Sunday, September 6, 2009

As a psychologist, I am a member of what is called the “helping professions.” The term is generally accurate — most of us are helpful, most of the time. Nonetheless, it conceals the fact that when all is said and done, mental health care is a business. As such, entrepreneurial mental health professionals are no different than other businesspeople: They try to create new markets and new “products.”

An example is the relatively new field of “adoption specialist.” The not-so-implicit message behind this specialty: Adoption is a special circumstance fraught with psychological minefields that cannot be negotiated properly without constant vigilance; thus, the need for a specially trained, professional guide.

I recently spoke with the parents of a 3-year-old whom they adopted shortly after she was born. Since then, several adoption specialists have told them that a rather nebulous condition called “attachment disorder” is an ever-present threat to their child’s mental health.

Apparently, the child’s primary attachment is to her biological mother, even after three years. According to said professionals, she remembers her mother’s face, smell and voice, and part of her psyche constantly is grieving the loss. This unresolved (unresolvable?) issue manifests itself in anxieties, fears, shyness, temper tantrums, defiance, moodiness and other behaviors associated with normal toddlerhood.

The little girl’s parents have no reason to think people with capital letters after their names are pulling things out of thin air, so this barrage of misinformation has kept them in a perpetual state of anxiety. They have come to see the issue of their daughter’s adoption behind every imperfect behavior. In addition, they’ve been told they should make every effort to compensate for the child’s ever-present attachment issues, including allowing her to occupy the marital bed.

When she misbehaves, they don’t know whether to respond with understanding or discipline. Consequently, their attempts to discipline generally are ineffective. While they were talking with me, the mother’s turmoil, especially, was evident. She exerted great effort to keep from sobbing.

These parents are not alone. Over the years, I’ve spoken to numerous adoptive parents who have received similar apocalyptic, anxiety-arousing information and advice from adoption specialists. To be fair, I’ve also met adoption specialists who do not hold to these views, but they testify to being in the minority and to not being well-received by their peers.

The facts: A consistent body of hard, objectively gathered scientific evidence to the effect that adopted children are more prone to psychological problems than children who live with one or two biological parents is lacking. On the other hand, there is significant evidence to the effect that even orphaned children exposed during their early, supposedly “formative” years to severe conditions of emotional deprivation and material neglect recover quite nicely when adopted by loving parents.

For more on the subject, I highly recommend John Bruer’s “The Myth of the First Three Years” (The Free Press, 1999). An excellent related article can be found at

The unscientific claims being disseminated by many adoption specialists do no measurable good for adopted children and present the potential of doing significant emotional harm to adoptive parents, the parents above being a case in point.

As we are given to say in North Carolina, “It just ain’t right.”

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (

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