URC

The Effects of Older Child Adoption on the Family

Lisa Hutton
The Master's College


Abstract

According to statistics, the majority of the children that are in need of homes are three years old or older. People looking to adopt children are less likely to consider adopting an older child due to the developmental issues and behavioral problems that an older child is perceived to have. The purpose of this study is to consider the effects on the family unit with the adoption of an older child. The survey instrument was distributed to selected residents in Snohomish County, Washington, and to selected students at The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California, during the spring of 2009. STATPAK was employed to analyze the data, using the One-Dimensional Chi-square test. The results showed that people perceived the following five areas to be problematic in the adoption of an older child: developing a sense of belonging, getting along with siblings in the adoptive family, establishing his or her identity, dealing with loss and grief, and making the adoption successful and permanent.

Introduction

Many children in this world do not have families. In the United States, many of these children are in the foster care system. According to Singer and Krebs (2008), “the preponderance of children in the foster care system needing adoptive homes are over 6 years of age” (p. 171).  In his study of the demographics of adoption, Watson (1996) stated that “for the most part the children waiting for adoption in foster care are not infants” (p.525). Because of such statistics, the adoption of older children is being encouraged. However, there are certain factors that must be considered by families desiring to adopt older children. Singer and Krebs (2008) stated that “children adopted at an older age, whether from foster care or internationally, often display a variety of emotional, physical, and learning issues resulting from their early life experiences” (p. 172). This study focused on the issues that are considered to hinder the adoption of older children.

Difficulty Acquiring a Sense of Belonging

A sense of belonging is vital for any child, particularly for adoptees. However, “children who cannot be brought up in their families of origin suffer a basic disruption in this sense of membership, of knowing where they belong” (Rastin, 2006, p. 107). Parents and adoptees alike often have “feelings of mismatch . . . , disappointment that the child does not meet the family’s expectations, lack of a real sense of entitlement . . . , and doubts about attachment” (Janus, 1997, p. 270).

Janus also stated that anxieties about attachment or lack thereof on both parties increase with the age of the adopted child (Janus, 1997, p. 270). This is supported by Brind (2008), who cited a study that showed, at age sixteen, 83% of the children adopted at a young age had constructive parental relationships. In contrast to this, only 38% of the children adopted at older ages had a positive relationship with their adoptive parents (Brind, 2008, p. 320). This suggests that past neglect or lack of care can play a key part in the attachment of an adoptee to his or her adoptive parents. It also implies that an increase in the adoptee’s chronological age can be a hindrance to forming a strong attachment and sense of belonging in the adoptive family.

Establishing Identity

No matter what a child’s age is at the point of adoption, adoptees generally face problems related to establishing their identity. Noy-Sharav (2005) suggested that identity formation happens continuously as a child grows older (p. 174). “The adopted child has a more complex task in building his identity than a birth child, as he has undergone a separation from his birth parents, and has to re-attach to a new set of parents” (Noy-Sharav, 2005, p. 175). This is because many children adopted today have complex backgrounds (Singer & Krebs, 2008, p. 171), including separating and reuniting with their biological family and transitioning in and out of various foster homes and institutions. Children adopted at an older age have generally been through more transitions, and they have become accustomed to not belonging.

Adoptive parents need to be aware of this struggle so they can help the adopted child deal with it. Barratt (2006) stated that she has found “open acknowledgement of the past has been important for adopted children. Many children maintain contact with birth siblings and letter-box contact with their birth family for birthdays and Christmas. The marking of these important events can be difficult for adoptive parents but maintains the children’s link with the past, helping to create a developing sense of identity, which includes their origins” (p. 159). Along with establishing an attachment to the adoptive parents and new home environment, adopted children must learn to integrate their past into their developing identity.

A Greater Sense of Loss

“Despite the controversy as to whether the advantages of adoption outweigh the disadvantages, most authors agree that virtually every adopted person experiences some loss and longing for the connection that a birth-bond supplies for nonadoptees” (Janus, 1997, p. 270). It is important to note that adopted children have suffered some sense of loss, regardless of their age when they were placed with their adoptive family. Because older children have generally been in transition or in the foster care system for a long time, they will have a greater sense of loss. For this reason, they are often classified as special-needs adoption cases (Schweiger & O’Brien, 2005, p. 512).

