While the idea of adoptees being studied has always bothered me, there was something else, I couldn’t name it, but it centered around the term well-adjusted, and how it was used by some within the adoption industry. Then I saw this on twitter a while back, the NCFA Adoption Advocate publication #69 on Mental Health Professionals Education and Adoptees. I’ve revised this post many times, and I leave it to you to decide if it makes sense, or not.
The article is what made the penny drop. It started off in detail how little training mental health professionals receive on adoption, then covered the studies on adopted children being well-adjusted, then on a study showing how biased mental health professionals already were to adopted children. It concluded with agreeing with the call for more education about adoption for mental health professionals.
In one paragraph of the article, they dismiss any notion that an adoptee may get not so great parents because any problems are usually pre-adoption risks. They do give a nod to a challenge facing adoptees, but it is solely limited to one age, not at many points throughout life. The nod though, is barely a nod, because they make it sound just so damn easy as a hormonal teenager to do that – in addition to everything else a teen has to do:
“When adopted adolescents experience adjustment problems, they are usually attributed either to pre-adoption risks or challenges to identity development. Some adopted adolescents do face additional challenges in addition to the normal developmental questions about identity that all teenagers face (such as: “Who am I?” “Where am I going?” “What do I believe?”). Adopted youth have to find a way to incorporate being adopted into these answers.”
While focusing on the well-adjusted meme in adoption they only speak to adoptees who are children, side-stepping the fact we become adults:
“In summary, studies published in the past thirteen years have generally found that adopted children are similar to non-adopted children in terms of adjustment issues and behavioral risks.”
Or further down in Implications for practice:
Current adoption research reveals few differences between adopted children and non-adopted children, particularly when the adoptee was placed prior to age four and has a healthy relationship with his or her adoptive parents. Clinicians should thus be wary of making assumptions when an adopted individual or adoptive parent approaches them for counseling, and should be aware of research indicating outcomes for adopted youth. Clinicians should also be aware of recent empirical research highlighting the strengths of adoptive families and the benefits for children.
It was this combination of confirming the lack of training on adoption of mental health professionals, combined with adoptees are really just fine, followed by there is already a bias about adoptees having problems in the mental health professional world, and they should know how well we do. That combination made me realize that I hadn’t really taken to the time to understand what made a person well-adjusted. So I went to the dictionary to find the definition for well-adjusted and well-being. Merriam-Webster defines well-being as “the state of being happy, healthy, or prosperous“. Well-adjusted as “able to deal with other people in a normal or healthy way“. The Cambridge British Dictionary defines well-adjusted as “describes a person who is reasonable and has good judgment and whose behaviour is not difficult or strange“.
None of the definitions above, is anywhere close to what I would need to know to assume an adoptee is just fine with being adopted, and has dealt with any feelings they may have that stem from that, such as; grief, feelings of loss, fear of rejection, trouble defining their identity, trust issues, or acceptance of the lack of knowledge about where you came from, or even knowing why you weren’t kept. Those challenges are what studies should be looking at. How do adoptees deal with them, what life events may trigger those feelings, what resources are available if they need help, what works. The definition well-adjusted, just defines how we each live and deal with life on a day-to-day basis. If you applied that definition to any other situational loss, or life experience, and called it a day, then there would be a lot of people with unresolved grief, and identity issues from; infertility, death, divorce, chronic illness, domestic abuse, victims of other crimes, etc., who may need a pathway to resolving issues that surface from time to time specific to the event, but otherwise would be considered well-adjusted too.
The studies that conclude we are just as well-adjusted as kept children, are not looking at the life-long adoptee experience – which is what a mental health professional may indeed be seeing in their practice, an adoptee that needs help to work through one, or more, of the core issues surrounding not being kept in your family of birth, and the resulting feelings that occur from that decision/event. Well-adjusted people seek out mental health professional help to deal with personal feelings, and challenges. You can’t mix outcome studies comparing group X, to group Y, with the personal challenges that stem from being adopted. I would suggest that it is perfectly normal for adoptees to be over-represented in mental health settings, because they may have unique challenges to work through, in addition to all the other things life throws our way too – like infertility, death, divorce, chronic illness, domestic abuse, victim of other crimes, to just name a few.
I do want to note again that the article does agree with more education on adoption for mental health professionals, I just don’t like how they use comparison studies to prove we really are okay, and avoids any in-depth discussion of what added challenges may be faced. That is what has always bothered me about how the studies were done, and what they have been used for.