Adopted Child Syndrome - Causes, Effects And Ways To Prevent It

Adopted Child Syndrome

Image: iStock

Adoption is a great alternative for parents who aren’t bestowed with or do not want to go through the process of having their biological kids. But nurturing adopted children is not easy as they could come with a psychological baggage. Adopted child syndrome (ACS) is something that could be expected in such children, in various measures. The syndrome is limited to a few adopted children, but it is likely that most of them have one or more of the symptoms.

MomJunction tells you the reasons for an adopted child to acquire this syndrome, its effects, and the ways to avoid ACS in your child.

What Is Adopted Child Syndrome:

Adopted child syndrome is a condition that is a result of various psychological and emotional hardships an adopted child undergoes. It represents the characteristics that are uniquely related to their adopted status, such as attachment disorders, lying, stealing, inability to accept authority, and violent behavior.

Social worker Jean Paton, who was herself an adoptee, was the first to study ACS in 1953.

The term, coined by David Kirschner in 1978 in his paper Son of Sam and the Adopted Child Syndrome, is not accepted in the professional community (1) but has been researched by several psychologists to understand the causes and effects of the condition on children.

Causes Of Adopted Child Syndrome:

Apple Inc founder late Steve Jobs was an adopted child. Though highly successful in life he has often referred to “unresolved pain” of rejection and abandonment due to adoption (2). Here are a few reasons why adopted children could develop this syndrome.

1. Abandonment and Loss:

Lonely children develop a feeling of being abandoned by their mother.

In the book Being adopted: The lifelong search for self, researchers David M Brodzinsky,Marshall D Schechter, and Robin Marantz Henig say that children, if adopted within six months of their birth, would grow similar to a natural child. However, psychotherapist Nancy Verrier in her book The Primal Wound says that a child develops a bond with its mother from the womb itself.

“Bonding doesn’t begin at birth but is a continuum of physiological, psychological, and spiritual events which begin in utero and continue throughout the postnatal bonding period.

“When this natural evolution is interrupted by a postnatal separation from the biological mother, the resultant experience of abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds of these children, causing that which I call the ‘primal wound’.”

2. Trauma Of Separation:

The orphaned and abandoned children carry the trauma of separation from their biological parents. He may not remember the trauma but can feel it subconsciously.

Though they may not be able to communicate the trauma, there is an innate fear that their adopted family would leave them one day.

The fear of separation from the new family may not allow them to develop a normal behavior.

3. Secrecy Of Parents:

The adopted family might not tell the adoptees details about their natural parents. The very fact that they have been adopted could be hidden if the adoption takes place early in a child’s life. However, once they come to know about it, the children might want to know more about their original family.

Sometimes, even the adoption agencies would not have details about the biological parents of adoptees, and this mystery creates frustration in the child.

4. Differences In Ethnicity:

If the adopted family is from a different origin than the adoptee, the child could find it difficult to adjust. Their color, descent, practices may all be different. For instance, if an American family adopts an Asian origin child, the cultural differences would be so profound that the adoptee may grow up into a confused teenager.

5. Genetic Differences:

As they grow up, the adopted children observe that their physical features, preferences, and intellectual abilities are different from those of the others in the family. This could cause alienation as there is none who resembles him physically or psychologically, leading to the syndrome.

This also puts him under pressure to follow in the footsteps of his foster family, however difficult it might be (3).

6. A Feeling Of Guilt:

As the adoptee turns into a teenager, he feels guilty of not giving enough to his adopted family. He is overburdened by a sense of gratitude. Added to this, his eagerness to know about his original family may make him think that he is doing injustice to the family that has adopted him.

7. Burden Of Being The ‘Chosen One’:

The adoption agency and the people around tell the adoptee that he is the ‘chosen one’ by the family, with an intention to make him forget about his past and merge into the new setup. It could also make the adoptee come out of the feeling of being abandoned.

However, overdoing it could make him feel that the family is being charitable by adopting him, thus developing negative thoughts and mindset in him.

8. Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder:

Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) includes a range of physical and neurological defects in the baby due to the excessive consumption of alcohol by the mother when she is pregnant. Children with this condition may look normal but certain parts of their brain remain undeveloped. This leads to negative behavior in them. Such children need immense support from their adopted family (4).

Symptoms Of Adopted Child Syndrome:

Children cannot be expressive enough to share their trauma with their foster parents. It is important for the parents to look out for any behavioral issues.

According to a study, adopted children have double the chances of contracting mental health problems than normal children. They could develop psychological problems such as:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Identity crisis
  • Anxiety
  • Feelings of grief and rejection
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Conduct disorder
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Separation anxiety disorder

Another study has found that 14 to 15 out of 100 adoptees have the chances of having ODD or ADHD. This is twice as much as the non-adoptees getting these conditions (5).

Effects Of Adopted Child Syndrome:

If adopted early in their life, adopted children grown similar to other kids. In the US, nearly 120,000 children are adopted every year. There are currently more than 2.6 million (6) adopted individuals in the country. Most of them lead a normal life.

However, various studies have found that the incidence of psychological disorders is more in adopted children than normal ones. Here are some effects of ACS.

1. Developmental Delays:

Adopted children could reach physical and emotional development milestones late. They may not be able to do things that kids of their age usually do, or they may think and behave younger than their age. Developmental delays could manifest in the form of:

  • Eagerness to grab attention or rewards
  • Inability to socialize
  • Difficulty in learning motor skills

2. Eating Disorders:

Their pre-adoption life makes children anxious eaters. They may have grown up under circumstances where there was a scarcity of food (7). This could lead to:

  • Overeating
  • Under-consumption due to problems in eating certain foods such as solids
  • Hoarding of food
  • Stealing food

3. Attachment Issues and Reactive Attachment Disorder:

The neglect and negative environment early in their life could lead to attachment disorder or reactive attachment disorder (RAD) in adopted children. This could be the result of they being abandoned, uncared for, and unloved. This will make children withdraw from others, avoid eye contact, be uninterested in playing, and be indifferent to affection, among others (8).

You can recognize RAD in adopted children through these signs and symptoms:

  • They do not like being touched and physical affection as they see them as a threat to their well-being.
  • The children control their emotions to avoid being helpless. But they are disobedient, defiant, and argumentative.
  • As they suppress their feelings, it manifests in the form of anger which they exhibit through tantrums or passive-aggressive behavior.
  • Children with RAD could be affectionate with strangers but do not display the same emotions towards their adopted parents.
  • They avoid the feelings of guilt or regret as their conscience is underdeveloped.

4. Alcohol And Drug Abuse:

As teenagers, adopted children could get drawn to alcohol and drug abuse, in the absence of proper care from their foster parents.

If the biological parents are addicted to these habits, and the environment in the adopted family is not cordial, the risk of adoptees getting addicted doubles.

Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics director Kenneth Kendler says: “For an adoptee, having a biological parent with drug abuse who did not raise you doubles your risk for drug abuse.”

“But we also found an important role for environmental factors. If you have an adoptive sibling – with whom you have no genetic relationship – develop drug abuse that also doubles your risk for drug abuse. A bad environment can augment the effect of genetic risk for drug abuse.”

5. Inclination Towards Crime:

According to a study by psychologist David Kirschner (1992), “A disproportionate number of adoptees commit generic homicides. Also, a disproportionate number of multiple and serial killers are adopted.”

An FBI estimate shows that most of the 500 serial killers in the US are adopted kids.

A previous study by Mednick, Gabrielli, and Hutchings (1984) shows that (9):

  • 13.5% adopted boys become criminals if neither the biological nor adopted parents are criminals.
  • 14.7% sons turn out to be criminals if the adoptive parents are criminal but the biological parents are not.
  • The figure is 20% if the biological parents are criminal but not the adoptive parents.
  • If both biological and adoptive parents are criminals, approximately 24% sons qualify as criminal.

How To Avoid Adopted Child Syndrome:

Adoption can make a huge difference to abandoned children who have experienced a tough life and rejection in their young lives. As foster parents, you have to put in extra effort to make the kids settle down in a new environment of care and love. Here is a guide to avoid ACS in the child (10):

1. PLACE Attitude:

Attachment psychologist Dan Hughes has come up with the acronym PLACE, which stands for being playful, loving, accepting, curious, and empathic to your adopted kid.

Playful: Be playful with the child as this would help him realize his self-worth and relax. Fill in your free-time with some games or fun activities with the kid. Do not withdraw playfulness as a punishment for his misdemeanor.

Playfulness need not necessarily be playing games but also a simple ruffling of his hair, winking at him, cracking a joke, or smiling at him. This would increase the interaction between you and the child, which could be beneficial to him.

Loving: You should be the first person to bring love into the relationship and your adopted child will eventually follow you. Understand that he is too young and frightened to adjust to the environment instantly.

Hold his hand, hug him, have a sweet talk with him, show him that you care for him. Give him time to understand you and help him build that faith in you.

Accepting: Accept the child the way he is. That is the first step to mold him in the way you want. Remember that he has come from a different situation, where his biological parents are unknown to him, and he grew up among strangers. He may not be well-groomed or behaved.

Share your expectations gradually, after he settles down in your family.

Curious: When your child does something unacceptable, do not admonish him immediately. Instead, be curious to know why he did that. Let him know your curiosity by asking questions aloud. It will make him understand that he was wrong, and give him the confidence to talk to you about it.

Empathic: Empathize with your child. If he is finding it difficult to read or write, tell him that you understand his difficulty. Sit with him and make him learn his lessons, instead of getting furious or disappointed with him. Being empathic will help you gain his trust. But empathy needs to be genuine and not flippant.

2. Permanency:

Adopted children are scared of losing people around them as they have experienced the loss early in their lives. Your child may not like to leave you or may get cranky if you are away even for a short time, as he is afraid of losing you.

It is for you to build that sense of permanency in him.

  • Make him understand that you are with him permanently even if you are not around for a few hours or days.
  • Play peek-a-boo or hide and seek with him, whereby he cannot see you for a few minutes.
  • Build this feeling of permanency in him by the time he starts going to school.

3. Constancy:

Constancy is related to permanency as it gives children stability and resilience. It makes them realize that your angry reaction in a particular instance is because of his misbehavior but not because you hate him.

  • Develop constancy in him by being pleasant even while reprimanding him for his behavior. He will understand that you are not happy with what he has done.
  • If he disappoints you, talk to him openly without hurting his sensitivities. Tell him what your expectation was and why it was not met.

4. Reduce Stress And Anxiety:

Adopted children have high levels of stress due to their past. You need to carefully avoid adding any more stress or anxiety with your behavior.

  • Be calm and make yourself available to him to reduce his levels of anxiety.
  • Make things predictable for him so that he need not have to guess.
  • If he does something wrong, let him know the consequences immediately, without making him wait anxiously for the ‘punishment’.
  • Identify his stress areas and mitigate them.

5. Build Self-Esteem:

Self-esteem is usually low in adopted children as they feel ashamed of themselves for no reason. Develop self-esteem in him by making him feel important. Play with him, appreciate his new milestones, and applaud him for his achievements.

6. Discipline Positively:

  • Avoid giving commands to the child, such as, “I want you to do this,” “You have to stop being like that,” and so on. Instead, give him choices of ‘this or that’ and let him choose. This works well for both your child and you.
  • Replace punishments with logical consequences, so that he understands that doing ‘this’ will lead to ‘that’. For example, he will know that if he spills milk, he will end up cleaning it.
  • Keep your bouts of anger short, for around 60 seconds, and have calmer conversations for a longer time.

7. Encourage Socializing But Supervise:

Help your kid to come out of his cocoon and socialize with his classmates and neighbors. Take him to a park and let him play with other children. Let him realize the fun in mingling with other kids.

However, he needs your supervision. Ensure that he is not hurting anybody or is being bullied by the other children. Explain him the ways to be amicable yet assertive.

Medical Assistance For ACS:

It is difficult to detect ACS in your child, as you may mistake his misdemeanor or reclusive behavior as an act of defiance or displeasure.

Be alert to recognize the symptoms of ACS as timely medical intervention can bring your child out of it.

Even if you take him to an expert, the psychotherapist could simply treat the symptoms instead of looking deep into the cause. Therefore, it is important for you to tell him that the child is an adopted one. This will help the doctor look into that angle as well and understand the larger picture.

Psychotherapy helps in removing the feeling of guilt, anxiety, and other negative feelings in your child.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why do some foster parents hide the adoption truth from their children?

There could be a sense of insecurity among the adoptive parents that the children may leave them once they know about their biological parents. They do not want their kids to do this after spending years of love on them.

While the children may want to know more details about their biological parents, they would rarely leave their adoptive parents.

However, the trend is changing, and the adoptive parents are now more open to their children. They are willing to share facts with kids to avoid any communication gap later in their lives.

2. Are adopted children violent towards their parents?

There have been cases in the US where adopted children murdered their foster parents for monetary or emotional reasons. But it cannot be generalized with a majority of kids. It depends on the environment at home and the love and affection you share with your adopted children.

3. How soon can an adopted child accept his new parents and family?

This differs with each family, but usually, children take around six months to settle down in the new atmosphere. However, it depends on you to make the kids feel at home. Create a reassuring atmosphere at home for them to accept the changes in the shortest possible time.

4. How do I support a child with reactive attachment disorder (RAD)?

As the child with RAD is already under stress, you need to take care of not venting or showing your frustration on him. Here are a few tips to parent a child with RAD:

  • Do not lose your patience, however annoying the situation may be.
  • Create a fun environment at home, and develop a sense of humor in the child.
  • Have realistic expectations from the child, and celebrate his successes.
  • Stay positive even if the child ignores your overtures. Keep trying and he would recognize your efforts sooner than later.
  • Seek help from your family and friends.

5. What care do I take if I have adopted a child with Down syndrome?

There are several adoption agencies which exclusively deal with Down syndrome children. If you are planning to adopt a child with this condition, here are a few tips for you:

  • Prepare yourself for the situations that could arise due to the child.
  • Acquire as much knowledge as possible about the condition, to prepare yourself.
  • Share your intentions with your family and friends and take their advice.
  • Estimate your finances as a child with Down syndrome needs additional medical attention.
  • Plan his future, know about the various options he can have, and foresee his requirements as he may need your support even after growing up.

An adopted child usually comes to his new home with several apprehensions. He also has a bitter past to carry. It is for you to make him shed that burden and lead him into a bright and promising future.

Have you experienced ACS, or seen somebody with the syndrome in your close circles? Let us know in the comment section below.

Recommended Articles:

The following two tabs change content below.
Profile photo of Bhavana Navuluri

Bhavana Navuluri

Writing is my hobby and my profession. I amaze myself whenever I look back and see that I have already spent 15 solid years writing and editing across newspapers and online media, covering features and business news with equal élan. MomJunction coincided with my motherhood, and as a mother of two, there is a lot to give and take from MJ.
Featured Image