The primary loss suffered by adoptees is the loss of their birth parents (Wilson, 2007, p. 172). Those who have been in foster care often suffer from the loss of attachments to other parental figures, such as foster parents and social workers (Schwartz, 2006, p. 15). Other potential losses suffered by adoptees include separation from siblings and being uprooted from an environment where they had established a sense of belonging. Rustin (2006) said, “A child adopted at 2 or 5 or 10 has a store of conscious memories of earlier families where they lived and belonged in varying degrees. . . . . [His/her] history might include periods of being an ‘at-risk’ baby, a child who has had to act as carer for vulnerable parents, a foster child, often in a number of different placements, or perhaps a separated sibling” (p. 109). Previous experiences of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse will further complicate the child’s sense of loss and grief.

Challenges with Siblings

In a study about problems between adolescents who are already part of families that adopt older children, Ward and Lewko (1988) listed the following as problems between siblings: “isolation of a child, role dislocation, conflict and remaking of alliances among ‘old’ siblings, boundary problems, manipulation and formation of triangles, and sibling rivalry and aggression” (pp. 221-222). The issues of loss and lack of a sense of belonging, as well as behavioral and emotional challenges that the adoptee brings into the adoptive family, can intensify these problems. Schweiger & O’Brien (2005) said, “Problems are particularly likely with special needs adopted children because of their social and emotional difficulties that often require a great deal of parental attention, which can contribute to jealousy in other children in the family” (p. 515).

According to Barratt (2006), each family has its own culture, and “the family’s culture influences all aspects of day-to-day life” (p. 161). Most individuals, especially children, view those qualities of their “family culture” as obvious and maybe even universal. When the adopted child is unaware of the cultural do’s and don’ts in the family, or purposely acts in a disruptive manner as an expression of anger and rebellion, it can cause significant problems between the adoptee and any biological children in the family because the adoptee is disrupting the homeostasis of the biological children, which is vital in their process of developing a sense of belonging (Schwartz, 2006, p. 15).

Greater Risk of Adoption Disruption

“Research consistently indicates that adoption disruptions increase with the child’s age at placement” (Barth, Berry, Yoshikami, Goodfield, et al, 1988, p. 227). In a study about predicting the success of a child’s adoption, Barth, Berry, Yoshikami, Goodfield, et al. (1988) found that adoptions where the adoptees are between the ages of 3 and 5 showed a disruption rate of 4.6 percent, ages 6 to 8 a rate of 10.4 percent, 9 to 11 a rate of 17.1 percent, 12 to 14 a rate of 22.4 percent, and 15 to 18 a rate of 26.1 percent (p. 240). These statistics prove that a child’s age at adoption is related to the degree of risk that their adoption will be disrupted.

An unsuccessful adoption can result in dissolution, which “describes the end of an adoption that has already been finalized” (Schwartz, 2006, p. 5), or in disruption, which refers to “the ending of an adoption process when the adoption has not yet been legally finalized” (Schwartz, 2006, p. 5). Chances of either of these have been proven to increase as the child’s age at placement increases. The reason for this would most likely be attributed to the effect of children’s previous experiences on their character (Ward, 1997, p. 257). These previous experiences often involve multiple foster homes and a discontinuity of social workers and parental figures (Schwartz, 2006, p. 38).

Adoptive parents “are highly susceptible to a host of psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and marital difficulties” (Ceballo, Lansford, Abbey, & Stewart, 2004, p. 39), because they too suffer from some degree of loss. The intensity of their sense of loss is directly related to what led them to make the decision to adopt. This sense of loss is intensified if the behavior of the child does not meet their expectations, poses a greater challenge, and causes more pain than they had anticipated. Such feelings will result in a higher risk of the adoption being disrupted or dissolved in the end.

