Changed landscape of overseas adoptions
GRUELLING ASSESSMENTS, long waiting lists, exasperating bureaucracy and considerable expense are some of the most discussed challenges facing prospective adoptive parents in Ireland.But there’s a presumption that the day these parents finally take a child into their arms is the first day of the “happily ever after” for both sides. What we don’t hear so much about is the huge challenge it can be to parent a child when the first months, running into years, of that child’s life have been spent in an institution with multiple carers.
There is a common notion that if you pluck children out of an orphanage and put them in a nice family, they will thrive and develop, says Alan Burnell of the UK-based Family Futures, which specialises in providing therapeutic services for children who have experienced early trauma. Unfortunately, love doesn’t always conquer all.
So-called “attachment issues” is the number one problem for adopted children and the older they are when placed in a family, the deeper the problem is likely to be.
With the Adoption Act of 2010 having changed the landscape of international adoption in Ireland, the days of baby adoptions are basically over as the average age of children being adopted into this country is likely to rise significantly.
The Adoption Authority of Ireland now only authorises adoptions from countries approved under the Hague Convention, part of which stipulates that efforts must be made to place a child with a family in his or her native country before looking for adoptive parents abroad.
“Two years in an orphanage is a quantum leap from a baby adoption,” says Burnell, manager of Family Futures, which will be running a one-day training course for adoptive parents in Ireland next month. However good an orphanage may be, the child is deprived of the vital mother-baby bond.
Thanks to advances in neuroscience, we now know that 80 per cent of the brain is wired up in the first two years of life – and that becomes the foundation for all subsequent development.
Children who receive poor early parenting have every aspect of their development impaired or impacted to varying degrees by that traumatic early experience, explains Burnell. It has been shown that their brains develop differently from those in babies who are encouraged to develop a secure, loving attachment to a principal carer – usually their mother.
“It is not just that they find it difficult to form secure attachment to their parents, they also have problems with problem-solving and cognitive processing and also with sensory motor development.”
Unless adoptive parents know about the issues, and receive appropriate professional help where necessary, they are parenting on “faulty foundations”, says Burnell.
We are not talking simply about initial problems when an adopted child is settling into a family, but a long-term issue that can re-emerge at various life stages, such as adolescence.
Most parents draw on their own experiences of being parented when raising a family. But adopted children may need different forms of parenting to help with feelings that biological children of their age would not have.
No matter how old newly adopted children are, parents are advised to “think toddler” because that is often how they behave.
“They need a parent to help them make that transition from babyhood to autonomous child of middle childhood. If they haven’t been helped to make that transition by a good parent, they need to go back and do that,” says Burnell.
Children with attachment issues can become overly self-assured and pseudo-independent or they become frustrated and intolerant, often quite aggressive, or they are very compliant and quiet. None of these coping strategies that the child has developed works in the long run and “re-parenting” is needed to make up for what that child has missed.
Neuroscience shows how plastic and changeable the human brain and nervous system is, so it is possible to effect change, he explains.
“You have to go back to go forward. To grow and develop, these children need to go back to the early stages of development with the parent, in order to have a secure foundation for more sophisticated, middle childhood growth and development before reaching adolescence.”
For example, most children by the time they go to pre-school have an internal image of their biological parents and don’t believe that when they leave them they will never see them again. Not so the traumatised adopted child.
That sense of abandonment and separation, which is inherent in these children, can be overcome very simply by putting a photograph of their parent in their lunchbox and telling the pre-school staff that if the child begins to get upset and distressed, they can show them the photograph and “talk them down”, he says.