Adoption and Development: What Does the Research
Claire D. Coles, Ph.D.
According to the Center for Adoption Research and Policy (1997),
there are more than five million adopted persons living in the
United States at this time and as many as one million families
are currently seeking children to adopt. Many children exposed
to alcohol and drugs find their way into the foster care system
or are adopted by families who have concerns about later development.
As a result, professionals and parents are interesting in how
adoption affects the child emotional and social development. Many
professionals believe that adopted children are likely to have
more problems than children reared in their birth families. These
concerns were formalized by Kirscher in 1995 in an article describing
an "adopted child syndrome". This syndrome was described
as including attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder, learning
and conduct disorders. Attachment disorder is also a concern if
a child is adopted after infancy or if the child has experienced
very negative early caregiving. In trying to understand whether
these problems are really more common in adopted children, many
studies of this problem have been carried out. This research has
attempted to answer the following questions:
1) Are there more adopted children among those referred for clinical
and developmental services?
2) Do adopted children actually have more developmental problems?
3) Do adult "adoptees" have more social and emotional
problems? To answer these questions, researchers have done both
clinical and epidemiological studies and looked at social adjustment
as well as intellectual and academic development over the lifespan.
The results suggest that development outcomes for most adopted
children are similar to that of children in the general population.
That is, adoptees do not show a high incidence of problems either
in childhood or later in life. When childhood adjustment is examined,
the following factors predict positive outcomes: maternal sensitivity,
development of a good attachment relationship, "positive"
child temperament, and female gender. Boys who display behavior
problems have the most negative outcomes but even in such cases,
family environment is an important predictor.
Using databases in Sweden, England and the United States, studies
have followed adoptees in to later adulthood. Positive outcomes
in adult hood are associated with the incidence of childhood behavior
problems as well as higher family education and socioeconomic
status as well as parental interest in education. Overall, a review
of the literature suggests that the most important considerations
in later adjustment are:
1) Age at adoption with later adoption leading to more problems
2) Gender, with females having fewer problems than males
3) Developmental optimality, with children having fewer developmental
problems showing better adjustment
4) Parenting and home environment, with more positive outcomes
seen in homes that provide better environments and finally
5) Socioeconomic Status with home that have more social resources
associated with better outcomes.
Conclusions from research studies are that most adopted children
are like children reared in birth families and that long-term
adjustment is good. However, there may be a subgroup of children
at higher "risk" due to developmental and social factors
who will require more attention and intervention.
Kirscher, D (1995) Adoption psychopathology and the "adopted
child syndrome". In the Hatherleigh Guides series, The Hatherleigh
guide to child and adolescent therpy, V5, 103-123, NY: Wiley
Miller, BC, Fan, X, Christensen, M., Grotevant, HDm & Van
Dulmen, M (2000) Comparison of adopted and nonadopted adolescents
in a large, nationally representative sample. Child Development,
Smyer, MA, Gatz, M., Simi, NL & Pedersen, NL (1998) Childhood
adoption: Long term effects in adulthood. Psychiatry, 61, 191-205.
The Maternal Substance Abuse and Child Development Project is funded in part by the Georgia Department of Human Resources Division of Public Health.
The Maternal Substance Abuse and Child Development
Study is under the direction of Claire D. Coles Ph.D., with the
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, Emory University
School of Medicine. For more information, please contact: Claire
D. Coles: firstname.lastname@example.org
Karen K. Howell: email@example.com