Magical Thinking: Some children develop the perception that they are responsible for what happened to them. Young children believe that if one event happened after another event, the first event caused the second. If a child cried and dad hit mom, the child feels responsible. This is what Lois Melina and others in the field call magical thinking.
Unrealistic Fantasies: Without a knowledge of the truth regarding a child’s adoption status and the circumstances surrounding the plan, a child can develop unrealistic fantasies involving birth parents, former foster parents and his/her new adoptive family.
Good Mom and Bad Mom: Unable to deal with the negative emotions regarding a child’s birth mother, he develops a fantasy that birth mother is the kind, giving mother and that foster or adoptive mother is the mean, abusive, scary mom.
Good memory turns bad: ” All children who must relinquish their first love (a birth mother or foster mother), risk a particular problem of the fantasy life: that first attachment, which was good in reality can turn bad in memory. A happy memory of a loving relationship with a foster parent can be seared as a child breaks that attachment and moves into the adoptive home. The pain of separation and loss creates a fantasy that indeed this loving person, was not that in reality. That person was in the child’s mind ( fantasy) mean and rejecting.
Divided loyalties: If communication about adoption is not part of the adoptive family life, a child can develop confusion and conflict when emotions about birthparents remain and new emotions regarding the adoptive family emerge. One youngster whose family did not discuss any adoption related issues, blurted out one day to his adoptive parents – “What do I do about you? I still love my birth mom and dad. What do I do about how I feel about you? This family needed to share the facts regarding his adoption and also assure the child that it is possible to love more than one set of parents.
Identity Confusion: Establishing one’s identity is not something that happens only during a certain period in one’s life. According to author and adoption therapist, Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao, “identity issues are an on-going process, they just don’t start in adolescence. However, the teen years are certainly the major developmental zone for identity formation. It is true that for every young person, they are trying to figure out who they are not – and who they are. They are trying to play different roles, experiment with different looks and figure out who they are along the way.”
Continuing, Dr. Maguire Pavao said, ” I think that for adoptees, especially when there is little to no information about where they came from, there is an awareness that they don’t really have the genetic information to do that kind of sorting out of their identity. They are basing it on their family of intimacy – their adoptive family, but that’s not necessarily where their abilities, interests and traits have come from.” For some the struggle for identity brings about major behavioral changes.
Settling one’s identity is more difficult for an adopted teen. “For most children, Dr. Maguire Pavao offered, ” the people around them are mirrors on which they measure themselves, until the adolescent years. At that point they look in the mirror and see themselves. They become more and more aware of how different they are. I think it is a complicated process for adoptees during the teen years. It is at this point, that they begin to realize that they do not know another person in the world genetically related to them.”
Fears and Unanswered Questions about Genetics and Medical History: Having little or no knowledge about one’s genetic background and/or medical history can add to the sense of disconnectedness, which will be discussed next. One adoptee summed up the feeling like this: ” Where did I get my red hair? What nationality am I? What kind of body am I growing into? What talents or special skills are in my family line? What hidden illness may show up in my life? All these questions follow me as I move into adulthood and no one has an answer. If feel like I am walking around with gaps and holes in my life which I can’t fill without answers. “
Feeling Disconnected: Having little or no information about one’s past does create for many a deep and pervasive feeling of disconnectedness, of having a piece of themselves missing and incomplete. Many adoptees feel an extreme sense of sadness, pain, and confusion. There is a sense of unreality, of not being born properly. Not being real. Not being a part of society. Another term for this sense of disconnectedness is genealogical bewilderment. Providing an adopted child information about his birth family, the circumstances of the adoption, and any other pertinent information can do much to alleviate the sense of disconnectedness.
Fears of Future Abandonment: A major core issue for adopted children which follows them into adulthood is the fear of abandonment. Their perception of their adoption growing up was that they were abandoned. This perception create fears as they move into relationships outside of the adoptive family as well create stress within the family as the growing child tests the family’s commitment.
Lack of Trust in Authority Figures and Control Issues: For children and teens to develop a sense of trust within their family, they must feel that issues of importance to them are shared honestly. A study conducted in l993, of adults who were adopted as older children revealed that much of their discontent came as a result of never being consulted about what was happening in their life, being moved with little or no preparation and finally, never being asked about their feelings. All of those in the study felt an incredible lack of control, the consequences of which has followed them into adulthood.
They also must know that talking about those issues openly and freely is permitted in their adoptive home. This awareness, along with the opportunity to be a part of the major decisions made for them will add to their much needed sense of control
The Truth and Nothing but the Truth: Principles for Talking to children
- Be willing to initiate conversation
- Never lie
- Omissions are okay until age 12, after that all information should be shared
- If information is negative, use third party to relate details
- Parents should be present for the telling
- Don’t impose value judgments on the information
- Allow child to express anger toward birth family without joining in
- Remember child probably knows more than you think he does
- Child needs to have control over sharing
Source: 2001 Coalition conference workshop presented by Jayne Schoooler, (Adapted from work by Lois Melina and Dr. John Powell Young). Developed by the Institute for Human Services for the Ohio Child Welfare Training Program, 1997