Adoption's Effects On Cognitive Development In Children

Psychological and developmental disorders in children have been linked with adoption for centuries.

Although in the United States, only about 2% of children under the age of eighteen are adopted by people outside their family, a large number of these children have been referred to at least some form of psychological treatment and/or special education program. Instances of learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are especially high among adopted children.

A study headed by Ruth, PhD, was performed on fifty adopted teenagers in residential treatment and fifty non-adopted teenagers and their families in 1988. The findings of the study suggested that problems with cognitive development in adopted children were substantially influenced by the adoptive parents' reasons, motivations and attitudes towards adoption. This is especially important during the time in which the child finds out the truth about his parentage. How the adoptive parents react to this, as well as the way in which the child discovers the truth, are both relevant factors in an adopted child's cognitive development.

While almost all children who grow up in an institutional environment experience at least some form of developmental delays, these delays can be rectified through special attention and/or therapy. Experts tend to agree that adopted children are at the greatest risk for developmental and psychological problems when they reach early adolescence, because that is when they are first able to cognitively understand the meaning of adoption. Once a child realizes he has been "given away", an overwhelming sense of rejection can overtake him and disable his ability to reason with the situation. As an adopted child reaches the age of eleven or twelve, he sometimes begins to find the lack of information about his birthparents crippling to his sense of identity.



However the study also stated that there was no common denominator in the mental, emotional and overall developmental disabilities of the surveyed adolescents, and that a variety of elements contributed to the problems being experienced by each individual. It was additionally determined that the development of cognitive weakness did not emerge overnight but was part of a long and complicated process.

Adopted children who have not even neared this phase of their lives yet are often labeled an "at-risk", which is a child who, though currently having no visible problems in development, is at risk of developing learning, emotional, behavioral or physical disabilities in the future. Babies exposed to drugs, abuse, neglect, and those with genetic pre-dispositions to mental illness and physical disabilities are deemed "at-risk" before the adoptive parents even come into the picture.

So before a child even gets adopted, he can already predicted to have difficulties. Add to that the secretiveness surrounding the adoption and the impending identity crises that often follows a revelation of the truth, and you have the ingredients of a much more powerful brew than standard adolescent angst. When a child discovers he is adopted, he may feel like his entire identity has been reconfigured without his consent. In addition, he may feel betrayed by his adoptive parents for withholding the truth as well as by his birth parents who he perceives, abandoned him. With all of those difficulties plaguing such a young mind it is no wonder that an adopted child's developmental abilities are often stunted. A child may not be emotionally or cognitively developed enough to handle so much turmoil, yet the longer a parent waits to tell a child the truth, the more the child will feel betrayed.

There are of course, several different views as to when a child should be told he is adopted. Many experts believe the child should be told at the youngest possible age because it gives the child an early opportunity to accept and integrate the concept. The other side of the coin is that if you tell a child at too young an age that he is adopted, it may confuse him because he is not ready to process the information in a cognitive sense. Experts who feel this way obviously believe a child should not be told until he is older, such 12 or 13.

In either case, it is widely agreed upon that children should learn of their adoption from the adoptive parents. This helps to dissuade the distrust they might feel for their adoptive parents and allows the child to process the information slowly rather than the all at once, like they would have to do in a case of unplanned discovery. Learning such important information unexpectedly may also add to the child's feelings of shame due to the fact that his adoption was kept a secret.

Despite the early influences that may inhibit a child's cognitive development before and after a child is adopted, the situation can always be rectified as long as it is identified and dealt with in the proper manner. Parents must realize that some form of special treatment may be required when adopted children deal with disruptive internal and external influences that other children are not forced to deal with. Whether that special treatment involves alternative programs of education, therapy, or a deeper involvement on the part of the adoptive parents and the child's teachers, evidence has shown that through a collective effort, progress can almost always be made.

While it is important not to separate adopted children from other children in the sense that all children want to feel "normal", it is also important to view their unique situations with special consideration. Announcing to the entire classroom that a child is adopted would be devastating, but attending to the child's special learning needs or emotional problems, should they exist, can occur in a subtle and effective manner on both the part of the child's teachers and his adoptive parents.

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