After reading about the experiences of many adoptive families, my dear friend recently asked me if the crazy challenges of Reactive Attachment Disorder should be expected for each and every adoption, or if these challenges are the direct result of childhood abuse and neglect.
Y’all, I love wrestling with questions like these, giving words to the messy, beautiful realities of being an adoptive family.
First, regarding the likelihood of attachment issues in any and all adoptions: I don’t have a numerical probability for you. No one does, because there are so many factors to be taken into consideration. But our adoption experience has led us to this conclusion: every foster and adoptive parent needs to be educated about the difficult reality of living with attachment issues. This is a necessity. PJ and I received brief teaching about attachment as a concept and that “attachment issues may exist in the future” for our children; we were never told that in adopting “basic” children our lives could be turned upside down for years on end in all the ways I’ve written about. As Christians, we must step in to care for the fatherless as the Father cares for us, but it truly is a “dying to self” experience. The reality can be extraordinarily messy and difficult. The current training programs for foster/adoptive parents are just not sufficient.
In thinking about adoption outcomes, it is important to consider the concept of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). You can learn about this at the website for the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which exists for the purpose of “linking childhood trauma to long-term health and social consequences” or at the CDC site for the study. Briefly, the study assesses the prevalence and long-term effects of several categories of ACE: abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), neglect (physical or emotional), and household dysfunction (mother treated violently, household substance abuse, household mental illness, parental separation/divorce, and incarcerated household member). Overall, the higher the ACE score, the more at risk a person is for a variety of physical and mental health problems.
Our adopted kids had a very high number of Adverse Childhood Experiences (especially our oldest two children). Additionally, our experience with our children and observing other adoptive families indicates that there are other adverse experiences that affect potential outcomes: prenatal drug exposure, the number of foster care placements, quality of foster care placements, child’s age at adoptive placement, and child’s age at initiation of quality therapies, among others. Domestic (non-foster) and international adoptions have their own factors to consider, but I don’t have direct experience with those adoptions.
That’s a little bit about the negative factors that affect adoption outcomes (or really, outcomes for any child). What about the positives? Paul Tough has written an excellent book addressing this topic: How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and The Hidden Power of Character.
Why do some children succeed while others fail?
The story we usually tell about childhood and success is the one about intelligence: success comes to those who score highest on tests, from preschool admissions to SATs.
But in How Children Succeed, Paul Tough argues that the qualities that matter most have more to do with character: skills like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control.
This book examines research that attempts to quantify these positive character traits and investigates interventions aimed at strengthening these skills. While the book is not directly related to adoption, many of the studies and interventions work with children who are living in the same difficult environment that our kids came from. It’s an interesting read if you want to know more about this topic.
So long-term outcomes can be affected by Adverse Childhood Experiences, positive character traits, and…the gospel. Regardless of our ACE score or the number of positive character traits we possess, we are all sinners who need to be saved by grace and sanctified throughout our lives. We all need to be adopted by the one perfect Father and saved from our biggest problem, our own sin against Him.
Are there any sure-fire ways to know how an adoption will turn out? No. We know families who have adopted in all manners: foster care, domestic infant, and international. There is an incredibly wide range of outcomes in just the impossibly small sample we are able to consider personally. Overall, I would say that the best outcomes come from adoptive placements that occurred early in the child’s life. (Texas considers a foster/adoptive child to be a “special needs” placement if the child is older than two. I think they have this right.) Another significant factor is prenatal drug exposure. Drugs are bad, y’all. After that, we cling to the fact that “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Will all adoptions involve serious attachment issues? No. If you adopt older children, or drug exposed children, or children with incredibly messy backgrounds, is it going to go “well” according to the American Dream? Probably not. Is it going to put the gospel on display, both when you get things right and when you fail? Yes. Is it worth giving up all of your personal dreams for the sake of the Kingdom? Absolutely.
Readers, I would absolutely love to hear from you with more questions. Send them to me, and I’ll give them some thought before getting back to you in person or via the blog.