Method

The purpose of this study was to consider the effects on the family unit with the adoption of an older child . The following questions were investigated:

  1. What are the effects on the family when they adopt older children?
  2. Do the effects magnify as the chronological age increases?
Data Collection

The survey instrument used in this study determined the potential effects of older-child adoption on the family. A personal data sheet requested demographic data in addition to the responses to the five Likert-scale survey questions. The survey instrument was distributed to selected residents in Snohomish County, Washington, and to selected students at The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California, during the spring of 2009.

Statistical Procedures

STATPAK was employed to examine the data; the desired scale of measurement was ordinal. An ordinal scale is where data is “described in either ranked or rated form. These data identify different levels on a variable, but the exact difference between levels is not measurable” (Joseph & Joseph, 1986, p. 178). The One-dimensional Chi-square test was used to analyze the data because “the test can be conducted with variables measured at the nominal level (the lowest level of measurement) and… it requires no assumption at all about the shape of the population or sampling distribution” (Healey, 2005, p. 280). A .05 level of significance was used to test the results of the study. Data retrieved from the demographic portion of the survey instrument were reported in percentages and figures.

Results

The subjects sampled for this study were selected adults from the Snohomish County, Washington, and selected students attending The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California, during the spring of 2009. Seventy-eight copies of the survey instrument were distributed; thirty-four were returned and used in this study. The data collected from the thirty-four subjects (Table 1) are discussed in subsequent sections, commencing with the reporting of the demographic findings.

Table 1. Summary of Responses to Survey Questions
 

Participants were asked to indicate age and marital status. The results for age indicated the following: Age 18 or younger- 2, Age 19 to 25- 29, Age 26 to 35- 1, Age 36 to 45- 1, Age 46 or older- 1. The results for marital status indicated the following: Single- 30, Married- 4, Divorced- 0. Participants were also asked to answer yes or no to three questions concerning their familiarity and association with adopted individuals (Table 2).

Table 2. Summary of Adoption Demographic Questions

Research Question One
What are the effects on the family when they adopt older children? Questions 1 and 2 of the survey (Appendix A) addressed this research question.

The computed Chi-square value is greater than the tabled Chi-square value at the .05 level of significance for questions 1 and 2. Question 1 indicated that the difficulty faced by adoptees in acquiring a sense of belonging is perceived to increase with the age of adoption.Question 2 indicated that the number of challenges in getting along with the “new” siblings are thought to increase with the age of adoption.

The findings from question 1 align with the research of Rastin (2006), who said, “children who cannot be brought up in their families of origin suffer a basic disruption in this sense of membership, of knowing where they belong” (p. 107). Janus (1997) took this a step further, stating that common problems within the family include “feelings of mismatch between the child and the adoptive parents, disappointment that the child does not meet the family’s expectations, lack of a real sense of entitlement [impede] appropriate discipline, and doubts about attachment” (p.270).

The findings from question 2 align with research conducted by Ward and Lewko (1988), stating that “older child adoption strains the entire fabric of the family system” (p. 228), including relationships with their “new” siblings. Many children adopted at older ages are considered “special needs children” because of the problems and difficulties they have because of their upbringing. Such children “require a great deal of parental attention, which can contribute to jealousy in other children in the family” (Schweiger & O’Brien, 2005, p. 515).

Research Question Two
Do the effects magnify as the chronological age increases? Questions 3, 4, and 5 of the survey addressed this research question.

The computed Chi-square value is greater than the tabled Chi-square value at the .05 level of significance for questions 3, 4, and 5. All three questions indicated that the challenges in getting along with siblings, difficulties establishing their identities, and feelings of loss all increase as the age of adoption increases.

The finding from question 3 aligns with the finding of Singer and Krebs (2008), who stated that “the complex prior histories of most children adopted today pose enormous challenges for the children . . . The child[ren] must integrate their experiences into their developing identity” (p. 171).Noy-Sharav (2005) agreed with this, stating that adopted children have a more difficult time establishing their identity because they have been separated from their birth parents and must attach themselves to their adoptive parents (p. 175).

