ll unleash a whole series of adoption topics that they’re not comfortable addressing,” says Sharma. “Don’t be afraid to be a parent and don’t let your child deflect you with the ‘adoption club.’”

If the situation is worrisome, then do seek out therapy. “If a child is acting out sexually, for example, at an early age, it may be significant that she knows that her birth mother had a child at a young age,” says Dr. Sharma. “She may want to be like her. We do need to make these connections. Adoption by itself is not a problem, but it can hold clues.”

Ronny Diamond: All in the Family

Ronny Diamond, the director of the Adoption Resource Center at the Spence-Chapin agency in New York City, believes that, especially for young children, the family offers the best environment for solving problems.

“In the traditional model, a child sees a therapist one-on-one and they develop an almost secretive relationship,” says Diamond. “The therapist takes the place of being the good parent. But an adopted child may already feel like there’s another parent out there, so yet another relationship that leaves the parents on the outside is counterproductive.”

That’s why she prefers to work with parents. “They might role-play in my office to become comfortable talking about adoption.” Parents often need to work through their own fear of hurting their child. “Maybe you know that your child’s birth parent is raising a sibling and you’re afraid this information may hurt your child. But her reaction may just be, ‘Cool, I have a sibling.’”

Diamond wants parents to remember that children are resilient. You may not want to tell your child, for example, that she was left in a public place by her birth family, because it will make her sad.

But Diamond would ask, “What’s the problem with her being sad? Isn’t your child sturdy enough to survive feeling sad about something she should feel sad about?”

If a child needs extra help, Diamond agrees with other experts that it’s best to work with a clinician who has a background in adoption. “Sometimes a child personalizes adoption, feels she could have done something different, that she cried too much, for example.”

“In that situation,” says Diamond, “It may help to look at why the birth mother planned an adoption, and when she planned it. I, as therapist, might say to the child, ‘She didn’t even know you, you weren’t even born yet.’”

Oftentimes families just want to talk about adoption, says Diamond. “No one has symptoms. No one is malfunctioning. The family just wants to talk with someone outside the family who is knowledgeable about adoption.”

Deborah Johnson: Race Matters

A child who’s adopted from outside his parents’ ethnic or racial backgrounds faces special challenges, suggests Deborah Johnson, the executive director of the Minnesota Adoption Research Network.

Johnson, herself adopted from Korea more than three decades ago, has met with thousands of transracial adoptees as an adoption social worker. “Some kids grow up thinking of themselves as white. When they arrive at college and it’s assumed that they’ll be part of minority social networks, they are taken aback,” she says.

Johnson believes that parents who avoid talking about race and racism do their children a grave disservice. “We allow our kids to be vulnerable, to go out into the world and be wounded.”

There’s much parents can do to help a child develop a positive ethnic identity throughout his or her childhood. “It’s all in the way you talk to your child about adoption, the stories you tell,” says Johnson. “The more you can show the respect you have for his beginnings and culture of origin, the better.”

Using your own social experiences to embrace your child’s background is harder, but can be enriching. “Some parents are very active in giving their children experiences that are Honduran or Chinese or Korean, and that’s great,” Johnson says.

“But what’s more challenging — and more important — is learning how to help your child grow up to live as a hyphenated person (e.g. Asian-American, Hispanic-American, African-American) in the U.S. If your child is from South America, how involved are you with the Hispanic community in your own backyard? That’s the community your child will be assigned to.”

It’s critical for children to know that there are people out there who look like them. Johnson recalls a family with two children adopted from Korea. “They were thinking of moving, and the 7-year-old wanted to visit the school first. She said, ‘I want to make sure I’m not the only person with brown hair in the class.’ She was only a first-grader, but she knew.”

A time when counseling is sometimes helpful to a transracially adopted child is before and after a family goes on a heritage trip to their child’s country of origin. Often, a heritage trip is a shaking-up experience that needs to be balanced with familiar family rituals.

“Instead of canceling your regular summer vacation at the cabin, maybe you should go after your international trip,” Johnson says. “Your child may need reassurance that you’re ‘still a family.’ Whenever you engage in activities that underscore your child’s differences, balance them with activities that support the idea of the family unit.”

As adults, some adoptees may need to find their birth parents to feel whole — and some won’t. Some may identify with their culture of origin and some may not. Parents need to be open to a range of possibilities.

Johnson puts it into perspective: “When I look at families to see if it has all worked out, I ask if these young-adult adoptees are healthy, happy individuals who can nurture, who can love and be loved, who can create a new family and sustain it.”

“If you want a measurable outcome, I’d say the vast majority of adoptees can do that. They’ve experienced being loved and nurtured, and they’re comfortable in their own skin.”


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