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E-Newsletter - October 2009

Embracing Open Adoption

Adoption Stuck Spots: Permanence

Ask Ellen

Embracing Open Adoption
by Ellen Singer, LCSW-C

While contact between birth and adoptive families is also growing in both international and public domestic adoptions, this article addresses voluntary adoptions arranged through private independent or agency adoption.

After four years of infertility treatment, my husband and I adopted our then two-week-old daughter in May 1987, from an agency in Chicago. I was relieved that my daughter's birth parents chose not to meet us and did not want continued contact. I thought I was so lucky. I had heard of open adoption and chalked it up to those 'crazy' Californians who were always involved in things that were "different, edgy, and nonconformist."

Being someone who is not too adventurous, and somewhat risk adverse, I was quite content to be involved in a much more common, closed adoption arrangement. But truth be told, I just wanted my baby. Infertility was a devastating, traumatizing, miserable experience. I just wanted to feel normal again. I just wanted my baby.

As a clinical social worker and adoptive parent, intent on increasing my knowledge of the psychological aspects of adoption, it was less than three years time before I understood that I wasn't so "lucky," and that those "crazy" Californians were spearheading the challenge to traditional adoption practice – for very good, very important reasons. Again, truth be told, I was ready to learn this lesson because I was a parent and adoption was no longer about fulfilling my needs, but learning how to best meet my daughter's needs.

The fact is that some 20 years later, closed adoptions (domestic) are rare, and most adoption arrangements involve some type of post-placement contact in the form of letters, e-mails, phone calls and in-person visits. (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute "Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being of Birth Parents in the Adoption Process" by Susan Smith, Nov. 2006) While still controversial, the movement toward open adoption springs from the belief that continued relationships benefit all parties involved. Although there has been criticism of some of the "scientific methodology" involved in the research on open adoption, the research that has been conducted supports this belief.

In open adoption, birth parents who cannot raise their children suffer the loss of their parental role, but not the loss of relationship with their child. Their guilt and grief is not complicated by having to live with excruciating uncertainty – without knowledge of how their child is faring, as is the case in closed adoption. (Research has shown that birth parents who choose the adoptive family and who have continued contact and/or knowledge experience lower levels of grief and regret, and have greater peace of mind with their adoption decisions. (Evan B. Donaldson, "Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being of Birth Parents in the Adoption Process" by Susan Smith, Nov. 2006)

For adopted children, the ability to maintain relationships with birth families mitigates the degree of feelings of loss, rejection/abandonment. Knowledge of one's roots contributes to self-esteem, healthy identity development and a sense of well-being. The longitudinal study by Harold Grotevant and Ruth McRoy (The Minnesota/Texas Adoption Research Project) showed that children in all types of adoption overall showed positive adjustment to adoption. However, the children in open adoptions spent less time engaged in fantasizing about birth families because they did not have to. (Openness in Adoption: Exploring Family Connections by Harold Grotevant and Ruth McRoy, 1998) In addition, "higher degrees of collaboration between the adoptive and the birth families predicted greater socioemotional development." (Grotevant, Ross, Marchel and McRoy, Adaptive Behavior in Adopted Children: Predictors from early risk, collaboration in relationships with the adoptive kinship network, and openness arrangements. Journal of Adolescent Research, 14.) This longitudinal study has shown that most teens that do have contact with their birth mothers are satisfied with their open adoption arrangements, while the majority of those who do not have contact, wish they had more. (Evan B. Donaldson e-newsletter February 2007 - Child Welfare League of America Nov. /Dec. 2006 – Adolescents' Feelings about Openness in Adoption: Implications for Adoption Agencies by J. Berge, T. Mendenhall, G. Wrobel, H. Grotevant and R. McRoy.)

Adoptive parents who are able to build trusting relationships with their child's birth family avoid the typical fears many adoptive parents experience – "birth parents showing up on our doorstep," "wanting their child back," losing child to birth family," etc. (Grotevant and McCoy-Openness in Adoption). This study also showed that over the course of time, contact with birth family did not negatively affect the adoptive parents' sense of entitlement – (their right to parent and sense of authenticity.) In addition, parents who are knowledgeable about the challenges inherent in closed adoption and who believe that open adoption is in their child's best interest, may experience less anxiety about how their children will fare emotionally.

