What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

40,000 children each year

40,000 children adopted internationally each year. Are we helping them?

Recently, international adoption made the news when Artyom Savelyev, an 8 year old Russian boy, was sent back to Moscow alone last month by his adoptive mother in Tennessee. The mother claimed the boy was violent and that the orphanage had lied about his condition; she felt she could not manage him. As a result, the Russian parliament (outraged by the "return" of a child) considered a motion that would have prevented Americans from adopting Russian children. (The motion was defeated on Friday.)

While adoption itself is certainly not new (it's likely as old as humans as a species are), the public conversation about it seems to be. This seems especially true as (1) open adoption has become the norm rather than the exception and (2) transracial adoption has become more commonplace and acceptable. This makes adoption more visible, more talked about, and, ultimately healthier for adopted children and their parents as the conversation widens to include other parents and families as well as the larger psychological field (for example, mamacandtheboys.com).

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

It is estimated that each year over 40,000 children are internationally adopted, and the US has more foreign adoptions than the rest of the world combined. Most of these adoptions create thousands of happy and successful families. However, these adoptions are often not only transracial and of parentage unknown but also later (not at birth but months or years after birth); they are in some ways similar to an adoption from the US foster care system.

Research indicates that crucial neurological development happens in the first year of life (and even first three years) which can profoundly affect a child's ability to form attachments to others, learn, and regulate their behavior. While adoption itself can create some confusion in identity and attachment, children who spend early weeks, months or years in an orphanage or multiple home settings often have emotional, behavioral, and sometimes learning difficulties as a result. This can make parenting a serious challenge. In most cases, the families work though these difficulties and there are more and more resources are available to help them do so. Bay Area Adoption Services asserts that when it comes to difficulty from international adoption, "help is available, solutions are found and families can thrive." Additionally, in the rare cases when the parents cannot, ultimately, handle the difficulties of their children (which can include violent behavior), there are often other families willing to take that child in and give it a try themselves.

Recent research on adoption and identity issues prompted the following recommendations: to expand preparation and post-placement support for parents, develop practices to help transracially and transculturally adopted youth cope with racial bias, educate society to erase stigmas, and promote laws that facilitate access to information. It may not be a comprehensive list, but it's a start. Optimally, as the world gets smaller and communities get increasingly diverse, the ways families get created continues to expand and open such that all children have the opportunity to grow up in a home with families who want and love them. But as these ways expand and open, we - as parents, educators, psychologists, and media - must subject ourselves to self-examination as to how we play a role, so that the role we play will ultimately help these families and support them.

 

photo: AP Photo/Vincent Thian

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

more...

Subscribe to What The Wild Things Are

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.