The finding from question 4 aligns with a statement by Rustin (2006), who said that the primary loss adoptees face is their birth parents, and a child’s attitude toward his or her parents is partially “influenced by how much time the child spent with them” (p. 109). Schwartz (2006) added that children who have been in foster care often suffer from the loss of attachments to other parental figures also, such as foster parents and social workers (p. 15).

The finding from question 5 aligns with the research of Barth, Berry, Yoshikami, Goodfield, et al. They found that “research consistently indicates that adoption disruptions increase with the child’s age at placement” (Barth, Berry, Yoshikami, Goodfield, et al, 1988, p.227). Ward (1997) reiterated this point, saying, “children who are older when they enter care, who have experienced frequent moves and delays in placement, who were abused, and who have emotional and behavioral problems are less likely to have stable adoptions” (p. 257).

Findings

The research questions were analyzed using STATPAK. The One-Dimensional Chi-square test was used to analyze the data because “the test can be conducted with variables measured at the nominal level (the lowest level of measurement) and . . . it requires no assumption at all about the shape of the population or sampling distribution” (Healey, 2005, p. 280). Ordinal data were assumed. Ordinal data is “described in either ranked or rated form. These data identify different levels on a variable, but the exact difference between levels is not measurable” (Joseph & Joseph, 1986, p. 178). A .05 level of significance was used to test the results of the study. The tables located in the appendix of Statistics: A tool for social research were utilized to compare the calculated values derived from the statistical analysis of the research questions with their respective tabled values. Analysis of the data follows.

Discussion

Within the stated purpose and findings of this study, the following conclusions appear warranted:

  1. Some effects experienced by a family when they adopt older children include the child’s difficulty establishing a sense of belonging and the challenges the siblings face in learning to get along with each other.
  2. Some effects of adopting older children increase as the age of adoption increases. Such effects that were within the scope of this study were the amount of loss the adoptee has to deal with, their struggle to establish a sense of identity, and the risk of their adoption being terminated due to disruption or failure.

As the results of this study imply, a child’s age at adoption seems to have some significant implications in relation to the effects on the adoptive family. Statistics show that adoptive parents are less likely to consider adopting an older child because of perceived developmental and behavioral issues in older children. Five main challenges faced by adopted children, especially those adopted at older ages, are as follows: developing a sense of belonging, getting along with siblings in the adoptive family, establishing his or her identity, dealing with loss and grief, and making the adoption successful, stable and permanent. These issues seem to intensify as the child gets older. However, the reason these intensify seems to be mostly dependent upon the circumstances in which that child has been raised.

Most children that are adopted at older ages are adopted out of the foster care system or some other institution. It is probable that the child has experienced many transitions, starting with her separation from her birth parents, moving through numerous foster homes or living situations. The child has had to deal with loss and grief from being separated from his family. Not only that, he has most likely attached himself to new parental figures and been separated from them, with this pattern occurring possibly several times before he is finally considered for adoption. The problems faced by children adopted at older ages seem to stem from these disruptions in the fundamental components of a child’s upbringing. It follows that the problems would intensify as the child gets older, as he will be absent from a homeostatic environment for a greater portion of his life.

A family that adopts an older child is affected by these problems faced by the child. Though they may not realize it, the adoptive parents are also affected by their own childhood and past experiences, which may involve neglect, abuse, or hurt. All of these things must be taken into account when the adoption of an older child is being considered. However, in order to enable a greater number of older children to be adopted, measures should be taken and programs developed by counselors and therapists to further assist families and children through the many challenges involved in older-child adoption.

Limitations of the Study

Some limitations existed in relation to this study. The sample population involved selected residents of Snohomish County, Washington, and students enrolled in The Master’s College in the spring of 2009. Although the findings for this study are focused on the perceived difficulties of older child adoption, general trends may be observed and conclusions drawn.

