Phantom families

Phantom families – adoption conflicts

GROWING UP IS HARD TO DO, say the ’60s lyrics. A ’90s researcher would add that it’s a lot harder for adopted kids, and she wishes people would start admitting it.

“Adoption issues are not being dealth with in families or in therapy,” contends Elinor B. Rosenberg, a therapist in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Michigan. She is also author of the forthcoming book The Adoption Circle (The Free Press), which puts adoption and its conflicts into a lifelong developmental perspective.

While adoption meets real needs of kids, birth parents, and adoptive parents, Rosenberg finds that it also “denies deeply held wishes”: Adoptive parents wish they could have borne the kids they are raising; adopted kids wish the parents who bore them and raised them were the same; and birth parents wish the circumstances might have been such that they could raise the child they bore.

But in gratitude for their needs being met, their longings often go underground, driving behavior and feelings in hidden ways. In her review of the literature and after 30 years of seeing adoptive families, Rosenberg has found that adopted children have greater identity struggles and that they launch later than their peers. “There is a different course of what is normal for adoptive families.”

For example, says Rosenberg, it’s very common for school-age kids to fantasize that they are adopted and that their “real” parents are of noble birth. Adopted children have the same fantasy–only it lasts far longer, often a lifetime, and complicates their quest for identity.

Among nonadopted kids, the so-called “birth-parent romance” plays a simple role, helping keep a positive self-image when parents disappoint them. It usually disappears in adolescence. But adoptees build a more grandiose romance based on shards of information given to them by adoption parents. They use the fantasy to explain to themselves why they were adopted, who their biological parents were, what kind of children they are now, and what kind of adults they will be.

“It’s a narcissistic blow to be given away,” says Rosenberg. “They must come to terms with it.” Similarly, both sets of parents face special tasks over the course of a lifetime. But that doesn’t mean adoption isn’t successful. In fact, she highly recommends it. The Michigan clinician is herself the mother of two adopted daughters.

COPYRIGHT 1992 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group