Nevertheless, intellectual understanding of the benefits inherent in open adoption is far easier than a person's emotional readiness to embark on this journey. For one thing, infertility and treatment usually leave people emotionally depleted. Furthermore, such relationships require work – hard work – and even the most successful ones are not without challenges. Relationships between birth and adoptive family are unlike any other relationship a person may have experienced. There is so much to learn. There is so much fear of the unknown to overcome. Building trust is a process that takes time. That is why the thought of relationships with birth family can feel so scary, so overwhelming for many prospective adoptive parents. It is why a knee jerk reaction like, "Maybe I'll agree to letters, but that's it!" is understandable.

Nancy, mother of 16-year-old Allyson (by adoption) and 24-year-old Daniel (by birth) states, "We may have been more scared about adoption than most – having already parented a biological child and certain that no child could compare ...but we certainly couldn't imagine what it would be like to meet a birth mother, let alone continue contact with her. We were totally terrified at our first meeting with Robin. When we realized that she was scared herself, we calmed down and truly wanted to help her feel comfortable. We really liked her, and meeting her helped us to step into her shoes. At first, we thought we would only write letters, but over the years, our relationship progressed to visits. Instead of fearing her, we came to respect and admire her for the courage and strength it has taken for her to remain in Allyson's life."

Some adoptions are open right from the start. Others become open, at the decision of the adoptive parents, at some later point in time – often during middle childhood – when their children are asking questions, including if they can meet their birth parents. Sometimes birth parents request that an adoption be opened; in fact, I have worked with many anxious adoptive parents who have surprised themselves by eventually concluding that this move on the birthparent's part was an unexpected "gift." Sometimes adoptions are opened when it is clearly the need of the adolescent. Preparation and education is key, as it is with every stage of the adoption experience.

Every family creates its own set of acceptable boundaries. When open adoption truly involves contact and visits, the amount can vary – from once every few years to weekly contact. Some families vacation together. In other situations, birth parents provide childcare for the adoptive family. Relationships work best when both parties respectfully negotiate decisions and when there is the understanding that agreements may be renegotiated over the course of time. Of course, there are birth parents that, at the time of placement, choose not to have post-placement contact. What is most important is that the door is left open should they desire contact at any point in the future, perhaps because they are older, more emotionally ready for contact, and/or the circumstances in their lives change.

Sometimes it is extended birth family members who develop the relationship with the child – typically grandparents or an aunt – such as the case with Cindy and Steve, whose birth granddaughter lives far away. Because of the distance, visits occur about twice a year. Even though it seemed strange at first, Cindy now feels like the adoptive family is really like extended kin. "The truth is that this relationship really developed because of Amy (adoptive mother). She has been so welcoming. I really like her parents, too, and we all have such a good time during these visits."

As with all healthy relationships, good communication and the ability to set appropriate boundaries (mutual respect, problem solving, etc.) is key. When conflict occurs, it is usually because one or more of these necessary skills needs shoring up. More often, it is related to grief – around infertility for the adoptive parents, and relinquishment for the birth family. I have been witness to many painful exchanges and impressed at the personal growth achieved by both parties as they struggle to develop empathy and understanding for each other.

In recent years, I have seen a shift toward more adoptive parents being upset when birth parents decide not to continue contact. It is a wonderful shift. It reflects enormous growth and understanding. As for birth parents, there are many reasons why this may happen. In any case, birth parents also need and deserve education to fully understand their invaluable roles in the lives of their birth children and they can benefit from emotional support to handle the challenges inherent in remaining involved.

Adoption is certainly not a one size fits all experience. While it may be very difficult to think beyond getting through the immediate adoption process, it is extremely important that prospective adopters make it a priority to take the time to become educated about adoptive family life. No matter what decisions are made, they are best made from an educated and informed place. Having once "been there" themselves, adoptive parents, including those in open adoptions, are usually very willing to share their experiences with prospective parents.

