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Michael Thompson, Ph.D. is a consultant, author and psychologist specializing in children and families. Read more »
Sorry, Michael Thompson, Ph.D is no longer taking questions.
Twenty-four years ago, when my newly-adopted daughter, Joanna, was about four months old, I was reading an article about adoption in the Sunday paper. The author made the sweeping statement that all adopted children feel a life-long "sorrow" about having been given up by their birth parents. When I read this, it made me angry. Here I was, preparing to be a loving, caring, generous adoptive father to a beautiful baby girl. The idea that she would carry a sorrow with her for her entire life felt like an affront to my loving heart. As her excited psychologist father, wasn't it my mission to protect my daughter from pain? Wasn't it my job to make sure that she had a happy childhood and felt wonderful about being adopted by us?
I read the offending sentence out loud to our in-house expert on adoption: my wife, Theresa. As a malnourished baby weighing only eleven pounds at seven months, Theresa had been adopted from an orphanage outside Dublin, Ireland by an American family. She also has three adopted younger siblings. She was the expert, and I fully expected her to refute the author's sorrow argument. "This is a little much, isn't it?" I prompted. She looked me in the eye and said, "That sounds about right to me." Was there anything I could do to transform our daughter's sorrow? "No," she declared with the voice of authority. I realized how naïve I was. It was time for me to start thinking more deeply about the psychology of adopted children and adoptive parents.
Let's jump ahead to my daughter's eighteenth birthday. I found her upstairs sobbing on her bed. "I want to meet my birth mother," she cried. "You promised I could when I turned eighteen." Fast forward now to Joanna's twenty-third birthday, which we celebrated as a family that included not only our adopted seventeen-year-old son, Will, but also Joanna's birthmother and her family--including two daughters she later adopted from China.
Every adoption comes with a fascinating back story and, of course, that amazing first meeting between parent and child. But all adoptions come with questions and doubts, too, both for the adoptive parents and later on for the adopted child. These questions may continue throughout the child's entire childhood and adolescence. Each year I speak to audiences of parents more than a hundred times and whenever I mention that I am an adoptive father, an adoptive parent approaches me later with questions and concerns. Below are the top four worries that come up when adoptive parents talk about their children, and the one, big worry that adopted children have expressed to me in psychotherapy.
How can I be sure that the loving bond I have with my adoptive child is as strong and close as the attachment (I imagine) between a biological child and birth parents? The idea of "my flesh and blood" has a strong psychological hold on all of us. You can't raise someone else's biological child without wondering whether you are getting it "right." How can adoptive parents tell whether they have formed a strong bond of love, especially if they adopted a child later in infancy or childhood? Adoptive parents must contend with an extra measure of normal parenting doubt.
How do I raise a child whose temperament and learning style are so different from mine? Because traits run in families, the chances of having a child with a very different temperament from your own obviously increase when you adopt a child. In addition, research has proven that adopted children have above-average rates of learning disabilities, ADHD and other school problems. Things that came easily to you may not to your adopted child and vice versa. Raising an adopted child forces us all to stretch a bit to understand a different temperament and brain.
When my child has behavioral or emotional difficulties in childhood, how can I tell whether they are "normal" problems or adoption-related problems? When an adopted child hits developmental snags, as all children do, it is impossible not to wonder, "Is this happening because he or she is adopted?" Most of the time, most problems are simply developmental, true, but some problems like hoarding and stealing, or unusually ferocious identity struggles in adolescence may, in fact, be related to a child's early infantile experiences or to the sorrow and anger related to adoption itself. It's important to be able to talk about these challenges.
How do I talk to my child about his or her being adopted when it's hard to bring the subject up, or I'm not ready for it myself? Talking about adoption is always important and rarely easy. It used to be common to keep adoption a family secret; not so much anymore. Yet, I still run into parents who are waiting until their children are five or six before telling them. Yikes! Even if you are open and positive about adoption from the beginning, direct conversations about it can be emotionally difficult for parents and children alike. Waiting years to drop this bomb can mean intense feelings of hurt and betrayal for the child, because it changes his or her feelings of identity so radically.
And that brings me to the concern so many adopted children share with me in conversation--the question of fit between adoptive parent and adopted child: "Was I the child my parents hoped I would be when they adopted me? Have I been a good son or daughter to them?" All children hope to please their parents. It is one of the fundamental motivators in a child's life. They want to be loved, certainly, but they also want to honor their parents' love and sacrifice on their behalf. How does this worry about expectations affect an adopted child?
Let's talk about these and other questions or concerns you may have about your adopted child. I look forward to your questions.
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