Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Research: Is it healthy for children to talk about their adoption?

       I've fallen a bit behind on my article reading, but hopefully can start getting back on track! Today's article was taken from the journal Adoption & Fostering  and is titled "The experience of adoption: The association between communicative openness and self-esteem in adoption."
        This study was done in the UK, so there are some cultural differences to consider, but the results are interesting. There were 2 groups of 11 year old, adopted children studied: the first group were adopted within the UK as babies, and the second group were adopted from Romania when they were 2 months- 3.5 years old. In total, there were 180 children in this study. Their parents were also interviewed for part of the study.
       (As a side note, this article refers to adoptive parents as "substitute" parents in several places. I found that word choice to be pretty offensive as a future adoptive parent.)
        This article opened with the idea that adoptive parenting includes a unique challenge: helping your child understand their origins and make sense of their beginnings. It is a challenge that must be faced, as the majority of adoptees will be curious about their origins. So, the study explored some of the factors that are related to ease or difficultly for children in discussing their adoption, to what degree openness talking about the adoption is related to family structure or feelings of difference (i.e., "I feel different than the rest of the members of my family), and if talking about adoption is related to self-esteem.
        Here is what they found:

    • Gender did not have any type of unique contribution to whether or not a child had difficulty talking about adoption. It was also not related to whether or not the child felt different from their adoptive family due to being adopted.
    • Many parents did not have an accurate view on how difficult it was for their child to talk about the adoption or ask questions. When parents were asked "How difficult do you think it is for ____ to talk with you about being adopted?"  and children were asked some variation of the question "How difficult is it for you to talk to your parents about your adoption?", the children were twice as likely to report that it was hard for them to discuss the adoption than the parents were to report that it was hard for their children. About half of the children said that they had at least some trouble talking about their adoption, but only about one fifth of parents thought that their children had difficulty. Only about 25% of parents of children who reported difficulty had an accurate view of how much difficulty their children had discussing the adoption. Basically, the majority of parents lacked insight as to the difficulty that their children were having with these conversations.
    • There was a small number of children (14) who said that they didn't necessarily have a problem talking about the adoption, they just weren't interested in talking about it and didn't really want to.
    • By the time the child was age 11, a large majority of parents (85%) said they had no difficulty in talking to their child about adoption (that's a relief!). Only 2% said they had great difficulty. The rest fell in a middle area of saying that they had some difficulty.
    • There was a relationship with age: children who were over 6 months old when they were adopted found it harder to talk about the adoption.
    • The structure of the family (adopted child is only child, adopted child + biological child, 2 adopted children) did not seem to contribute to communicative openness about the adoption. The only time it mattered was in the children adopted from Romania and the comparison was between being an only child and having a sibling who was also adopted-- those with an adopted sibling appeared to have an easier time talking about their adoption.
    • Only about 19% of children said that they felt different from their adoptive families. This was significant because there was a strong relationship between not feeling like they were able to talk openly about their adoption and claiming that they felt different: those who weren't able to talk openly were more likely to feel different. But, there is no way to tell which is the chicken and which is the egg, here. Do they feel different because they aren't able to have open conversations? Or, do they have a hard time having open conversations because they feel different?
    • The children who felt different were more likely to have lower self-esteem. These feelings of difference were the strongest and most salient predictor of lower self-esteem among all of the variables (age, country of origin, difficulty with conversations, family structure) considered.
The relationship between difficulty of conversation and self-esteem was very interesting:
    • There was not a significant link in the child's self-esteem and how hard the adoptive parents found it to talk about adoption.This removes a huge burden (in my mind), because it indicates that if there is a question or topic about the adoption that I ever have a hard time with, it won't automatically cause problems. Not that this gives permission to just avoid topics I don't want to talk about, but it gives me some peace of mind that it is okay I need time to think about how I want to answer something or feel like I need to postpone a specific topic due to age-appropriateness.
    • BUT, the children who found it harder to talk to their parents about the adoption did have lower self-esteem. This level of openness was a very strong predictor of self esteem. 

     So, what is the moral of the story? Many kids will have a hard time talking about their adoption. There are many reasons this could be the case, but it happens. Helping them work through that difficulty and assuring them that these conversations are okay can be very important to prevent them from feeling different and to protect their self-esteem.  Some adoptive parents assume that having these conversations frequently will cause a child to feel different because it is a continual reminder that they are not biologically a part of their family, but this study directly contradicts that belief in showing that open conversations are related to NOT feeling different.
      An earlier article by these same researchers (I have that saved in my "things to read folder" and will try to summarize it soon) found that whether adopted domestically or internationally, children will have a high level of curiosity about their adoption and a desire to have information about their background. They combined this information to propose that several factors are probably coming together to impact the openness of conversations: a child's desire to know more than what they have already been told, the ease of the conversations, the adoptive parent's conversational style, and the opportunities to have these conversations. One of their conclusions was that while it is possible that being able to be open in discussing their adoption helps the child to feel more connected with their adopted family and protects against feeling different, it is more likely that children who feel different already (for whatever reason) find it harder to have those conversations, and so the cycle keeps going.

       To summarize this article in a sentence: Figure out a way to help your child be comfortable having open conversations about their adoption, because talking about it is good for them.

Beckett, C., Castle, J., Groothues, C., Hawkins, A., Sonuga-Barke, E., Colvert, E., Kreppner, J., Stevens, S. & Rutter, M. (2008). The experience of adoption (2): The association between communicative openness and self-esteem in adoption. Adoption & Fostering, 32, 29-39.

1 comment:

  1. My husband and I are reading your blog in chronological order as we begin our own adoption process. Thank you so much for writing this - it's already been an amazing resource for us! I was adopted internationally as a child, and this post is so interesting. I never, ever was uncomfortable talking about my adoption and neither was my sister, who is also adopted.

    I think the key was that our parents always, always told us how special we were because we were adopted. That they chose us. I don't remember the day my parents told me I was adopted, I grew up always knowing it. Your point about how open conversations help kids to not feel different is a good one. My parents did a great job with that, and my husband and I are hoping to model them. I always saw my adoption as something interesting about me, never anything shameful. My parents are the reason why.

    Thank you again for this wonderful blog!