Study: Adoption Not Harmful to Child's Self-Esteem

New research challenges the common perception that adoption negatively impacts a child's self-esteem. A study by a Dutch researcher shows that adopted children tend to overcome developmental and emotional problems, and achieve a normal level of self-esteem.

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It's been something of an article of faith among psychologists that being adopted could hurt the development of a child's sense of worth, that adopted kids would unconsciously blame themselves for the loss of their biological families, and on some level feel that they hadn't been good enough for their parents to keep them.

But a researcher in the Netherlands is challenging this orthodoxy. Femmie Juffer's study on the self-esteem of adopted children is published in this month's journal Psychological Bulletin.

NPR's Alix Spiegel reports.

ALIX SPIEGEL: Femmie Juffer has been researching adoption for a long time. So she thought she knew what her study would tell her. It was clear that in addition to the trauma of losing their families, adopted children often experience developmental delays - in physical growth, in school performance, in language skills.

And while the research showed that kids almost always caught up to their non-adopted peers, Juffer assumed that those early setbacks would leave a mark and self-esteem would suffer. But after compiling data from 80 different studies on the self-esteem of adopted children, Juffer made a pleasant discovery. She was completely, absolutely, irretrievably wrong.

Dr. FEMMIE JUFFER (Leiden University): Adopted children are at no such risk for low self-esteem. They do the same as non-adopted children. They did not find a difference anywhere.

SPIEGEL: What surprised Juffer in particular was that finding held true even in the case of interracial adoptions.

Ever since the '60s, there's been a fair amount of focus on the interracial adoption, in particular on the perils of having black children adopted by white families. The assumption was that it was better for the identity and self-esteem of a black child to be placed in a family of the same race. And at one point the National Association of Black Social Workers even came out against interracial adoptions.

But Juffer found that when it comes to adopting a child, race doesn't matter as much as people thought it did.

Dr. JUFFER: We found that black children adopted in white families show the same self-esteem as non-adopted children - like white adoptees in white families or black adoptees in black families.

SPIEGEL: That was true of international adoptees as well. In the long term cultural differences just didn't turn out to be as problematic as people thought. And there's another finding in the study which challenges a common assumption. Many people seem to feel that children adopted at an older age are more likely to experience increased emotional problems. But Juffer compared children adopted under the age of one to children adopted between the ages of one and four and found no differences.

Dr. JUFFER: There was no risk, not for the older adopted children, not for the young adopted children.

SPIEGEL: Juffer says that this work, combined with a series of earlier studies which demonstrated that adopted children usually catch up to their non-adopted peers in physical, social and intellectual development, should change the way that people see adopted kids.

Dr. JUFFER: There's a stereotype idea that an adopted child, it means problem. But if you look at it and you look at all the studies, then you see a quite different picture.

SPIEGEL: But Steven Nickman of Harvard Medical School, who recently did a review of the adoption literature, says that while Juffer's study is careful and methodologically sound, there are some limits to her research.

Dr. STEVEN NICKMAN (Harvard Medical School): They don't talk about the kids who were multiple placements. They don't talk about the kids who didn't stay in the adopted families. They talk specifically about kids who stayed in adopted families and grew up in them.

SPIEGEL: Essentially, Nickman says, the study doesn't include many of the most difficult cases. And as someone who works with adopted kids, Nickman knows that not all adoptions turn out well; some are incredibly painful. Still, he says, he finds Juffer's work encouraging.

Dr. NICKMAN: The hopefulness that they're presenting is relatively new and gives us additional reason to hope and to reassure our families that if they stick with it, the kids are likely to turn out feeling pretty good about themselves.

SPIEGEL: And for Juffer, there's another lesson embedded in the results of her study. Part of what she feels the study demonstrates is that psychology's recent focus on the importance of very early childhood might be a little overdone.

Dr. JUFFER: Some people think that the experience that you have in early childhood determine how the child will turn out and nothing can be changed, but what adoption shows us is that there may be - at first you see negative experiences in early childhood, but there are chances to change.

SPIEGEL: Adopted children are living proof, she says, that we're not always prisoners of an unfortunate beginning.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

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