Romanticizing Adoption Is a Disservice to Children and Families

The romanticization of adoption is common, draining, and harmful. If I say “adoption,” and you say, “Awwww,” picturing cute waifs on a charming playground smiling with their  interracial family–well, you have bought into a Disney/Hallmark version. It’s unattainable because it isn’t real. Yet it’s rare for someone to say to a biological family what is all too often said to parents who adopt: “Wow, I really admire you. You’re a saint. I could never do that.”

That romantic view is pervasive and powerful, one that puts a burden on adoptive families and adopted children. It allows, even encourages, parents to embrace unreasonable expectations, and then pass them, unfairly, on to the child.

What happens when the child does not and cannot meet the romantic image?

Two unromantic realities that some adopted children deal with are (1) hoarding and stealing food and (2) difficulty with appropriate bathroom behaviors. These behaviors can be very frustrating to adoptive parents, especially those who have raised bio children, and who are used to setting limits and being obeyed.

Hoarding food, overeating, and stealing food are common behaviors for adopted children, at least early on after their arrival in a home with plenty of food. Hoarding food can give a sense of control to a child, a back-up in case the food disappears again. We might look at hoarding as survival skills for children who have, in their short lives, been deprived of food, been painfully hungry, or have been forced to compete or struggle for food. Or we can see it as defiant and selfish.

This was true for Hana and Immanuel Williams, and apparently for the two Barbour children: Allegations of hoarding and stealing food are part of these child abuse cases, and the children were viewed as rebellious.

In the case of Hana and Immanuel, the parents did not seek help; in the case of the Barbours, they ignored it. In both families, the children were abused and endangered.

For unprepared adoptive parents, the hoarding and overeating behavior can seem insolent and pointless. Maybe the adopted child snatches food from the bio child. Maybe the adopted child continues to steal snacks and perishable foods (sticks of butter, grapes, cheese, hot dogs) and stuff them in between mattresses or in coat pockets–even though he’s been told repeatedly not to, or has been punished severely.

Restricting food, as Kristen Barbour apparently did for the 6-year-old boy, and as Carri Williams did for Hana and Immanuel, is often an unsuccessful approach. Hana died from malnourishment and hypothermia. The Barbour boy was diagnosed with malnutrition and possible hypothermia as his body temperature was 93.6 when he was admitted to the hospital and removed from his adoptive home.

Food issues are challenging in our society, and we often don’t like to talk about them. They can be huge in adoption. A child who hoards and steals food, who overeats compulsively, who constantly asks for food even when he’s likely not really hungry–it’s not attractive behavior.

Even harder to talk about and even less attractive are toileting issues. Toilet training is a major obsession and developmental issue for us as parents, never mind for the children.

They can be enormous issues for adopted children, since peeing and pooping are self-regulatory processes that are affected by emotions, fear, trauma, genetics, a need to control an unsettling situation, and medical conditions. And we don’t like talking about any of it, so too many people, including children, suffer alone. The Barbour boy had lesions on his skin because he’d been made to stay in urine-soaked clothing. Immanuel Williams was sprayed with a garden hose, and made to sleep on the floor of a shower room, because he peed on himself.

Children often regress in toilet training when there is trauma in their life. Some children forget to take time to pee until it’s too late; some children hold poop in until it’s dangerous to their health. Boys take longer than girls generally to master the art of toileting. Did you know that some children who have been sexually abused defecate in their beds to keep predators away?

As a society, we generally don’t like to talk about urine and feces. As adoptive parents, we like to think that we can get these long-hoped-for, finally-arrived-home children to behave nicely and politely and appropriately. We want to be the Hallmark card.

That can be an absurd expectation, at least early on and sometimes years after placement in an adoptive home, especially for children who may well have experienced trauma.

Here’s a further complication. In addition to expecting the same behaviors from adopted children that non-traumatized, physically healthy bio kids from birth have, one of the biggest burdens in adoption is the wrongful expectation that the adoptee should be grateful for being adopted. It’s difficult being the child of a saint, I imagine. Gratitude is complex in adoption. So are the notions of “rescue” and “saving.” What happens when a child is not grateful for being adopted? (“We adopted you, and saved you from the hellhole you were in, and you steal our food and pee on the floor?”)

Let’s do a much better job preparing prospective parents for the scary things, many of which may not happen–but could. Let’s celebrate the joy of becoming a family by understanding that the child had and lost another family before this one, something that can create a trauma even for infants, and let’s be open to the child’s needs. Let’s emphasize the benefits of flexibility in handling children’s behaviors, and decrease the element of shame in seeking help.

Let’s stop romanticizing adoption, and Hallmarking adopted children and their adoptive parents. Let’s build families in a positive, healthy, and realistic way.

You can find information about adoption and hoarding food here and here, and information about adoption and toileting issues here and here, as well as many other places on the Internet and elsewhere. Finding information and community is key. There are plenty of solutions and approaches to hoarding and toileting that don’t involve abuse.

