What Is Adopted Child Syndrome?

Despite not being recognized by the professional community, some still use the term.

Susan Kuligowski January 06, 2017
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Despite several searches, I was unable to determine whether or not adopted child syndrome is an accepted medical condition; however, according to several sources, the term is not found in the American Psychiatric Association‘s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th edition, TR and is not recognized in the professional community. It has, however, found its way into courtrooms, where lawyers have used the term to plead not guilty for clients who had been adopted and then used adoption as a reason for choosing to commit sometimes heinous crimes.

So what is adopted child syndrome and why do some believe it’s a thing?

A landslide of evidence suggests that some adopted children will face emotional problems, both short-term or long-term, including more serious issues such as bonding and attachment disorder. However, most professionals agree these cases are not a result of the adoption itself (or that of the adoptive parents), but rather, due to pre-existing conditions such as neglect or exposure to abuse prior to the adoption (including prenatal abuse such as fetal alcohol syndrome)–especially in older children who may have spent a longer amount of time in an institutional setting or foster care. In the book, Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self, researchers Brodizinsky, Schechter, and Henig state that, generally children adopted before the age of six-months fare no differently than children raised with their biological parents.

But the thing is, the before part is as much a part of adoption as is the hopefully happily forever family ever after part. Professional community aside, it only makes sense that a child who has faced loss will be expected to grieve and that should be something his or her adoptive parents should anticipate as part of becoming a family through adoption. However, it doesn’t mean adoptive parents should be on edge waiting for Johnny to exhibit negative symptoms or signs of said syndrome, but rather, do their research to help in his transition, as needed, no matter how young. Rather, the parents should provide a safe environment where the child’s feelings toward adoption or life in general are not taboo at 2, 10, 26, or 35 – as any parent should do with any life impacting situation a child may face.

In reading about adopted child syndrome and some researchers’ agendas of pushing it as a mainstream way to encompass and define the feelings of all adopted children, the first thing that came to mind was the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy (a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it is already true) and how dangerous that can be in our lives as we influence our children, as well as allowing our children to implement this concept in their own lives. This is why I am not a label person–”Adopted Child Syndrome” could easily be swapped out for “Child of Divorce Syndrome”, “Allergic Child Syndrome”, “Tablet and Video Game-Addicted Child Syndrome”, Low Income Family Child Syndrome”, Spoiled Child Syndrome”, “Parents Never Told Him No Child Syndrome”, “Child Won’t Stay On Task in Class So He Must Have ADHD Syndrome”, etc. etc. etc. And no, I’m not making light of adoption, but there are lots of parents (I know some of them) wringing their hands in worry, carting their kids to therapists, and putting their children on medication at the mere suggestion that their struggling child may be experiencing something at a deeper level just because a school teacher suggested it or Google said so or someone in 1964 wrote an article or a doctor on TV who never raised a child a day in her life firmly believes it (so please buy my book to fix your kids for $19.95!). Labels suggest that a child is this or that with no in between and no room for argument. That’s a pretty heavy weight to carry and one I’m not willing to strap to my kids’ backs.

Adoption is deep for everyone involved and adoption aside, there is no guarantee that anyone makes it through this world without experiencing hurt – be it the loss of a parent(s), rejection from a parent(s), divorce, drugs, abuse, socioeconomic issues, failing health, disabilities, special needs, and a million other things that impact us all on different levels. But unlike so many dire situations, the positive news is, there is something we can do about children who struggle as a result of their adoption – or as a result of what came before adoption – or as a result of what comes post-adoption.

Be aware. Educate yourself ‘til your eyes water, even if you think you’ve read all there is to read. Reach out to support groups and other adoptive families. Look for articles and books written by adopted children rather than just relying on “the professionals.” There are so many thoughtful publications written by adopted children and adoptive parents that may challenge your understanding of adoption and provide you with healthy ways to communicate with your child so that he or she feels heard and understood.

Be brave. Be strong for your child. Be brave enough to share your own feelings of hurt that you may have experienced regarding loss in order to relate to her or him on a deeper level. We so often try to present a perfect and pristine world for our kids, but that’s not reality and she may long to know that she’s not weird for feeling “this way.” She will benefit knowing she is not alone in feeling sad at times. Be brave enough to let your child put her or his feelings into words and share these with you.

Be ready. Perhaps your child won’t exhibit any feelings of loss or sadness regarding adoption. I know plenty of kids who fit this bill and go on to become secure adults–sometimes going on to become adoptive parents themselves. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. While you don’t want to create something that isn’t there (that self-fulfilling prophecy thing again), don’t put yourself in denial should you recognize the signs and rather than avoid them, tackle them together. On the flip side, should your be positive about the adoption experience, surely promote that as well!

Be your child’s No. 1 advocate. At some point in your child’s life, someone may try to label her with a syndrome of sorts. You know your child better than anyone. Just because someone says it’s so, doesn’t always make it true. It could be adoption related–or it could be that a child in his class has been bullying him about his sneakers and he’s ashamed to tell you. Or it could be she doesn’t feel as smart as her best friend and so she’s given up and her grades have slipped. Or it could be she has an undiagnosed learning disability and it’s affecting her ability to concentrate. Or it could be your family’s crazy work-life balance (or lack thereof) is putting everyone on edge and he’s not getting enough sleep at night–hence the morning or bedtime blow ups.  Or it could be another unrelated physical or mental health issue all together. Whatever it is, we can’t take back or take away our child’s early pain, but we can be there for him in the present and help him to grow into a strong adult through the basic principles of active parenting and an extra dose of understanding that comes along with being an adoptive parent of an adopted child.

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Susan Kuligowski

Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she's not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.


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