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The State of Knowledge Of Foreign Adoptions

Part Two of Two

By Dr. Monica Dalen

Part 1 | Part 2 | Bibliography

Learning, Language and Schooling

Surveys of foreign adoptees’ schooling cover children adopted from very diverse countries, children who were at different ages when they were adopted and children with very varied childhoods in their native countries. This naturally makes it difficult to treat them as one group, and the few surveys that have looked at sub-groups within the same empirical material have also proved that there is a great deal of diversity within the group. Dalen & Rygvold’s survey (1999) showed that a group of the foreign adoptees performed better at school and had better language skills than their Norwegian-born schoolfriends. At the same time, it also found that a relatively large group scored far worse on the same variables. This indicates that we must be careful about using results that are based on average targets since these may cover a wide range within the relevant target group.

Adoption and language

Scandinavian research into foreign adoptions has paid particular attention to the adoptees’ language development and mastery of language (Hene 1987 and 1988, Berntsen and Eigeland 1987, de Geer 1992, Lyngstøl 1994, Rygvold 1998 and 1999). This may be due to the fact that the Nordic region is a small language area and that a common language is one of the signs of belonging and attachment. It is also natural bearing in mind that language is an integrated part of a person’s cognitive, social and emotional development. Any language difficulties, for example resulting from the interruption to the adopted child’s language development, may affect his or her learning and development.

Research has shown that learning a new mother tongue is a vulnerable process, and around a third (between 20-40%) of the foreign adoptees do have language problems (Hene 1987, Dalen and Sætersdal 1992, Rygvold 1997, Dalen and Rygvold 1999). In these surveys, the frequency of language difficulties is viewed in connection with the age of the child when adopted. Although there is a tendency for the extent of language problems to increase with a rising adoption age, children who were adopted as babies also have such difficulties at times. There are many indications that age alone are not crucial to the development of a new language. Other factors, such as the number of separations, stable adult contact and stimulation and poor physical health on arrival are also significant.

In order to show how foreign adoptees’ language difficulties manifest themselves; researchers have focused on various forms of language skills. The most common division is; day-to-day language and school language skills (Berntsen and Eigeland, 1987, Dalen and Sætersdal, 1992, Dalen and Rygvold 1999). Day-to-day language is the contextualised language in which meaning and understanding are anchored in the here-and-now situation to the same extent as in the words themselves. Day-to-day language is the language form that is used in normal everyday speech and contexts. School language is the decontextualised language, in which meaning and understanding are not imparted through the communication situation itself to any great extent. Examples of this are oral communication in the form of lecture-like teaching, messages given to the entire class and written texts.

Adoptees’ language problems seem, however, to be particularly linked to the use of the language at a higher language-cognitive level (the school language). In day-to-day speech, children can utilize situational and non-verbal language, and for that reason any language difficulties will not be revealed until demands as to more abstract language production and understanding are made. However, this is just the kind of language demand that children face in school. Adoptees’ good day-to-day language skills are, to a certain extent, connected with the fact that many of them are clever at using the language knowledge they have when communicating with others. In this way, they can hide difficulties in understanding language and other language problems - ”the language façade dazzles”.

Surveys have shown that there is no correlation between the adoptees’ day-to-day language skills and their school results (Dalen 1994, Dalen and Rygvold 1999). On the other hand, there is a significant link between their school language skills and their school results. Their school language difficulties affected the adoptees’ results in both Norwegian and mathematics. It is natural to expect the language skills to affect their Norwegian studies, but it is perhaps more surprising that it has such a strong effect on their mathematics results. This shows that the ability to carry out mathematical operations is closely connected with proficiency in using a situation-independent language, such as school language.

