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Is It Adoption, or Is It Life? Five of the country's top adoption experts discuss adoption thera

Adoptive Families: Article by Robert Barnett

Your 7-year-old is going through a tough time. He's having trouble making friends, isn't sleeping well, and won't tell you what's wrong (if anything). Maybe it's just the growing pains of first grade. But a little voice in the back of your head is asking, “Could this be about adoption? Should I take him to a therapist?”

When (and whether) to seek outside help for one's child is such a universal dilemma for parents that we decided to present the question to five of the country's top adoption counselors. What advice would they offer to a family in this circumstance? What kinds of consultations work well for the families they see?

To our surprise, all five made the point at the outset that, in their experience, adoptive parents may be too ready to assume that a child's emotional or behavioral problem is about adoption, rather than a normal developmental stage of childhood — and too quick to sign a young child up for one-on-one adoption therapy.

On average, they point out, studies underscore that children who join their families through adoption are as psychologically healthy as children born into the family.

To be sure, all children go through normal developmental stages, and our children may have additional questions about their past — questions that may show up in different ways at different ages. When our kids have problems, adoption may be at play.

And so, our experts said, parents are right to reach out for advice when they are concerned about their child's behavior. The first step they suggested is to schedule a parent consultation with an adoption-knowledgeable professional, one who can help parents decide what action, if any, is warranted. To guide you in making such a decision, our five experts share their experiences.

Holly van Gulden: What's “Normal”

Holly van Gulden, director of the Adoptive Family Counseling Center in Minneapolis, and co-author of Real Parents, Real Children: Parenting the Adopted Child, says that normal childhood development issues can intertwine with issues of adoption.

For example, it's normal for a 7-year-old to worry that he's not liked at school. Van Gulden advises parents to educate themselves in order to understand whether their child is going through a normal development stage or one that's common to most adopted children.

“Get a good child development book, like Touchpoints, by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., to read about the challenges children face at each age. Then educate yourself about the normal stages of an adopted child's development, “says van Gulden. (AF recommends van Gulden's Real Parents, Real Children and David M. Brodzinsky, Ph.D.'s Being Adopted.)

To help your child work through the normal tasks of an adopted child, van Gulden recommends getting together with other adopted kids. “To be in a room in which everyone is adopted is a phenomenally normalizing experience,” van Gulden notes. “At one event, I heard one kid say to another, ‘This is so cool, you don't even have to explain the word adoption here.'”

If, on the other hand, your child is exhibiting persistent, troubling behavior that you think may be adoption-related, by all means don't wait to consult with someone to see whether adoption therapy could be an option.

“The typical challenges of childhood change every six to 12 months,” says van Gulden, “so don't let your child struggle for months. It's better to talk to a specialist, sort out the problem, get some tools that you can use as a family, and decide whether counseling is warranted. All that worry is interfering with your ability to feel that your child is doing well.”

Joyce Pavao: Strong Parents

Joyce Pavao, Ph.D., author of The Family of Adoption, founded the Center for Family Connections in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1995 to provide families a safe place to discuss parenting concerns and develop tools to handle them.

Dr. Pavao offers this example: “I consulted with a family recently whose elementary age child asked frequently about her birth family. Her parents were afraid to tell her that she had siblings and wanted to know what to do.

Pavao says, "I asked them how they would feel if their daughter found out later. Together we came up with a plan to share the information with her.” When a child needs therapeutic help, the Center involves the entire family and focuses on the family's strengths. The Center's family-systems approach is sensitive to adoption. “You need to address the presenting problem,” she says. “We may never mention adoption, but we understand how adoption may affect the situation.”

Whatever the problem, adds Dr. Pavao, “it's really important to work with the parents. You can't exclude anyone — exclusion is never helpful in adoption.” Sometimes, the Center simply offers consultation over the phone. Dr. Pavao relates, “We consulted with a family from Seattle whose next-door neighbor traveled to Vietnam and found their children's birth parents. We helped the neighbors understand that the parents needed to take over now.”

The center also makes referrals to adoption-sensitive therapists throughout the country.

Anu Sharma: Not About Adoption

Anu Sharma, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the Minnesota Institute of Public Health and a lead researcher on the University of Minnesota's Sibling Interaction and Behavior Study (SIBS), reports that most adopted kids grow up psychologically very healthy.

“Adoption is often a subtlety in children's problems — a part of who they are — but usually not the main issue.” Dr. Sharma believes that adopted children benefit from support groups or a mentor.

“Adoption agencies often have post-adoption workshops or summer camps. Any place where kids can be in touch with other adopted people in a non-threatening situation, a place where they can listen but don't need to speak, is good.”

Sharma adds, “I've seen parents make the mistake of bringing their kids to see a therapist too early. They have a sense that something is brewing, and they want to try to pre-empt a problem. But unless the child has articulated what's troubling him, the chance of finding a ‘solveable' problem is remote.”

Thus, she advises parents, first and foremost, to step in and do the job of parenting. “If you suspect your child is smoking, drinking, stealing, or engaging in premature sexual behavior, talk to him about it. "Sometimes parents are too afraid that they'll unleash a whole s