The Healthy Adjustment of Adopted Adolescents Study Summary By Kathleen L. Whitten, Ph.D.
For my dissertation, I did original research on 17,000 families in the U.S. (Whitten, 2002). There were 535 adoptive families. Each family had an adolescent between 12 and 18 years old. The quick good news: adoptive families overall had more positive relationships than the nonadoptive families. In more good news for parents, I found no differences between adopted and nonadopted teens on 12 outcomes: delinquency, depression/anxiety, psychosomatic illness, amount of activities with male friends, amount of activities with female friends, self-efficacy, grade-point average, ever repeated a grade, ever been suspended from school, ever been expelled from school, ever had sex, and ever attempted suicide. This contrasts to other studies, especially older ones, that which emphasize negative behavior among adopted children. The details of the study are in the sections below.
Relationships in adoptive and nonadoptive families My study is one of only a few to look at the ways adoptive families interact. Like them, I found that in some respects adoptive families have stronger parent-child relationships.
Adoptive parents. Adoptive parents were more active in their communities, in their children’s schools, and in religious institutions. They were older and had higher education and incomes. They were more likely to be married, and if they were, more happily and harmoniously married and less likely to have considered separating in the past year. Adoptive parents were more comfortable discussing sexual issues with their children, which discouraged adolescent sexual risk-taking. They might also be more motivated to be parents and to have a greater commitment to parenting and to their children.
Adoptive fathers. I found better relationships between adopted adolescents and their fathers those in nonadoptive families. The fathers were important, because teens who said they had a good relationship with their fathers also felt that their families cared about them. Quantity time was important, too, because adolescents who spent more time with their fathers also said they had a better relationship. I thought it was interesting that fathers in high-quality marriages spent more time in activities with their teens. And the final outcomes are not surprising: Teens with good relationships with their fathers had fewer school troubles, less delinquency, less sexual risk-taking, and less depression and anxiety. I think the difference in fathers’ involvement in adoptive families might come from two factors, the commitment to parenthood and the transition to parenthood. Adoption requires continuous commitment, through the long processes of choosing an agency, preparing a dossier or scrapbook, waiting for a referral, and evaluating the eventual referral. Adoptive families can choose to stop at any point during this process, and some do. Those who don’t have demonstrated their strong commitment to parenting. The transition to parenthood is also different for adoptive families. It involves interviews with social workers, gathering documents, negotiating with government officials and attorneys, making travel arrangements, and other administrative jobs. Fathers can do these as well as mothers, so adoptive fathers can share absolutely equally in the work of bringing a child into their home. This process might protect adoptive parents from slipping into traditional gender roles after the child arrives, a major risk factor for marital dissatisfaction.
Adoptive mothers. Adopted girls rated their relationships with the fathers higher than nonadopted girls, but there was no difference for relationships with mothers. Adopted boys rated their relationships with their mothers lower than nonadopted boys, but there was no difference for relationships with their fathers. The parents in the study, mostly mothers, rated their relationships with their adopted girls lower than nonadoptive mothers, although adopted girls spent more time in activities with their mothers than nonadopted girls did. This outcome bothers me, because it means that adoptive mothers as a group say their relationships with their daughters are worse than the daughters themselves think they are. A possible reason is that the mothers had very high expectations of their relationship with their daughters, but were disappointed by the reality of life with an adolescent.
Religion. Adoptive families were more likely to attend religious services than nonadoptive families. They were also more likely to say that their religion was important to them. Parents’ and adolescents’ religious involvement was similar. As I predicted, involvement in religious activities or faith communities reduced adolescents’ motivation to take sexual risks.
Family relationships and child outcomes Family relationships were related to children’s outcomes in the same ways in both adoptive and nonadoptive families. I expected this, and was really glad to find it, especially because several decades of research say that adoptive families somehow had a negative influence on children. I think that adoptive parents’ strong motivation to become parents and their commitment to parenthood—tested by the long process of adopting a child and verified by a social worker—might contribute to two important aspects of their relationships with their adolescents. First, the commitment to parenthood might lead them to spend more time with their adolescents. Second, commitment and motivation might also contribute to parental warmth toward their adolescents.
Strong family relationships reduce risk. For specific adolescent outcomes, family relationship factors were important in reducing risk. The adopted adolescents’ better relationships with their fathers and perception that families cared about them protected them from being motivated to take sexual risks. Adoptive parents were also more likely to know their daughters’ boyfriends, and to know whether their teen had had sex. Both of these indicate close family ties and a high degree of trust. Different outcomes, of course, had different important predictors. For example, child religiosity was not significant for school troubles, but it was a protective factor in motivation to take sexual risks. Teens’ perception that their families cared about them helped reduce their school troubles. This study found that family relationship factors are more important in determining children’s outcomes than any factors related to adoption.
Comparison of adopted and nonadopted adolescents’ outcomes This study failed to find differences between adopted and nonadopted adolescents on 17 of 21 outcomes. Adopted adolescents were different from nonadopted children on only four measures. On the positive side, they had less motivation to take sexual risks. Although they also had more difficulties in school, suicidal thoughts, and forced or pressured sex, the differences between them was small.
School troubles. Adopted adolescents’ “school troubles” increased at age 13 for adopted boys and at age 14 for adopted girls. More adopted adolescents’ parents reported that they had learning disabilities. Most of those with learning disabilities were adopted domestically. Learning disabilities were significantly more prevalent among boys, both adopted and nonadopted, than among girls. The most important factors in school troubles, though, were (in order) adolescents’ perception of family caring and understanding, learning disabilities, depression, delinquency, and socio-economic status.
Thoughts of suicide. I might have found differences on thoughts about suicide because nonadopted adolescents did not report their suicidal thoughts. Fewer of them said they had answered questions about suicide “completely honestly.” Adopted adolescents who had good family relationships and higher socio-economic status had fewer suicidal thoughts. Other research has found that adopted boys are at higher risk than nonadopted boys for general negative outcomes, but I found that adopted girls were at higher risk than nonadopted girls for suicidal ideas. It’s important to stress, though, that even thought they might’ve thought more about suicide, they were not more likely to be depressed or to attempt suicide. Adopted girls were also more likely to have had forced or pressured sex, possibly as a result of early abuse that led to their being adopted through the foster care system.
Older adolescents. Sadly, adolescents 16 and older reported fewer activities with parents and poorer relationships with their fathers, than younger teens. They were also less likely to think their families cared about them. But older adolescents also had more depression, anxiety, school troubles, and delinquent behaviors. This might mean that parents withdraw from their children when their adolescents still need contact with them. Unfortunately, these findings are consistent with those found in other studies.
Good news. Finally, the main point of this study is there are only a few differences between adopted children and nonadopted ones, and those differences are small. But being adopted is less important than having good family relationships. Like nonadoptive families, adoptive parents and children have a range of relationships. Adoption alone does not create an inferior parent-child relationship which, in turn, places adolescents at risk. For social workers, these study results suggest they should educate parents to expect healthy outcomes for adopted adolescents as the norm, not the exception. Social workers can help prospective adoptive parents find their potential strengths, rather than emphasizing their risk of pathology. They can also encourage all parents to pay special attention to their daughters and monitor older teen girls for depression. For adoptive parents, my study gives us scientific assurance that our families can develop into strong, nurturing spaces for our children to grow into healthy adolescents.
Whitten, K.L. (2002). The Healthy Adjustment of Adopted Adolescents: The Role of Family, School and Community. Doctoral Dissertation, The University of Virginia.