Adoption and Permanent Care Lifelong Issues

Adoption and permanent care provide a stable and secure family life for children who, for various reasons, cannot live with their birth family.

Lifelong Issues

Until recently, there was little recognition that children, caregivers and birth parents often need to deal with issues for many years after placement. In the past, adoptive/permanent care parents were encouraged to raise the child in exactly the same way as they would raise a biological child. People who grew up outside their birth family were usually given no information about their origins. Birth parents who relinquished a child were advised to forget about the child and get on with the rest of their lives. We now know from research and practical experience that issues related to placement can remain significant throughout the lives of those involved.

What are the consequences for birth parents of relinquishing their child?

Winkler and Van Keppel in 1984 * estimated that by 1988, one in 50 women in Western countries had placed a child for adoption, and that approximately half would have experienced much pain and suffering as a result. While less is known of the reactions of birth fathers, it is expected that those who are aware of their role in the adoption process have similar feelings to birth mothers. There has been little research into the implications for birth parents of other permanent placement options, such as guardianship and custody. However, it is to be expected that the effects of any situation that results in the child growing up outside the family of origin would be very similar.

Research indicates that relinquishing a child is the most stressful event that most birth mothers ever experience. Relinquishment of a child involves complex grief reactions. These may include a wide variety of emotional responses (such as guilt, anger and despair), physical and behavioural disturbances (such as depression and loss of appetite) and sleep disturbances and fantasies about the relinquished child.

Birth parents may continue to experience grief reactions many years after relinquishment. They may continue to feel angry and resentful about past social values, the absence of options other than adoption, and the lack of support received at the time of relinquishment. These feelings may complicate relationships with partners and family members, and contribute to feelings of low self-esteem.

How does adoptive and permanent parenting differ from biological parenting?

While the rewards of parenting are very similar, there are additional complexities for parents of a non-biological child. There may be complications with bonding and attachment. For example, with infant placements, the bonding and attachment process may be complicated by the long waiting period prior to placement, the lack of opportunity to form a relationship with the child before birth, and possible anxiety about the legal security of the relationship.

Bonding and attachment is further complicated when an older child is placed. Older children may have difficulties in developing relationships as a result of past experiences (such as abuse or neglect) that limit their ability to trust and relate to caregivers.

An additional difficulty relates to the need for non-biological parents to assist the child in feeling secure about their status. During the toddler and preschool period, it is important to permanent parents to tell the child of their status and create an atmosphere in which free discussion about adoption and permanent care can take place.

As the child grows older, issues may arise as they begin to cope with concerns and confusions about their status. While adolescence is a demanding time for most parents, there may be particular demands for non-biological parents. The adopted person in adolescence may experience difficulty in developing an identity due to a lack of genealogical knowledge and difficulty in living past and present. As a result, some adopted adolescents rebel against parental authority and expectations.

What are the lifelong issues for people who grow up outside their birth family?

Research indicates that most adopted people have positive relationships with their adoptive family and are, in general, well adjusted. Studies show that most adopted people are genuinely interested in information about their origins in order to satisfy their curiosity and establish an integrated identity.

The desire to know about origins is a natural one, rather than a result of dissatisfaction with being adopted. It usually relates to a desire to have information about family background that others take for granted. For example, adopted people often have no information about, or photographs of, themselves as babies. They often have no information about their family's medical history, pattern of longevity or ethnic background. In the past, this information was not usually passed on to adoptive families, although today this information is recorded and provided to adoptive and permanent care parents.

Adopted persons who wish to search for their parents usually decide to do so during adulthood. Some have a compelling emotional need for information or contact that affects their wellbeing. Others seek out information or make contact following a particular crisis or event such as marriage, pregnancy or the death of an adoptive parent. Others never feel the need to seek out information or make contact. Studies show that those who want contact with their birth parents generally seek friendship or acquaintanceship rather than a deep parental relationship. As current practice gives the opportunity for ongoing contact throughout childhood, these patterns may change.

Are there particular issues for intercountry adopted people?

Many of the issues of adoption are common to children from both local and intercountry adoption. However, adoption across racial and cultural boundaries creates special challenges and complexities. Research and practice indicates that the way parents manage the racial and cultural differences between themselves and their adopted child has significant outcomes for later adjustment. Adoptive families who are comfortable in acknowledging and incorporating the child's culture into their lives provide positive reinforcement and assist the child to feel valued.

* Winkler, R., and Van Keppel, M., 1984, Relinquishing Mothers in Adoption: Their Long-Term Adjustment, Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne, Australia.

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