Recommendations for Further Study

This study provides some information regarding the perceived effects of a child’s age when they are adopted into an established family unit.Additional questions pertaining to the effects of a child’s age when they are adopted warrant further investigation; thus, the following recommendations for further research and study are offered:

  1. This study should be replicated, using a different population to determine the effects of a child’s age when they are adopted into a family unit.
  2. The effects of older child adoption on children already in the adoptive family should be studied.
  3. A study should be conducted to determine the effects of transracial or international adoption on the family unit.
References

Barratt, S. (2006). Systemic work with families after adoption. In J. Kendrick, C. Lindsey, & L. Tollemache, L. (Eds.), Creating new families: Therapeutic approaches to fostering, adoption, and kinship care (pp.145-161). London: Karnac Books.

Barth, R. P., Berry, M., Yoshikami, R., Goodfield, R. K., et al. (1988). Predicting adoption disruption. Social Work, 33 (3), 227-233.

Brind, K. (2008). An exploration of adopters’ views regarding children’s ages at the time of placement. Child and Family Social Work, 13, 319-328.

Brown, K. W., Cozby, P. C., Kee, D. W., & Worden, P. E. (1999). Research methods in human development. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Ceballo, R., Lansford, J. E., Abbey, A., & Stewart, A. J. (2004). Gaining a child: Comparing the experiences of biological parents, adoptive parents, and stepparents. Family Relations, 53 (1), 38-48.

Fraser, R. N. (2005). A fairy tale with a twist: Pastoral counseling with adoptive families. Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling, 59, 63-78.

Handel, G., Cahill, S. E., & Elkin, F. (1991). The family environment. In M. Lewis & S. Feinman (Eds.), Social influences and socialization in infancy (pp. 63-96). New York: Plenum Press.

Healey, Joseph F. (2005). Statistics: A tool for social research. (7th Ed.) Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning, Inc.

Janus, N. G. (1997). Adoption counseling as a professional specialty area for counselors. Journal of Counseling & Development, 75, 266-274.

Joseph, M. L., & Joseph, W. D. (1986). Research fundamentals in home economics/human ecology (3rd ed.). Redondo Beach, CA: Plycon Press.

Rustin, M. (2006). Where do I belong? Dilemmas for children and adolescents who have been adopted or brought up in long-term foster care. In J. Kendrick, C. Lindsey, & L. Tollemache, L. (Eds.), Creating new families: Therapeutic approaches to fostering, adoption, and kinship care (pp.107-125). London: Karnac Books.

Schwartz, L. L. (2006). When adoptions go wrong: Psychological and legal issues of adoption disruption. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.

Singer, E., & Krebs, M. (2008). Assisting adoptive families: Children adopted at older ages. Pediatric Nursing, 34 (2), 170-173.

Ward, M. & Lewko, J. H. (1988). Problems experienced by adolescents already in families that adopt older children. Adolescence, 23 (89), 221-228.

Watson, K. W. (1996). Family-centered adoption practice. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 77 (9), 523-534.

Wilson, R. (2007). Getting started in adoption. Today’s Parent, 24 (12), 172-175.


Appendix A
A SURVEY CONCERNING ADOPTING OLDER CHILDREN

Please complete this survey in a way that best reflects your knowledge or beliefs about the adoption of older children.

1. It is difficult for children adopted at older ages to acquire a sense of belonging in their family.

Strongly Disagree  1  2  3  4  Strongly Agree

2. Older children that are adopted have more challenges getting along with their siblings.

Strongly Disagree  1  2  3  4  Strongly Agree

3. As the age of adoption increases, it becomes progressively more difficult for children to establish their own identity.

Strongly Disagree  1  2  3  4  Strongly Agree

4. Older children available for adoption have a greater sense of loss to deal with than younger children.

Strongly Disagree  1  2  3  4  Strongly Agree

5. As a child’s age progresses, his or her adoption is at greater risk of resulting in failure.

Strongly Disagree  1  2  3  4  Strongly Agree


Demographics

  • What is your age range?     18 or younger   19-25   26-30   31-40   41 or older

  • What is your marital status?            single                married             divorced

  • Do you know anyone who has adopted children?   Yes                  No

  • Are you adopted?  Yes                  No

  • Would you consider adopting a child ages 4 or above?       Yes                  No

Please return anonymously.
Thank you!


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