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Towards Evidence-based Approaches to Meeting the Needs of Adoptive and Foster Parents
Parents, and professionals, often come to believe that the attachment paradigm is a well-tested one and may not know of the limited scientific basis of attachment therapies or the possibilities of other approaches. The concluding section of this paper endeavors to propose alternatives to the current over-reliance on attachment theory and therapies.
Painful Sense of Loss From Lack of Closeness and Fear for Child’s Social Development
Although adoptive parents, who are often well-educated, may be seeking a science-based response to the perceived problems of their children, our review identified little science to support the notion that ‘attachment’ issues cause these behaviors. Whereas some of the children who receive attachment therapy have experienced seriously substandard and harmful parenting, the impact of these experiences on their current behavior may not be mediated through attachment. Indeed, the discussion of attachment is often circular – the child has difficulties in social relationships (attachment), and therefore s/he has attachment disorder. There may be many reasons for difficulties in social relationships that are largely independent of attachment problems. Indeed, studies from the USA and Sweden find that lower middle class families have more success as adoptive parents than highly educated and employed families (Barth & Berry 1988; Hjern & Vinnerljung 2002); findings from the UK are less clear. The US and Swedish findings may be explained by a too singular concern about the educational and social attainment of their children, rather than difficulties in attachment (Barth 2002).
Children’s externalizing problems may also contribute to parent–child alienation, as parents struggle with the challenge of providing a consistent, strong, positive response to the negative actions of their children. Indeed, the RAD diagnosis includes reference to a range of conduct problems that must co-occur with the other criteria discussed above. Thus, adopted children might respond well to interventions for general groups of conduct-disordered children. Nevertheless, many adoptive parents incorporate factors external to their parent–child interactions, including genetic and bio-social trauma, and perceive their family’s interactions as being substantively different than those in a biological family. They may conclude, not without some good reason, that the conduct problems of their children are therefore not likely to be amenable to treatments that do not acknowledge such causes.
Therapists who take too strict a behavioral position – that is, that the parents caused the problems by inadvertently reinforcing poor behavior and failing to reward positive behavior – may agitate parents’ legitimate concerns and leave them responding to the therapeutic experience as adoption insensitive (Smith & Howard 1999). This strict behavioral position need not, however, be the sole thrust of a social and cognitive skills intervention which must also accommodate pre-existing differences in children and recognize the many paths that families follow to points of high conflict. Interventions developed for young children in foster care (Dozier et al. 2002) as well as for older children in foster home care (e.g. Pallett et al. 2002; Chamberlain 2003; Beek & Schofield 2004; Sinclair et al. 2004a,b) have shown that foster parents value the assistance they receive in managing interpersonal interactions with children and in developing sound and satisfying strategies for addressing the problem behaviors that interfere with parent–child satisfaction. These interventions are conducted in the context of a support group of foster parents and a trusting and partnership-based relationship with a social worker, which also allows family members to gain some perspective about the challenges of parenting. These groups also help families assiduously identify the gains that are being made, rather than to focus on the continued discrepancy between what parents hope for and what they get.
A newer generation of interventions to address children’s problems, arising from anxiety and trauma (e.g. Kolko & Swenson 2002), often include parents in therapeutic roles. They do not, however, forcefully address the parent–child relationship. Evidence-based interventions for conduct disorders do not necessarily posit parent–child relationship disorders. That is, these interventions are intended to increase positive parental supervision of children, minimize children’s associations with antisocial peers, provide consistent discipline, and increase encouragement of youth (Chamberlain 2003). Such interventions may lead to a reduction in children’s problem behaviors and parents feeling closer to their children, but these approaches require significant changes in parenting behavior (Patterson et al. 2002). These interventions may only gradually – if at all – increase mutuality of feeling between parents and children. For parents who cannot tolerate prolonged tensions between themselves and their children, attachment therapy promises a faster resolution – a promise without evidence behind it. We would argue that it is the parent–child relationship that is the central reason for adoptive parents to come to therapy. Evidence-based interventions that address parental–child relationships and the parent’s expectations about them – e.g. Functional Family Therapy (Alexander & Parsons 1997) – also deserve testing with adoptive families.
The Desire for a Scientifically Sound Framework That Addresses Parent-Child Interactions
Finally, children’s transitions into foster and adoptive families may be positively viewed through a life course perspective. This empirically grounded theoretical orientation considers the importance of social constraints and timing on human development, as well as of the connections between individual lives and social relationships, and of varying historical and contextual circumstances (Elder 1996). In the case of foster and adopted children, who likely experience a radical and often comprehensive change in environment, the effect of positive parenting may drastically alter the developmental trajectories of these children. Elder (1998) states that:
. . . early transitions can have enduring consequences by affecting subsequent transitions, even after many years and decades have passed. They do so, in part, through behavioral consequences that set in motion ‘cumulative advantages and disadvantages’. (p. 7)
Through the transition to a strong family setting, children have the opportunity to accumulate advantages with the potential to affect lifelong outcomes. It is critical that interventions target these windows of opportunity in a manner that is developmentally sensitive and appropriate to the context and culture of the family.
Conclusion: Towards More Evidence-based Approaches to Helping Troubled Adoptive and Foster Families
Greater awareness is needed that other promising interventions exist and are being vigorously tested for their ability to enhance parent–child relationships among maltreated children (Barth et al. 2005).
Whereas these interventions may not, ultimately, be quite as successful with the full spectrum of children having withdrawn or rejecting temperaments, the paradigm for developing such interventions is available (Dozier et al. 2002; Chamberlain 2003). Satisfactory parent–child social relationships depend on many factors and may require a broad family and school-focused response. Interventions that have addressed these issues for children developing or showing conduct disorders should be adaptable to interventions with adoptive and foster families.
Professionals who approach their work from the paradigm of attachment theories may incorporate ideas from earlier work to integrate an understanding of the attachment between family members and behavioral interventions that help to modify parent–child relationships (Greenberg & Speltz 1988; Speltz 1990; Scott 2003). More recently, a rigorous clinical trial has been implemented in the USA to assess the effectiveness of the integration of attachment-focused interventions and social learning theory for caregivers and young children in foster care (Dozier et al. 2002).
This innovation offers promise for the development of science-based interventions that address children’s social behavior and parents’ concerns. Ross Thompson, a leading scholar in the area of attachment and development, and colleagues (Thompson 2000; Thompson & Raikes 2003) conclude that understanding children’s working models of attachment security can be useful but that cognizance of a broader set of influences on children’s social relationships is also critical. These include strategies for negotiating conflict and establishing cooperation. The field needs to recognize the elements of security that parents and professionals have found in attachment theory and therapies, but also be cognizant of the importance of engendering a broader set of evidence-based interventions to help adoptive and foster families in distress.
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