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Nightline Perpetuates Myths About Adoption

April 11, 2010

ABC Nightline recently did a story on the adopted boy who was sent back to Russia on a plane by his adoptive mother. Unfortunately, the segment perpetuated a number of myths about adoption because the journalists involved apparently accepted what certain parents said uncritically and the only “experts” they had on were proponents of highly questionable so-called attachment parenting methods.

Dr. Jean Mercer, in her Psychology Today Blog has done an excellent job in exposing some common myths about adopted children. Here is her summary:

Myth 1: Adopted children, especially those from foreign orphanages, are “unattached” and therefore aloof, unaffectionate, and heartless.
Reality: Children who are later adopted vary a great deal in the opportunities they’ve had to develop genuine relationships with caregivers. Some have had interested and consistent caregivers and have developed real attachments but are now mourning the separation from familiar people and are not yet ready to respond to a new family as that family might like. Other children have been seriously neglected and have experienced very little affectionate interest from adults; those children may be “unattached”, but also are likely to have cognitive and language delays that make them hard to communicate with. In both cases, it may be hard for unfamiliar adults to be able to understand the children’s communications. In fact, if they believe this myth, they may not even make the attempt, assuming instead that the children are too damaged to be interested in their caregivers.

Myth 2: Children become attached to adults when they recognize the adults’ power and authority, so adoptive parents need to make sure the children are completely dependent on them for all their needs.
Reality: Attachment develops as a result of predictable experiences of enjoyable social interactions connected with everyday care routines. It can’t be forced and is not “cupboard love”— that is, attachment to an adult is not connected with receiving food from that adult (although often fun social interactions are associated with eating). Withholding food so a child has to depend on the adult for it, or preventing a child from feeding herself when it is developmentally appropriate for her to do this, are likely to have the unfortunate consequences of reducing children’s food intake. A number of cases where adopted children were injured or killed have involved food deprivation or provision of unpalatable or indigestible foods (for instance, in the case of Viktor Matthey, who died as a result of malnutrition, exposure, and injuries).

Myth 3: Children who have been in institutions are unused to change and must have everything made completely predictable for them for a period of time; this includes the constant presence of the adoptive parent at all times, day and night.
Reality: As before, children adopted from foreign institutions have not all had the same experiences, and no single prescription can suit all their needs. In any case, children who have been severely neglected may or may not have experienced an unchanging physical; environment, as they may have been moved from crib to crib or room to room and fed or bathed at one time or another at the convenience of their caregivers. As for their all-important social environment, in the worst-case scenario this would have been unpredictable, as staff moved from one assignment to another without time or interest in establishing more than brief interactions or communications with individual children. An analogy to these children’s experiences would be the lives of “boarder babies” in American hospitals, who have sometimes experienced only minute-long social interactions and don’t know how to go beyond a brief exchange of smiles. In either case, consistency and predictability will help the child develop communicative relationships with adults, but this has little to do with being “unused to change”.
While it is very reasonable to keep a newly-adopted child’s caregivers to a small and consistent number, and gradually to add more people and visits to more exciting places, asking a family to maintain a completely constant environment is simply adding to the stress that can produce dysfunction. The practice of “beltlooping” or keeping newly-adopted children within reach at all times can be overwhelming and increase stress for both adult and child, and interferes seriously with the development of normal methods of communication over different distances. Its impact on toilet and sexual habits and other behaviors where privacy is a factor in building stress and making parents feel incompetent.

Myth 4: Adopted children are “bad” and potentially dangerous, either because of their poor attachment history or because of the genetic characteristics they share with their abandoning birth parents; unless treated in specific ways they are likely to display cruelty, attack weaker children or their adoptive parents, and commit arson. Adoptive parents, however, are unusually altruistic, generous, and noble—- “awesome”, to use the vernacular.

Reality: A small number of children from any background will suffer from genetically-caused forms of mental illness and may behave in frightening or risky ways. If adoptive parents believe that this is true of all adopted children, however, they may communicate their expectations to the children or focus on and encourage undesirable behaviors that originally occurred in a normal and age-appropriate form. The parents who accept this myth may also feel and act wary or frightened of their children, creating a confusing and difficult situation in which the child is frightened by the parent’s communication of fear. Like non-adopted children, adopted children vary in their risk for serious emotional and behavioral disturbance, and need to be seen as individuals rather than through distorting preconceptions.

It is too bad that ABC Nightline, rather than dispelling such myths, chose instead to perpetuate them. Dr. Mercer’s specific comments about the Nightline program can be read by clicking on this link.

I predict that the only response from the proponents of such myths Dr. Mercer will get is ad hominem attacks and arguments from authority, rather than addressing the substance of the very important issues at hand.

Fair warning: I will only publish responses to this post that address the actual issues being discussed. Personal attacks and arguments from authority are not welcome on this blog and excluding them is not censorship. Just as I have the right to decide who I allow into my own home, I have a right to decide who I allow to post on my blogs and I will not allow verbal assaults here.

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One Comment
  1. On Myth 1: And not making the attempt (to communicate mutually) could be considered a danger to both.

    On Myth 2: I saw the eptiome of this when reading about a young woman with cerebral palsy. It turned out that her father’s idea of ‘special time’ when he was a child was making drugs with his parents. It made me question whether feeding the child was not a better or worse use of “special time’. In any case, the “special time” concept can be misused.

    Remember: predictable, everyday, enjoyable.

    Perhaps that is a better guide – certainly more developmentally appropriate – than respectful, responsible and fun to be around.

    On Myth 3: good points on toilet and sexual boundaries. I would like to see this addressed more in the literature and in real life. (Do you have good references?)

    On Myth 4: yes, it is true that parents are altruistic.

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