Very many parents start off by wanting their adopted children to be taught their mother tongue. This is particularly true for children who were slightly older when they were adopted and who came from Spanish-speaking countries. All experience so far shows that this is difficult to comply with (Berntsen & Eigeland 1987, Dalen & Sætersdal 1992, Rygvold 1999). This is not due to the fact that schools are unwilling to provide mother-tongue teaching, but that the children themselves do not want such teaching. Many parents actually tell of their children’s strong unwillingness to use their mother tongue. This may be a sign that we perhaps should leave the adopted children alone and allow them to expend their energy on learning Norwegian. It is a fact that most foreign adoptees become monolingual, so it is important that they master their new mother tongue just as well as Norwegian-born children.

Hyperactivity and Adoption

The results of a number of research projects indicate that hyperactivity is more common among adopted children than among non-adopted children (Dalby et al 1982, Brodzinsky et al 1987, Kvifte-Andresen 1992, Dalen and Sætersdal 1992, Dalen and Rygvold 1999).

Hyperactive behavior affects the pupil’s learning and social functioning in a school situation. Hyperactive pupils are easy to distract, they have problems maintaining a long attention span and they are quickly distracted by events in and outside the classroom (DuPaul and Stoner 1994). This has consequences for the pupil’s learning as well as for the social interaction in the class. Pupils that are inattentive and unconcentrated have problems understanding the teacher’s instructions and messages. A lack of concentration will also make it difficult for the pupil to focus on his or her own work and the tasks that must be carried out. As a result, the pupil may have an increased risk of developing learning difficulties.

Several school surveys show that pupils adopted from other countries have significantly more hyperactive behavior than Norwegian-born pupils (Verhulst et al 1990, Dalen and Sætersdal 1992, Kvifte-Andresen 1992, Dalen and Rygvold 1999). This behavior creates problems for them and negatively affects their school results.

Although heredity is regarded as a common cause of hyperactivity, this condition may also be linked to an acquired dysfunction (Zeiner and Bjerke 1998). Such a dysfunction may be due to such things as the abuse of alcohol, narcotics or nicotine during pregnancy, premature and difficult births, and extremely unfavorable care conditions during the first months of the child’s life. Many of the foreign adoptees may have experienced such conditions during their first years.

The myth of the adoption age

When planning many research projects, the adoption age has been regarded as an exceptionally important variable. It has been a stated fact that the younger the child is when he or she is adopted (preferably straight after birth) the greater chance he or she has of developing well.

Gradually, as the results of the research in this field were published, it was proven that the adoption age was certainly not such a crucial factor for the success of an adoption as had been previously supposed. Although some surveys found a correlation between the adoption age and later developments, some of this could also be explained by other variables, such as the child’s gender, native country and state of health (Verhulst et al 1990, Dalen and Sætersdal 1992, Dalen and Rygvold 1999, Botvar 1999). Some studies actually showed that children who were quite old when they were adopted had been as successful as children who were adopted at a young age (Dalen & Sætersdal 1992, Kvifte Andresen 1992, Botvar 1995, Rørbech 1989). Other factors than the adoption age seem to have more effect on the adopted child’s development, such as what the conditions during the child’s first few months were like, the child’s mental and physical state at the time of adoption and the quality of the interaction in the new adoptive family.

It thus seems to be a myth that a young adoption age ensures the best development for a child. The conditions under which a child has lived seem to be more crucial than at what age he or she was adopted. If the conditions have been extremely poor and lasted for several years, it is obvious that the adoption age will be significant.

Adoptive Homes Are Supportive

Several surveys show that adoptive parents are far more supportive of the child’s school situation than the parents of Norwegian-born children are (Dalen & Sætersdal 1992, Tessem 1998, Dalen & Rygvold 1999). For example, adoptive parents help their children with homework more often and get more involved in the day-to-day life at school.

