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Although the traditional focus in socialization research has been on the effect of parents on their children (Finley, 1999), recently, researchers have turned their attention to the effects of children on their parents (Ambert, 1992; Demick, Bursik, & Dibiase, 1993). An important confound in the study of the effects of children on parents, however, is shared genetic or biological heritage. One method of avoiding this confound is for researchers to study adoptees and adoptive parents who have no shared genetic heritage. We, therefore, designed the present secondary analysis to examine the effects of adopted children on their adoptive parents without confounding shared biological heritage.
In this study, we compared the effect of adoptees who had known genetic dispositions to psychopathology (probands) with the effect of adoptees who had no known genetic disposition to psychopathology (controls) on the development of psychopathology in their adoptive parents. An underlying assumption of the study was that the parents who adopted children of both genetic backgrounds were screened and were free of psychopathology at the time of placement and that those children with a predisposition to psychopathology and those without a predisposition to psychopathology were not selectively placed with mentally ill and mentally healthy prospective adoptive parents, respectively (Finley, 1998). Likewise, we assumed that any undetected mentally ill prospective adoptive parents did not systematically select children with a predisposition toward psychopathology. Adoption agency "best practice" principles would dictate that these assumptions are warranted.
This study is a secondary analysis of a large data set (of 581 adoptees and their parents) gathered by Cadoret (1990). The adoptees were classified as proband or control on the basis of their adoption records. The probands had one or more biological relatives who could be described as having alcohol-related problems, antisocial behaviors, depression, or other psychiatric problem behaviors. The records of the controls, however, indicated that their biological relatives were free of such behaviors. All of the adoptees were separated at birth from and had no further contact with their biological relatives. Controls were matched to probands on the basis of age and gender. The ages in years of the adoptees and their adoptive parents at the time of the interviews on which this article is based were as follows: (a) control adoptee: M = 22.6, SD = 6.8; (b) proband adoptee: M = 23.4, SD = 6.7; (c) control mother: M = 52.2, SD = 9.7; (d) proband mother: M = 53.9, SD = 9.1; (e) control father: M = 53.3, SD = 9.3; and (f) proband father: M = 54.7, SD = 9.0.
The dependent variables available to us were the presence or absence of alcohol-related problems or other psychiatric problems in one or both of the adoptive parents. The diagnoses of those conditions were made by psychiatrist Remi J. Cadoret, who was blind to the proband or control status of both the adoptees and the adoptive parents. He made his psychiatric diagnoses on the basis of information contained in the adoptive parent structured interview and the adoptee structured interview.
The results demonstrated that parents who adopted children with a predisposition to psychopathology had double the risk of developing both psychiatric and alcohol-related problem behaviors, compared with parents who adopted children without a predisposition to psychopathology (i.e., without a known disturbed biological background). The adoptive parents of probands had significantly elevated psychiatric problem behaviors, compared with adoptive parents of controls, χ²( 1,N = 581) = 7.50, p < .006. The adoptive parents of probands also had significantly elevated alcohol-related problem behaviors, compared with adoptive parents of controls, χ²( 1,N = 581) = 4.27, p < .04.
Because there were no genetic links between adoptees and their adoptive parents, the data suggest that raising a child who has a disturbed biological background doubles the risk of the parents themselves developing either alcohol-related problems or other psychiatric problems. In all likelihood, the obtained relationship is mediated by the proband adoptees' having more difficult temperaments (Goldsmith, Buss, & Lemery, 1997) or more behavioral or emotional problems. Those difficulties are presumed to increase parenting stress, which in turn precipitates psychopathology or alcohol abuse in the adoptive parents.
The primary limitation of this conclusion is the assumption that adoption agency personnel did not selectively place proband adoptees with marginal or mentally ill prospective adoptive parents and control adoptees with mentally healthy prospective adoptive parents. Another limitation is the assumption that at the time of child placement, the screening of parents was sufficient so that none of the adoptive parents showed signs of alcohol-related problems, antisocial behavior, depression, or any other psychiatric problems.
With regard to research implications, this analysis yielded genetically unconfounded evidence that clearly demonstrates the negative effect of children with disturbed genetic backgrounds on the mental health of their parents. The present data are important because previous data confounded the genetic disposition to psychopathology in the child with the genetic disposition to psychopathology in the biological parent, thus rendering causal interpretation ambiguous. Although the present data also do not unambiguously settle the issue, because of a possible selection bias confound, they do provide clear evidence from a different perspective.
Regarding practice implications, this study shows that even though the risk factor is doubled for the adoptive parents of probands over controls, the absolute risk level is quite low. In particular, for this sample, the increased risk (of adopting a child with a genetic disposition to psychopathology over adopting a child free of genetic dispositions to psychopathology) is 3% for adoptive parental alcohol problems and 8% for adoptive parental psychiatric problems. We derived these risk estimates by subtracting the risk percentages of control adoptive parents from those of proband adoptive parents.
Perhaps more important from an applied perspective, however, are the real-life alternatives available to infertile prospective adoptive parents. In making such important choices, prospective adoptive parents must balance the mental health risks discovered in the present research against the risks of choosing not to adopt. Specifically, infertile prospective adoptive parents must weigh possible adoptee genetic risks against their own mental health risks, stemming from possible involuntary childlessness, divorce, foster parenting, or selecting a different adoptee or type of adoptee (Finley, 1998). Above all, prospective adoptive parents must seek t make informed choices and must be prepared for likely outcomes. In doing so, they are best served by learning as much as possible about the backgrounds of the birth father, the birth mother, and the extended birth families--as well as about their own backgrounds and those of their extended families--and weighing such information and alternatives carefully (Roth & Finley, 1998).
This secondary data analysis was based on the Iowa Adoption Studies, 1975-1982, data set (made accessible in 1988, in machine-readable data files). These data were collected by R. Cadoret and are available through the archive of the Henry A. Murray Research Center of Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA (producer and distributor).
Finding and Working with Adoption-Competent Therapists
- Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2018). Finding and Working with Adoption-Competent Therapists. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.
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