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Adoption Stuck Spots: Permanence
by Ellen Singer, LCSW-C

Lily was troubled by her 7-year-old son's recent behavior. Normally compliant and easy-going, Scott had begun to ignore her directives, to tease his younger sister and had become extremely argumentative. In the midst of one of these new outbursts, Scott declared that he was going to run away. Hoping to diffuse what she thought was a typical attention-seeking ploy, Lily left the room and did not respond. To her surprise, Scott broke down in tears and said that he knew Lily would not care if he left. Permanence is a stuck spot that can seem to come from nowhere. Knowing about it in advance can make all the difference.

As adopted children begin to understand what adoption means, intense feelings of rejection and confusion can surface. And, because children are unable to understand the adult circumstances that led to their being placed for adoption, they apply their normal ego-centric (self-centered) view of the universe, and often conclude that, somehow, they were responsible for their birth parents' decision not to raise them (or to be removed from their care). Typically, children will conclude that it was because they cried too much, or they misbehaved, etc. Developmentally, children at this age are logical thinkers. It is completely understandable, therefore, for them to conclude, "If it happened once, it can happen again." Consciously or unconsciously, many adopted children set out to find out if this belief is true. The result is known as testing behavior." How bad can I be before my adoptive parents reject me?"

Some children, on the other hand, will display the exact opposite of testing behavior as they struggle with anxiety over permanence. Instead of acting out, they will become overly compliant, over eager to please and too afraid of conflict. Parents can help by assuring their children that being "perfect" has nothing to do with being loved and that, no matter what, they will be part of the family, forever.

Often, children adopted through foster care have lived in several homes before being adopted. During their struggle to make sense of all the reasons why they were removed from their birth families (and possibly many other homes), they are extremely vulnerable to assigning the blame to themselves. They simply do not have the sophistication to understand that a variety of other reasons and circumstances may have led to their removal and they are at risk for demonstrating testing behavior to challenge the permanence of their placement.

This stuck spot is also likely to surface when adolescents get ready to leave home for college. Leaving the nest is a time of great ambivalence. While teens talk about longing for the freedom and all of the perks that come with "emancipation" into adulthood, they can become overwhelmed and fearful about all the responsibilities and expectations that come with leaving the safety of home. For adopted teens, the fears are amplified and compounded by complex feelings and issues related to the permanency of their relationship with their adoptive parents.

For many adopted teens, feelings of separation from parents trigger feelings of loss related to birth parents. Consciously or unconsciously, they may think, "Am I about to lose another set of parents?" As a result, high school juniors and seniors may begin engaging in behaviors that seem to sabotage their emancipation. College application essays are delayed beyond typical procrastination, tearful dialogues erupt when parents try to talk about "future goals," and trips to visit colleges generate little interest or excitement. Mitchell's parents were shocked when, after overhearing them talk about moving when he started college one day, Mitchell asked them if it would "be okay" if he came to visit.

Understanding how children and teens can get "stuck" in feelings of insecurity around their place in their adoptive family, parents can strive to do several things:

Never suggest – in jest or in anger – that your child "Go" and live elsewhere. You do not have the luxury of threatening "boarding school" or "military school" (common phrases parents use to discipline their children.)

Make a conscious, continual effort to "claim" your child and reinforce connections. Look for similarities that strengthen their sense of belonging and that also celebrate their uniqueness. ("You have your Dad's sense of humor." "You are so artistically talented – this family really needs an artist.") Provide reassurance and do not be afraid to make the unconscious conscious: Tell your child what you think might be going on in their thought process. "Scott, if you ever ran away, I would run after you, just like in the story, The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Brown. Nothing you could ever do would make me not love you. Maybe, as you are trying to understand why your birth mother placed you for adoption, you sometimes think that it is because of something you did. But that is not true. You did nothing wrong. Sometimes, grown ups have adult problems that you are too young to understand now, so you need to trust me. You are wonderful. You don't need to be perfect."

With teens, keep the lines of communication open. Let them know that feelings around separation – and permanence – may surface as they begin to cope with pressure, and start to make a plan for their future away from their families. You can help them make sense of their complex feelings (loss, rejection, abandonment, questioning self-worth and fear of separation) as it arises and, during these conversations, you can make it clear that, while your role as parent will transition from being "in charge" to being more of a "consultant," it will never end because it is your lifetime commitment.