The adoptive parents’ special background is very positive for the child’s school background, but may also have a negative effect, perhaps particularly with regard to school results. If the adoptive parents set too high standards for their child’s results, perhaps because they themselves were clever at school, this can have a negative effect on the child’s self-esteem. This can again inhibit the child’s further learning (Skaalvik & Skaalvik 1988). The link between school results and self-esteem is particularly affected by the emphasis placed on school results by the pupil’s parents. When the parents exert great pressure, the school results have a dramatic effect on the pupil’s self-esteem (Skaalvik and Lauvdal 1984). This is particularly true for those pupils who do worst at school.

Previous research has shown that adoptees who come from homes with a high social status actually achieve worse results at school and have more school-related problems than children who come from homes with a lower social status (Verhulst et al 1990, Bohman 1973, Botvar 1999). The opposite is true for children who have not been adopted, in whose case there is a positive correlation between good results at school and a high social status.

Education and working life

Since there are still few foreign adoptees who have reached adulthood, we do not have satisfactory results that can tell us how they manage when studying and in their working lives. Some surveys show that foreign adoptees as a group complete upper secondary education and take higher education more often than teenagers in general, but there is also great variation within the group (Moser 1997, Nicolaysen 1998, Botvar 1999). This means that there are many that take higher education, but also many who do not. In interviews with young adult foreign adoptees, many say that poor school results or the fact that they have not completed upper secondary school have hampered their educational and work opportunities later on (Brottveit 1999, Sætersdal and Dalen 1999).

Both research and the statistics available show that the teenage foreign adoptees have a different pattern of education from Norwegian- and Swedish-born teenagers (Moser 1997, Nicolaysen 1998, Botvar 1999). It is more common for teenage adoptees with ”working-class” parents to choose to study theoretical or general subjects, while teenage adoptees with “academic” parents usually choose vocational subjects. Compared with Norwegian-born teenagers, teenage foreign-adoptees choose directions of study that agree to a lesser extent with their parents’ educational background. Furthermore, fewer teenage foreign adoptees with academic parents have been found to complete upper secondary school than other pupils. Teenage foreign adoptees with parents who have less education more often complete their schooling. This tendency is also the opposite to that found in children who are not adopted.

Researchers’ explanations for this atypical educational pattern differ slightly. Verhulst et al (1990) and Bohman (1973) explain this pattern by saying that many adoptive parents have too high and unrealistic expectations as to their child’s education simply because they themselves come from the upper echelons of society. The young people react to this by choosing differently from their parents. It could also be that the adopted children basically feel a weaker attachment to the social class in which they have grown up and that this makes it easier for them to break traditional patterns. Nicolaysen (1998), on the other hand, believes that adoptive parents are less inclined to be conformist. They have gone through a process aimed at accepting that their child is different and are for that reason more open to the idea of the child’s individuality and for unconventional choices of education and jobs.

Identity and the Teenage Years

In the psychodynamic understanding of identity formation, the adoptive relationship itself plays a considerable role (refer, for example, to Brinich 1990, Brodzinsdky 1990, Demick and Wapner 1988, Grotevant 1997, Kats 1990, Kirk 1964, 1981 and 1988, Schiellerup and Grand 1983 and Triseliotis 1973). These researchers claim that the adopted child is caught up in a psychological paradox and that the twofoldedness of the situation is communicated on many levels, both verbally and non-verbally, throughout the child’s entire upbringing.

At some time or other, adopted children have to integrate the awareness that they have two sets of parents into their perception of their own identity. They have to deal with the painful insight that being adopted not only means being ”chosen” but also being ”rejected” and that adoption is not only a way of creating families, but also involves the loss of a family. Brodzinsky et al (1984) claims that such intellectual and emotional insight is impossible before the children are around 8-11 years old, and that it must be seen in relation to the child’s general intellectual and social maturity. He feels that this age is characterized by the child experiencing an adjustment sorrow in relation to the adoption, ”adaptive grieving”, something that requires a lot of mental energy.

Puberty later starts off a period of identity testing, which takes place parallel to the testing out of various group identities. Grotevant (1997) claims, as do other adoption researchers (Brottveit 1999, