Adopted Children with Anger and Mistrust
My professional work with adoptive and foster children began in 1977 as a consultant at Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia and led to a commitment to work with these youth over the past 35 years. In addition, my wife and I have been blessed with three adoptive daughters.
I have written about the treatment of excessive anger in adopted children in the child chapter of a textbook for the American Psychological Association Books, 2000, in the area of positive psychology with a focus on forgiveness therapy. Presently, we are working on the second edition of this textbook, Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. The history below of an adopted girl, Amber, from Russia is cited in our book.
A growing number of studies are examining the mental health of youth and some point to the long term psychological conflicts in those who endured significant adversity in early childhood regardless of the home environment of the youth.
A study of 1,364 adoptees on the impact of early childhood adversities of international adoptees on adult psychiatric disorders revealed that severe early adversities increase the risk of adult psychopathology, even when children are taken out of their problematic environments. These children had an increased risk of having anxiety disorders, mood disorders or substance abuse disorders into adulthood. The results suggest that psychiatric disorders may arise de novo after childhood due to early experiences (van der Vegt, et al.,2009, a.) The experience of early childhood adversity prior to adoption has been shown to increase substantially the level of psychiatric problems, especially when maltreatment was severe. Moreover, the impact of early adversities on psychiatric problems remained markedly stable. This suggests that vulnerability of early-maltreated children persists even if they are raised in enriched circumstances (van der Vegt, et al. 2009, b.).
Forgiveness therapy can be effective in addressing the serious early life emotional conflicts in some adopted children that can continue into adulthood.
A study 2005 of 1,484 young adult intercountry adoptees in the Netherlands demonstrated that the adopted young adults were 1.52 times as likely to meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder as the non adopted young adults. The adoptees were also 2.05 times as likely to meet the criteria for substance abuse or dependence. The adopted men were 3.76 times as likely to have a mood disorder as non adopted men, (Tieman, W.,et al., 2005). Also, adoptees, compared to nonadoptees, were less likely to have intimate relationships, to live with a partner, and to be married. Adopted males showed somewhat less favorable outcomes than adopted females (Tieman, W., van der Ende & Verhulst, 2006). The experience of being adopted approximately doubled the odds of having contact with a mental health professional and of having a disruptive behavior disorder.
Also, late age at adoption, neglect and institutionalization have been shown to be risk factors for the psychological and behavioral problems in adoptees and families (Fensbo, 2004). Adoptees placed after infancy may have developmental delays, attachment disturbances, and posttraumatic stress disorder (Nickman, S.L., et al., 2005).
Origins of Conflicts
In our clinical experience over the past 35 years, the early emotional pain in adopted children arises from the trauma of having an addicted or negligent mother and/or father, separation from the birth mother, shame, a serious difficulty in trusting because of the experience of maternal rejection, other experiences of neglect in orphanages or foster care, intense jealousy of birth children of adoptive parents, and low self-esteem often related to a poor body image. These youngsters usually do not identify the sadness, anger and mistrust that develops arising from the failure to establish a secure, loving attachment relationship with a birth mother or from the separation from the biological mother or father.
After the development of early life pain is reviewed with the parents and child, the benefits of uncovering and resolving anger with the birth mother and/or father or other caretakers through forgiveness therapy are discussed. Without forgiveness the early life anger will be misdirected at adoptive parents, siblings and others. In fact, this anger can create severe stress in adoptive homes and in relationships with parents, siblings and peers. Specific examples of harmful behaviors are identified for the child and family by completing our anger and mistrust checklist cited elsewhere on this website.
If an adoptive child regularly overreacts in anger or in controlling behaviors, we regularly explore the possibility that there may be unresolved anger with a birth parent, significant others or caretakers. Many adopted youth express a disbelief initially that their present excessive anger, often expressed in passive ways, or mistrust could arise from unresolved early life hurts. However, we encourage them to trust in our knowledge of child development and experience and try to follow our advice. We then recommend that an adopted child engage in a cognitive forgiveness exercise of thinking about trying to forgive, for example, a troubled birth mother who may have had a very difficult life, caretakers or other relatives. As forgiveness therapy is utilized regularly to master angry feelings, emotional overreactions slowly diminish as the degree of inner anger diminishes. The work of forgiveness with these youth is regularly challenging because of their difficulty in trusting.. The case study below demonstrates the forgiveness therapy with an very mistrustful and angry adoptive child from Russia, Amber.
Amber was given handwritten forgiveness notes to take home and work on between sessions. These notes stated, (1). I want to stop misdirecting my anger at those who don't deserve it. (2). I want to try to understand that my birth mother was sick with a drug addiction and I want to try to forgive her. (3.) I want to let go of the anger from Russia so that I can be free and not controlled by the past. She was challenged to trust people more than her mother had ever been able to trust. It was stated that unless she took these steps, she might be as lonely, unhappy, and fearful as her birth mother.
Amber’s mother would regularly tell her in the early stages of using forgiveness that she was overreacting in anger toward her adoptive parents and that they did not deserve the anger that was meant for those who hurt her in Russia. Her mother would then ask her forgiving her birth mother. She would also correct Amber's intensely controlling behaviors and ask her to reflect that she was now safe and protected in her family. The work of forgiveness was challenging but slowly Amber recognized that she was overreacting in anger and mistrust and that now she had a trustworthy mother and father.