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by Geoffrey A. Rickarby FRANZCP


 This paper develops the earlier work of the author and his colleagues, with the hindsight of a further twenty years of caring for disturbed adopted children. 

It examines the themes of attachment/detachment, trust/distrust, gratitude, obligation and belonging, major difficulty in identity formation, response to obfuscated adoption motivation and high levels of conditioning and control that are the lot of those adopted children who are fortunate to be brought up in a family where they can remain until at least middle adolescence.


An Eriksonian model is used, and the work of Stierlin is drawn upon in understanding psychosocial separation issues of late adolescence.  The thesis is put forward that adoptive children have more difficult and less culturally supported developmental tasks to achieve than those in a moderately functioning biologically related family.  It puts a plea for more education of adoptive parents in these special difficulties, as they also suffer severely as a result of ignorance of these mostly inevitable processes.





Erikson’s model of human development is epigenetic.  This is to say that each stage of psychosocial development is built upon the previous stage or stages of development and their outcome.  For example a child who has a significant sense of basic trust, will seek autonomy and test it behaviourally without readily falling into shame and doubt.  Or obversely a child with  poor resolution of shame and doubt issues will have more trouble developing initiative unclouded by excessive guilt.

These earlier developmental stages form a developmental pattern at the same time as the child’s primary school education is beginning the serious years of acquiring literacy and adapting to the whole theme of continuing education.


In an adoptive family the child has nearly always been told he or she is adopted, often long before the conceptual notion of the word is within his range.  In an adoptive family with a successful marriage with mutual motivation to adopt -  as well as the capacity to grieve their infertility, and assuming the absence of mental illness including alcoholism, the child has adapted to their new parents’ idiosyncrasies sufficiently to have arrived at this stage of development with their own pattern of function.  Note, that for the purposes of this paper, we are talking about those adoptive families still functioning as a family.


To Erikson, Primary School is the time of development where the maturing nervous system and psyche is being shaped by education, nurture and activities.  He sees the time as one where the development is one of industry and the psychosocial alternative is a feeling of inferiority.


In common speech the issue of these years is, “Am I an okay kid?” 

Not only must he or she be ‘okay’ in parent’s eyes, but now the teachers and peer group are becoming more and more important. 


Working at education and development is always to the standards of the family where they are brought up, and the school chosen.  This is one place where the fit between adoptive parents and child does matter.  Biological parents readily recognise their own behaviours and temperament in their children, which might lead to compassion or even over-reaction at elements of themselves they accept.  Adoptive parents are, with good reason, often bewildered.  The child has different abilities and interests than they had, they seem to relate to other children in a manner that is unfamiliar; their spontaneous reactions to shock or frustration seem strange. At this stage the child is being tested hard by his social field.   When he goes home and relates this, he or she needs every bit of validation by mirroring in hearing, “You’re okay.”, that is available.


It is from being an okay child with a sense of self that the adolescent finds his or her identity.  Identity in our culture is an underrated issue for the reason that those who have an identity arising from a greater family background and strong sense of self take it for granted.  They don’t know what it is like to struggle for an identity.  Those who don’t have one, are depressed, lack direction, are distracted by substance abuse, settle for destructive relationships and stop trying.


In the greater family there is nearly always significant contact with other children, most commonly cousins.  Cousins are a common source of information, some of it wrong or distorted.  The material has its origins in the aunts and uncles’ discussions about the circumstances of the adoption, and snippets of gossip or speculation about the original mother and father of the boy or girl.  A child who is not informed derives information readily from other children; cousins are a frequent source; many crises may occur from wrong information, sometimes far-fetched, and even information that is roughly correct.


For an adoptive child one alternative to this is no information whatsoever, a total wall of silence about his or her origins.  Some adoptive parents provide information that is fed to them by agencies to be used at the appropriate age.  Often this is edited, distorted or simply not factual, even the result of communication mistakes.


Anglo-Saxon and European culture has a background of centuries of successful breeding techniques long before it received help from science or the discipline of genetic research.  Every family has its myths of who took after whom, and what the family was noted for in abilities, character and appearance.  It is hard for an adoptive child to “…know what I am really like.”  Other difficult notions are there for the child, such as “had to give you up for adoption.”, and “we chose you.”   The culture doesn’t help the adoptive family either, because common culture says, “It will be just as if you had your own children.”  The family are let down by not being supported by the culture in which they are supposed to exist as if adoption had had not occurred..  Confusion and insecurity readily occurs, particularly if one of Erikson’s first three stages has left some mistrust, shame, doubt or guilt as a problem for the child.


There is insecurity on both sides of the adoption.  The child is insecure in not knowing how strong is this bond from adoptive parents – how committed are they to staying with it. And insecure children, despite their relative health, test out the adults of their family.  Sometimes they do it aggressively, other times by adopting the behaviours of a younger care-eliciting child.  When this goes on and on, and the child’s temperament appears strange and unfamiliar, some adoptive parents are tested too much in the same way as a fostering placement is tested and is unable to go on.  Crisis phenomena occur and the more committed families seek help instead of giving up or blaming the child.


Adoptive parents who are insecure about adoption are outwardly distinct from the secure ones. 


