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Stephen Mason Ph.D.

Born Bad to the Bone

Acknowledging the Risks of Adoption

I recently received an email from a reader that, while sad, nevertheless allows me to provide some consolation and express a warning. In light of what's been happening in Haiti, with the missionaries and the children, I think it's especially noteworthy.


My husband and I adopted an infant, only 3 months old, 16 years ago. Since we couldn't have children of our own, we devoted our lives to him. He was trouble from the start with physical disabilities and behavioral problems. Now he has been arrested several times, appeared in juvenile court and threatened our lives on numerous occasions. How did we go wrong?


Are you sure you're not my sister-in-law? She and her husband tell almost the same story. They adopted an infant child and positively doted on him. I know this to be true because I visited with the family during the early years. Their son has since, for want of a better word, grown into a monster. They can't handle him, the schools have given up and, because of his age, the courts can do little. He has set animals on fire, attacked and beaten other children, raped a neighbor's daughter and his parents are now forced to sleep with their bedroom door double bolted!

What people don't realize is that, in the Nature versus Nurture controversy, there's much to be said about an apple not falling far from the tree. A generation ago, it was fashionable to blame society in general and the parents in particular for an unruly child. But with advances being made in the understanding of the human genome, it's becoming obvious that a significant amount of adult behavior (perhaps 30%) is sealed at the time of conception. Everything from schizophrenia to depression, paranoia to addiction has been linked to a genetic predisposition. A belief in a tabula rasa infant just waiting to be molded in your image is just that - a belief.

Jared Diamond's new book, Natural Experiments of History provides some related insights. Fly over the boarder between Haiti and the Dominican Republic and look out the window. The difference between the two countries is like night and day. From brown, dry devastation on the one side to a lush, green modern society on the other. What's more, everything from the average life span to electric power usage are remarkably lower to the western as opposed to the eastern section of Hispaniola; a comparatively small island that's less than 200 x 400 miles. It will take more than money, prayers and visiting do-gooders to ever achieve anything approaching equality between such naturally occurring examples of human diversity.

A reason you don't usually hear this is because an industry has been built around attempting to treat such inborn conditions...usually with highly dubious results. And while it's true that great strides have been made in psychopharmacology, the field is still relatively new. No doubt this is where the future lies but it's far from able to offer a cure for every condition. Other approaches from Tough Love to 12 Step Programs are regularly trotted out and they are sometimes successful but can never come close to offering a guarantee.

Look At It This Way
You asked a hard question and I'm sorry to have to give you such a hard answer. However, I would be less than honest if I attempted to sugar coat the situation in which you find yourself. Take what consolation you can from knowing that some people are, quite simply, born bad. Aside from masking the symptoms with an assortment of medications and sincerely hoping that it's only a passing phase there's little else that can be offered. But by all means, stop blaming yourself for things that were probably never in your power to correct.

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