Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

"Orphan": A Movie to Watch Out For

A forthcoming movie reinforces myths about adopted children.

Later in July, Warner Brothers will release a movie that is already eliciting serious concern among adoption groups and other child advocates. "Orphan" presents the story of an adopted child who is "damaged goods" and is dangerous to her adoptive family while appearing sweet and innocent to others.

This movie is a regrettable homage to the myth that adopted children are emotionally disturbed. The myth of the antisocial adoptee dates back to the eugenics movement of the early 20th century and its belief that criminal or antisocial behavior was hereditary. Adopted children in those days had in many cases been born to unmarried mothers and given (or taken) for adoption for a variety of reasons-- because of enormous social stigma for mother and child, because the mother could not earn her living and care for the child, or simply as punishment for immorality. The mother's sexual activity and pregnancy were seen as evidence of her "weak moral fiber", which was thought to be inherited by her child. A famous report describing the "Kallikak" family encouraged this view by describing two families said to be descended from the same male ancestor, but one side through the legitimate wife and the other through a girlfriend. (Are you thinking that the guy was the immoral one and the ancestor of all the kids? What a thought; after all, only women could be immoral!)

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That old myth about genetic flaws in adopted children has been reinforced by a more current myth. Promulgated by practitioners of unconventional and potentially dangerous child mental health treatments, this myth about adopted children states that such children invariably suffer from "attachment disorders" even if adopted on the day of birth. (I have published two books that tell more about this: "Attachment Therapy On Trial", 2003 [with Larry Sarner and Linda Rosa], and "Understanding Attachment", 2006.) Practitioners of various "attachment therapies" tell adoptive parents that a failure to treat their children with these unconventional methods will result in their developing into serial killers; Jeffrey Dahmer is suggested as an example of what can happen if a child goes without the suggested treatment.The more recent myth is steadily repeated in newspaper articles, made-for-TV movies, and now in a "summer movie" appealing to the general public.

Is there systematic research evidence that supports my statement that these beliefs are myths? Yes, there is. An excellent short article summarizing some of that work appeared in 2007 in the "Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter" (Demick, K. "Challenging the common myths about adoption". Vol. 23 (4), p. 8).

There are several factors that are related to developmental outcomes for adopted children. Probably the most important one is age at the time of adoption. Babies adopted within the first few months after birth are very similar to non-adopted babies in their development. Babies who are adopted toward the end of the first year are likely to show some unusual attachment behaviors at the time, but if well cared for do not show long-term effects. Later-adopted children are more likely to show mood or behavioral disorders that require professional help than non-adopted children--- however, it is hard to tell whether some of their parents are prone to seek professional help because they already believe the myths about adopted children.

The development of adopted children is also influenced by the circumstances of their adoption, which in turn can be related to the age at which they are adopted. Babies adopted at birth have little or no experience other than that with their adoptive parents, but older babies and children may have experienced neglect and abuse. In fact, it is possible that their experiences were so severe that the birth parents' parental rights were legally terminated, the children placed in foster care, and then (whether sooner or later) placed in an adoptive home. Depending on the child's experiences, the number of changes of custody, and the child's own resilience or vulnerability, children adopted under those circumstances may (or may not) be more inclined to develop emotional and behavioral disorders than the average non-adopted child.

Finally, the developmental outcome for adopted children can depend on the care they receive in their adoptive family. Neither birth parents nor adoptive parents necessarily provide a "good fit" for a specific child, for one thing. In addition, adoptive parents are actually somewhat more likely to behave abusively than birth parents are. Children adopted in toddlerhood or later may be difficult for their adoptive parents to "read", and their communications about wanting to be near their caregivers may not be very clear; parents who do not receive any guidance in dealing with this issue may not do a very good job.

One more point needs to be made. There are a very small number of children, both adopted and non-adopted, who show very early signs of severe emotional disorder. One well-known example was Malcolm Shabazz, the (non-adopted) grandson of Malcolm X, who showed signs of early onset schizophrenia at age 3 and who at 12 set a fire that killed his grandmother. These few incidents of serious mental illness may also occur in adopted children, but they do not necessarily occur as a result of the adoption, as the myth would hold.

It is really a pity that Warner Brothers did not seek to improve public understanding of adoption issues by countering the existing myths. Instead, they seem to have worked to entrench mistaken beliefs.

Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.

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