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Ask Ellen                        
by Ellen Singer, LCSW-C  
 
     
Ellen headshot  

Dear Ellen
My daughter's school application requested that we provide information about any "individual or family problems" that my child might be experiencing. Examples given included: "separation/divorce, illness, financial stress, and adoption." I am appalled that adoption would be considered a "problem." Now, I don't know what to do. The school obviously has a negative view of adoption, but it may come up and I think her teachers may need to know. (We are a same-race adoptive family.)

Most adoptive parents wonder "if," "when, and "what" to share with schools about their child's adoption. They wonder, "Does the school need to know we are an adoptive family?" "Should I share information about my child's early experiences that might impact learning, social or emotional development?" (For example, history of abuse/neglect, multiple foster care placements, living in an orphanage, early medical issues, history of alcohol/drug abuse.)

Many parents fear schools will make misinformed or false assumptions about their child based on this type of information. They worry that their child could be hindered, stigmatized or even hurt. Their instincts are not wholly without merit.

Unfortunately, most educators' training does not include learning about adoption or its impact on adopted children. Instead, they typically have the same knowledge base about adoption as does the general public, which suggests the possibility of harboring negative stereotypes, myths and misconceptions. For example, if a teacher believes that most adopted children suffer from ADHD and have learning and/or emotional problems, will she label your adopted child a "problem child?" Will she exhibit a negative attitude? Will she feel sorry for your child and consciously (or unconsciously) expect less academic success from your adopted child and create a negative, self-fulfilling prophecy?

Despite these concerns, there is much to be gained by sharing adoption information with schools. Recognizing that the school environment has a major impact on a child's self-esteem, it is also true that adopted children's awareness of being "different" often begins as they enter school. Whether or not they grow into having different mean – no better or worse – depends so much on the attitudes they encounter from both adults and children in school. From the very beginning, activities, discussions, lessons, curriculum and assignments pose emotionally significant challenges for adopted children. The typical way that assignments such as "bring in a baby picture" or "do a family tree," are presented bombards adopted children with messages that they are different – in a bad way.

Therefore, making sure that your child's school knows your child is part of an adoptive family is the first step in working to ensure that the school consider ways to appropriately modify the school environment, curriculum, lesson plans and assignments to meet the needs of adopted students. Little steps can make a world of difference. For example, one teacher who was educated about adoptive families realized that she never even included adoptive/foster families when she talked to her first graders about different kinds of families. Adding such information to her classroom discussions benefited all of her students.

In addition, school is the place where children spend the majority of their time interacting with peers. Because they are either curious or sometimes mean-spirited, non-adopted children ask many questions and make painful comments (both directly and indirectly) about being adopted. Adopted students would benefit tremendously from the support of adults – teachers and counselors – who could help them when the sensitive topic of adoption arises. Most teachers are silent when the subject comes up because they don't know what to say, and consequently, children often interpret silence to mean something is bad. Parents can help educators learn what to say.

And finally, birth and family history, as well as early life experiences, can be extremely helpful, important information when it comes to both determining what may behind a child's difficulties at school as well as devising interventions to successfully address both parent and teacher concerns.

Parents can quickly recall the wonderful teachers they have known, as well as those who were plain awful. Our own school experiences shape the hopes, dreams and fears we have for our children. Having not been adopted ourselves, (as is the case for most adoptive parents), we also have understandable concerns about a lot of unknowns. "When is an issue adoption-related and when is it something else?" It is extremely important for parents to take stock of how our own school experiences and feelings about adoption impact our attitudes toward our children's school and then ensure they do not adversely impact our communication with school personnel.

When it comes to demonstrating respect for diversity and responding to the unique individual needs of their student body, some schools do better than others. The Center for Adoption Support and Education recommends that parents start the journey with an attitude of giving the school the benefit of the doubt. Strive to establish good communication and a spirit of partnership with teachers, counselors and administrators. "It takes a village" to ensure your child's needs are met at school.

Recognizing that many schools and teachers may not have a fountain of adoption-sensitive knowledge to draw from, embrace your role as "adoption educator" and advocate. Take charge of helping to create an atmosphere of respect. Take a queue from the smart mom who simply asked her child's first grade teacher to help her meet challenges head on by letting her know in advance when something like a family tree project might come up. It opened the door for discussion and enlightenment. Another parent asked if he could give a little presentation on "all kinds of families" and read a book to his child's pre-school class about adoption.

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1 July, 2009