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The Best Time to Disclose Adoption Status to Children

Professor’s groundbreaking study shows benefits of early adoption disclosure

Posted in: University

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A study led by Montclair State University Counseling Professor Amanda Baden has found that adults who did not learn of their adoptions until after the age of three suffer greater emotional distress and overall lower life satisfaction than those who found out at an earlier age. The older adoptees were when their status was disclosed, the greater the level of distress they were likely to experience.

“Delaying Adoption Disclosure: A Survey of Late Discovery Adoptees” is the first study of its kind undertaken in the United States. Published in the Journal of Family Issues in May, its findings challenge decade-long recommendations as to when adoptive parents should tell their children they were adopted. Past options included waiting until after the age of 4 or even after childhood to disclose adoption status.

“A lot of people think children can’t understand the nuances and complexities of adoption when they’re young,” says Baden, who is herself an adoptee and an adoptive parent. “I often tell families that they can use children’s books as guides. As children’s books get more detailed and complex as children get older, so should the details and explanations of adoption.”

Baden, who led a Montclair State team that included four adoptees and two adoptive parents throughout the project, notes that two independent researchers also collaborated on the study. “They were both late discovery adoptees and were part of a large community of adoptees who learned of their adoptions as adults. They wanted to explore the impact of delayed disclosure on coping and on adoptees’ lives.“

For late discovery adoptees, or LDAs, it is the betrayal and long series of lies that cause the most distress. “Growing up thinking that you know your heritage and then learning that what you have been told was false is extremely distressing for LDAs,” she explains. “It can trigger larger issues around identity – and identity is already pretty complex. To wait until middle childhood, adolescence or even adulthood to tell a person that he or she was adopted means that the families would have had to tell many lies, half-truths and total fabrications by the time the truth is finally shared or discovered.”

As one study respondent, who had not learned of her adoption until she was 49, told the researchers, “Realizing that you don’t know who you are is life changing. Every relationship in my life changed at that moment. I am much more guarded in every aspect now. Finding out that everyone knew and I didn’t is probably the single most traumatic event of my life.”

The study’s 254 respondents completed an online survey. “In my field, that’s a huge sample,” says Baden. “So many adoption-related groups in this country are just now opening their records.”

The research team also explored the adoptees’ coping strategies. Study respondents reported that open communications, supportive relationships and contact with birth relatives and other adoptees were helpful.

“One of the most interesting findings was that, if we don’t account for coping behaviors, those who experienced the most distress from delayed adoption disclosure were adolescents,” Baden notes. “However, when we accounted for the increased coping skills and options available to adults, we understood that distress actually increased as people got older. Our findings really emphasize how secrecy and lies in adoption become corrosive to those involved.”

Baden’s findings not only represent a critical step in increasing the understanding of the negative long-term impact of withholding adoption status and information from adoptees, but they are likely to prove helpful to families, child welfare workers, adoption professionals, researchers and clinicians.

Baden, who leads Montclair State’s adoption research team, focuses her own research on transracial adoption, counseling and therapy, as well as identity and racial ethnic issues in adoption, hopes this new study could ultimately result in new uniform guidelines for adoption disclosure. “I’m honored to be able to make this contribution to the community,” she says.

Baden’s research was recently featured in an article by Ashley Fetters (herself an adoptee) in The Atlantic and has prompted much conversation on social media.