Today most Scientists & Adoption Agents are of the opinion that parents should inform their adopted children as soon as possible about their status. The issue should thereafter be discussed more often at various points in time to give the child/children a chance to grasp their special status and the opportunity to ask questions. Only an early introduction to the subject will give parents and children a chance to develop an open and trusting relationship between each other.
There are two sides to the process of informing a child about it’s adoptive status: First of all the information has to be passed on to the child and secondly the child has to understand the information it has been given.
It is more than likely that a 4 year old child can be made to refer to itself as “adopted” and further tell that it has grown in another woman’s womb before being adopted by it’s present parents. This however does not go to say that the child has understood what an adoption really means. More so it has to be assumed that due to the child’s use of very specific vocabulary related to the issue of adoption the parents are lured into the false belief that their child fully understands the concept of adoption. By doing so, the cognitive capability of a small child is highly overestimated.
It takes approximately 10 years for an adopted child to fully grasp the information about its adoption which they have been given at the age of 3 or 4. This knowledge was the result of the scientific research by BRODZINSKY and his colleagues during the “Rutgers Adoption Project” (1986). The scientists examined 100 adopted children in comparison to 100 non-adopted children. There were 20 children in each age group: 4-5 years old, 6-7 years old, 8-9 years old, 10-11 years old and 12-13 years old. All adoptive children were adopted within the first 2 ½ years of their life. Their understanding of the adoption was evaluated on the basis of a 6 grade chart.
Although the 4-5 year old children had all been informed about their adoption most of them did not have any understanding of the meaning of an adoption (grade 0). At an average age of 5 years and 6 months most examined children either assumed that all children in general were born to their biological parents or that adoption and giving birth are the same (grade 1). At the age of 7 years and 2 months children could distinguish between adoption and birth. They viewed it as 2 different means of becoming a part of a family. The relationship between the adoptive parents and the child was described by the children to be a permanent one. However they could not articulate a reason for the permanence of this relationship other than voicing the assumption that “The child is now owned by its adoptive parents” (grade 2).
At an average age of 8 years and 8 months the children were not so confident about the stability of the Parent-Child Relationship anymore. They believed that their biological parents would either claim them back one day or that their adoptive parents could also decide to give them away at some point in time (grade 3). At 10 years and 4 months of age the children were confident in the lastingness of the relationship between adoptive parents and child again. With regards to this newly found confidence they even referred to professionals in a position of authority such as Judges, Lawyers & Medical Doctors (grade 4). It was not until the average age of 12 years and 5 months that the adopted children understood that an adoption on a legal basis of specific laws incorporated the transfer of parental rights and duties from the biological parents to the adoptive parents (Grade 5).
The adopted children were aware of an Adoption Agency being involved in their adoption at an average age of 8 years and 1 month but did not know the actual task of the Agency. Approximately 10 months later they understood that this organisation plays a vital role in the process. In most cases the first assumption was that the Agency’s purpose was to cater to the wishes of the future adoptive parents. Once at an average age of 11 years and 11 months the adoptive children understood that the Agency first and foremost acts on behalf and in the interest of the well being of the children put up for adoption, therefore screening the potential adoptive parents.
Brodzinsky and his colleagues research clearly shows that the understanding of an adoptive child with reference to its adoption develops in predictable phases. In the beginning the knowledge is still very general and slightly diffuse but becomes more sophisticated with time. This knowledge is also associated with a growing awareness of the connection with social organisations and the relating laws.
The research indicates how difficult it must be for a child under the age of 13 or 14 to process the fact of having a dual set of parents. Younger children don’t grasp this concept at all, slightly older children find it hard to fit the characteristics of adoptive parents into their idea of a family concept. Eight and nine year olds know that parents and children are blood related. Adoptive children of this particular age group therefore question which family they are really part of – their biological parents or their adoptive parents. Bearing in mind that children of this age group (8-9 year olds) have not yet understood the concept of adoption including all its implications it is not surprising that they feel insecure of their position within the adoptive family and voice a lot of questions regarding their heritage.
During a further examination of 156 adopted children aged 6-11 years old Brodzinsky and his colleagues (1986) found out that a child’s comprehension of its adoption is neither influenced by structure of the adoptive family (only child, biological siblings, adopted siblings), their social status, the previous history of the child nor its age or condition of health at the time of adoption. This means that the comprehension develops through an intra psychological process by combining the newly received information with other relevant knowledge of family structure, social institutions, human motives, separation, loss, – etc. This Process is therefore imbedded in the overall cognitive development of the child.
The results of this research clearly show that parents and adoption agents generally expect the adoptive children to understand the process of an adoption too early. In return they are surprised when primary school children ask a lot of questions regarding their biological parents and their heritage, the reasons for being put up for adoption as well as being insecure in terms of their adoptive parents love and sometimes show signs of sadness and depression. Parents and experts do not understand these behavioural patterns and often wrongly judge it as negative although it is quite normal, age appropriate and probably inevitable. It is a sign that the children are trying to achieve a better understanding of the adoption. In order to do so they have to process the loss of their biological parents and the resulting emotions (sadness) at this age. This is being complicated by the lack of knowledge about their biological parents.
Consequently it is vital that adoptive parents make themselves aware of the fact that adopted children will comprehend the adoption with all its implications not until they have entered their second decade of life. They (adoptive parents ) can help the child to achieve a positive and extensive comprehension of the adoption by openly and honestly discussing the issue instead of avoiding it. It is equally important that they are also aware of the difference between adoptive families and biological families further understanding the special status of their own family. Primarily they should not overstrain the child and confront it with unrealistic expectations but should give the child the time it needs for the long lasting cognitive development process which will conclude in a full comprehension of the adoption.
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