The secure ones know quite a lot about children generally and are interested in what the particular child is like and how they will develop.  If this development requires straight answers or testing their origins, they make that possible without giving prejudicial information.  They are able to let the adoptee differentiate into an adult with adult interests and finally develop a good adult/adult relationship with them.  If they are anxious about reunion, it is that the adoptee won’t suffer a major let down or be rejected.  They are usually interested in the biological family and what they do without deprecation.  It is rare to see a mother and an adoptive mother become good friends, and it can’t come about any other way than with real trust, but I have seen it be ultimately good for the adoptee and his family.


The more insecure the adoptive family, however, the more they are worried that the child will leave them, judge them, and not want to know them, the more they will make up myths or stories to make the child think they are better off with them than they would have been otherwise, and the more there are stories that their mother couldn’t keep them or didn’t want them.  The messages to the adopted child about biological parents may be blatant: such as: “You’d have been starving in a humpy outside some little town.”, or subtle and projective,  “Your ‘birth mother’ seems rather brittle don’t you think?” Insecurity is not all or nothing: there are degrees of insecurity, and varieties - reflective of the adoptive family attitudes and preconceptions.   Unfortunately there is no known way of screening out which adoptive families will be insecure, but there is the opportunity to educate them in the hazards and help them with common insecurities.   It is to be remembered that most of the ones we are discussing are in the middle or top group of adoptive families, and not ones who are drunk, drugged, divided or displaced.  They are essentially people who are trying their best and are deserving of our compassion for their own insecurity and distress.


The adoptee’s insecurity is: Am I a good enough kid and grateful enough for you to see me through my development without wanting to get rid of me? - their attachment is essentially anxious.


The adoptive parent’s insecurity is about, “Did I really do well enough to have justified my having somebody else’s child to rare?  How do I keep the deep down guilt feelings quiet?”  An adoptive parent who has open communication with his or her spouse might be asking, “Did we do well enough…?”, and even that sense of them doing it together is of immense value to the adopted child.

Some adoptive parents want school results and trophies on shelf, and, if they just happen without anxiety and pressure, that is fine.  But the adopted child is left with a burden of feelings of how to come to terms with obligation and expectations of gratitude.  The secure adoptive parent can talk openly about this aspect of adoption and express what they themselves are thankful and joyful about.  The insecure adoptive parents want their due.


One aspect of ‘wanting their due’, is control and maintaining the relationship on their own terms through later life.  Stierlin has studied the ‘mission’ that families give to children and that begins to be acted on in a deeper manner when they are in later adolescence.  In many adoptive families it is to be outstanding in some manner, and generally to give the message of what a great family they were brought up in.  If the pressure behind this is not too great and the means to this is flexible, it is restricting, but not too damaging.  If the pressure is great and the means inflexible, then the child is often under unbearable stress.

To prevent age appropriate separation from the family at the age where their peers are becoming adults is another insecurity issue.  The mechanisms seem to be universal in Western Culture.   To do everything for them so they are dependent for living skills is a simple one, more serious is to undermine their sense of their own capacity to cope with adult life and relationships and live by their own decisions (this is a shame and self-doubt theme) and the third is about the triggering of guilt – guilt themes and guilt games are painful, the response often set up in very early life; and, at a deeper level, linked in the adoptee to his or her fear of abandonment that is easily displaced later onto their mother and how they will feel when they meet her.


As I have pointed out in my earlier writings about the selection of adoptive parents, adoption motivation is very strong.  I have already discussed such motivation factors as mutuality and a genuine interest in children as good outcome factors, and indicated that we are not discussing the family broken up by alcohol, or where a difficult marriage was to be temporarily propped up by the advent of a child.  However it is important to remember that strong motivation themes, which may be very different between the couple and indeed their relatives, is a background to the development of an adopted child.  The grandparent who rejects her adopted grandchild in favour of cousins for example, or the child with one parent who was not ‘the adopter’ in the first place, where the issue might be indifference: what difficulties does this make for a child’s understanding of their place in the world?  I mention these issues here, but they are available in more detail from my earlier writings.


In Erikson’s terms, the stages of industry and identity in psychosocial development are a hard time for the adopted child, and, because they are the foundations for the later stages of intimacy and generativity that lead on to the child accepting themselves and their life, they are pivotal in the making of the person and the family of the future.   While there are even echoes of adoption in society all parties to adoption require our compassion and support.




 Erikson E.H.  1950.  Childhood and Society  Penguin Edition 1965 pp 239-236


Erikson  E.H.  1968  Identity, Youth and Crisis  Norton New York


Kraus J.  1978  Adjustment of Adopted Children and Demographic Profile of Adoptive Parents.   Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 1978 12(3), 181-187


Rickarby  G. A. (1976) Family Psychiatry and the Selection of Adoptive Parents  Australian Social Work, 31(2), pp 21-22


Rickarby GA. &  Egan P.(1980) Issues of Preventive Work with Adopted Adolescents. Med.  J. Aust 1: 470-47


Rickarby  GA., Lee M.M., Said J.  and Pauline Egan (1981) Adoptive Families in Distress Aust. Journal of Social Issues. Vol 16 Number 1 pp 32-36


Stierlin H.  (1973)  The Adolescent as Delegate of his Parents  Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 7  pp 249-256



 Papers presented at the 1st National Conference on the Mental Health Aspects of Persons Affected by Family Separation
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