My post “Does “Adoption” Really Equal “Trauma”? may be of interest as well.



11 thoughts on “Romanticizing Adoption Is a Disservice to Children and Families

  1. Romanticizing adoption is not at all good. It deprives the adoption of reality and trivializes it.

  2. I also see the issue of adoptive parents romanticizing adoption in the age long question of “nature vs. nurture”. Many or probably most adoptive parents feel that they can love the nature away. In other words if I love him enough and provide him a “wonderful” home, I can “fix” him. No amount of love can erase the trauma and/or abuse that was inflicted on the child. Even those that are brought home from the hospital have had 9 months in the biological mother’s womb. Alcohol, drugs, abuse, neglect and numerous other issues related to the genes of both the father and the mother are a part of that child. They cannot be “loved” away. Our criminal justice system and mental institutions are flooded with these kids who have been “rescued” by adoptive parents who have worked their hardest to “fix” the child, but nothing can change the brain damage that was inflicted upon that child. Society praises these adoptive parents and says “how wonderful they are” for adopting this child, but when the issues get too bad for that parent to handle, they are condemed for getting the help that is needed (out of home placement). Even the adoptive parent down the street, condemns them and says “that will never happen with my adopted child”, I can “fix” my child!!

    • Kathy – this is so true. I used to believe that there was an equal balance between nature and nurture but more and more I think that the nature part is stronger. It is also the case that the human psyche is very fragile and it doesn’t take much to inflict permanent damage on it. I think a comparable example is a healthy young man who goes off to war where in a very short time he can experience horrors that can haunt his psyche for the rest of his life. When babies and young children experience abuse, neglect, and trauma, it leaves a lasting shadow.

  3. Pingback: No, adoptees have not been the reason why… | The adopted ones blog

  4. Agreed entirely. Romanticizing adoption may encourage more people to adopt, but it’s more important to have prepared adoptive parents than lots of unprepared ones. So many of our kids have experienced so much trauma that they inflict a lot of trauma on their new families; they need parents who are well-educated and able to help them weather the storms. We adopted 2 children from Russia at the ages of 3 /12 and almost 6; I’m particularly familiar with the toileting issues you discuss! As you say “Raising children is not easy, and indeed takes a long-range vision of empathy, joy, humility, strength, resilience, and realistic expectations.” The dichotomy between the unrealistic, romanticized views that many prospective adoptive parents have and the post-adoption reality is what I tried to convey in my fictionalized memoir of adoption, the truth about Hannah Rose.

  5. Excellent piece. We’ve dealt with both food and toilet issues, though in different shape. Interestingly, the hoarding issues have only arisen now, 10+ years after adoption. For the first handful of years, food was the enemy and was to be avoided at all costs.

    That said, people most certainly do make obnoxious comments re bio children. One of our bio kiddos is on the autism spectrum and people have repeatedly told me they couldn’t do it, I’m a saint, etc. Nope — I’m just a mom, trying to get through the day. Other stupid people say the same stuff about us having 3 boys and no girl. Stupid comments come in all flavors, to all types of families. Adoptive families and adopted kids aren’t any different on this point.

  6. While I am not familiar with either case described here it seems less about romance but more like lack of education and / or expectations in general.

    However, it seems to me, that a little romantic thought regarding one’s child to be is in order if it helps the parent(s) to be reconcile the coming change of lifestyle both parent and child will experience.

    I know such helped me.

    • Thanks for your comment, Tim. As an adoptive parent of 4, including children placed as babies and at 6 years old, I understand the benefit of optimism, hope, and positive thinking. I think too many prospective adoptive parents have romantic fantasies about providing a better life and/or saving a child, romantic views that color their ability to be well-educated prior to placement. When the children behave in unexpected ways, their romantic vision can disappear, and anger or abuse can replace it. That certainly appears to be what happened in the case of this family, and I’d hate to see it happen in anyone ‘s family.

      Raising children is not easy, and indeed takes a long-range vision of empathy, joy, humility, strength, resilience, and realistic expectations. Romanticizing adoption doesn’t help anyone.

      • Also as an adoptive parent of 4, with placement ages of 8 through 12, the younger two separated longer from birth families than the older two, it was I suppose during our third adoption I came to realize how truly pitiful the “education” received by parents during the adoption process was. Furthermore, except for some sort of state licensing and Federal government requirements, agencies seem to have free reign, charging whatever the market may bear, with little to no protection for families. After the adoption, post adoption support is nearly nonexistent, so if a family gets into crisis mode and lives away from major population centers, things can easily overwhelm a family.

        Personally having adopted a child misdiagnosed in their home country, we prepared best we could. Home it didn’t take long to realize we were given wrong info. It took us nearly two years and countless specialist visits to discover by a quirk that even with FAS, ADHD, Tourettes there was major hope and healing possible.

        During that journey as we sought out answers and resources, finding nearly nothing, it seemed right to start a group where folks could discuss such issues, offer hope to others.

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