Q: We have two children ages 9 and 5 and are considering adopting a third — perhaps an older child, even a teenager. Do you have any advice for us?
A: Do I ever, beginning with a caution against believing what you are told by adoption specialists about the supposed vulnerability of adopted children to all manner of psychological problems, especially reactive attachment disorder (RAD).
In my experienced estimation (I researched this issue fairly extensively for my book "Parent-Babble"), these well-meaning professionals tend to see RAD lurking behind every behavior problem, no matter how small. It has been called the most ill-defined of all psychological diagnoses, which lends to it being used sloppily. As such, it can justify professional intervention when nothing more than time, love and a steady approach to discipline might well be all that’s needed.
Contrary to conventional adoption “wisdom,” there’s no reason to believe that adopted children are any different from non-adopted children in that they have memories, however deep-seated, of their first months of life. That oft-repeated claim simply cannot be objectively verified.
Anyone thinking of adoption would do well to be mindful of the power of self-fulfilling prophecies. In this case, thinking that an adopted child is always teetering on the edge of a psychological abyss greatly increases the likelihood that the child will develop behaviors and emotional issues that verify that belief and leads almost inevitably to what I refer to as "ongoing adoption dramas." The opposite is also true — thinking of an adopted child as an emotionally sturdy human being who is no less in need of a balanced combination of unconditional love and unequivocal authority than any other child is likely to result in an emotionally sturdy child.
The relatively indiscriminate warnings of adoption specialists — I am fully aware that there are notable exceptions to my characterization — often include warnings against using just about any form of punishment. That’s in keeping with the notion that these kids are especially fragile, which often causes adoptive parents to start off on the wrong foot with an adopted child, especially if the child is older. When love is not balanced with an equal measure of authority, it will almost certainly be expressed as enabling, and once that snowball is gets rolling downhill, it’s very difficult to stop.
Adopted children do not benefit from being the center of attention, the center of lots of concern, or the objects of lots of enabling. They benefit from being treated from the outset as normal, lovable little people who, like all children, will need to be firmly disciplined from time to time.
As for adopting an older child, that’s fine. But I do not recommend adopting a child older than the youngest child in a family unless the youngest child is below age 3, the age, on average, at which permanent memory begins to form). Violating already established birth order can be disruptive to existing children.
For more on this controversial subject, you might consider reading the adoption chapter in "Parent-Babble." Your local library can obtain a copy for you.