Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

"She Had a Lot of Trouble Bonding": "Nightline" and the Russian Adoption Mess

The media perpetuate self-fulfilling prophecies about adoption.

While I was writing my post about adoption yesterday, ABC News' "Nightline" seems to have been repeating some of the myths I was concerned about. Their program yesterday was apparently designed to encourage dependence on mistaken beliefs about child development in general and adoption in particular. I am going to comment on some aspects of this program-- a video clip is presently (April 10, 2010) available at

1. The "Nightline" staff chose to use parental comments that encouraged misunderstanding of attachment, and did nothing to clarify the meaning of these comments.

For example, one parent described a chaotic situation with an adopted daughter by saying "she had a lot of trouble bonding". This statement packs into a few words a great many opportunities for mistaken beliefs. To begin with, the term "bonding", when it is used at all, technically refers to the positive emotions and concerns an adult feels for a child; one would not expect a young child, adopted or otherwise, to experience "bonding" to an adult, because "bonding" refers to the caregiver's emotions and motivations. "Bonding" is inferred when one person is seen to be concerned with and pre-occupied with the needs of another, and there seems to be no parallel child behavior that could be interpreted as meaning anything about the adoptee's ease or trouble in "bonding".

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Second, "she had a lot of trouble bonding" is a statement that contains a belief in emotional connections as the sole explanation for behavior. Assuming that these parents used "bonding" and "attachment" almost interchangeably, we can read into this statement adherence to a mistaken belief about the reasons for adopted children's behavior. A similar belief is shown in the later statement that two sisters "appeared to be loving"-- as if affection is the sole reason for children's moods and behavior.

One guesses that "trouble bonding" was being used as a euphemism for "misbehaving" or even "being a nuisance", in a common, myth-related code that allows children to be blamed while adults seize the moral high ground and claim to be knowledgeable, tolerant, and understanding. This code seems comparable to the current use of the word "struggling" (as in "with drugs"), implying the claim of a non-judgmental approach.

Curiously, the offered solution to "bonding" and "attachment" problems was a residential treatment program where the children would be separated for a while from their adoptive parents--- roughly equal to the prescription of separate vacations as a treatment for marital breakdown.

2. The "Nightline" staff chose to use and interpret home recordings as if they had the meanings the parents ascribed to them, and without any attempt to consider alternative interpretations.

I refer particularly to the sequence in which a little girl is seen wandering around the house, wailing, sobbing, and trying to wrap herself in a blanket, then creeping under a piece of furniture and being hauled out again. Her adoptive father refers to this as a "meltdown"; the parents seem to have regarded it as such bizarre and unacceptable behavior that it needed to be recorded because no outsider would believe it.

But what do we actually see in this video of a child who has been in the adoptive home for about a week? Let me just inquire how similar it might be to your own behavior, if you had been taken by very large people who spoke a different language, put on an airplane with little comprehensible explanation, and taken far away to a new house, new food, new ways of doing things? Would you be grateful? Would it matter to you that it was a lot nicer house than yours or that the big people apparently meant well? Would you not have frequent periods of time when you paced, wept, cursed, tried to hide--- even broke things or tried to run away? And what would make you feel better, if anything could? Would it be the big people offering you toys and trying to tell you to cheer up in their garbled speech? I think not-- and I don't think following you with a camera would be much help to your grief either.

What these adoptive parents actually understood, I don't know. But certainly "Nightline" has portrayed them as unable to recognize grief when they see it. By doing this, the program conveyed to the audience that indeed this kind of grief should not be recognized, and that if it occurs it's evidence of pathology that adoptive parents should not have to deal with.

3. The children's behavior, apparently quite unsatisfactory to their parents, was attributed to Reactive Attachment Disorder, in spite of fleeting references to problems like cognitive delays.

Reactive Attachment Disorder, 313.89 in DSM-IV-Tr, is a disorder of young children, whose behavior is unusual either in terms of high dependency on familiar caregivers, or lack of interest in familiar people and ready approaches to strangers. By middle childhood, children have generally developed social and cognitive skills that enable them to hide some emotion and to behave toward adults as social norms dictate. Their behavior toward both familiar people and strangers is no longer dictated exclusively by their attachment history, so diagnosing Reactive Attachment Disorder is no longer an option, or relevant to most of the children shown on "Nightline". Incidentally, this and other diagnoses were discussed as reported by the parents; it was not mentioned whether the diagnosis was done by a competent evaluator.

In addition, there is no association between Reactive Attachment Disorder and the violent or angry or uncontrolled behavior that myth attributes to experiences of separation. The very slight support for this view shown by research is simply that John Bowlby decades ago described a group of juvenile thieves, many of whom had been separated from their mothers-- but their impulsiveness had to do with other people's property, not with violence. But when adoptive parents believe that their children will be violent, they may inadvertently act in ways that make the children believe this too. 

My question:

Isn't it time for the media to begin handling these stories in terms of the facts, rather than perpetuating myths that can be self-fulfilling prophecies?


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


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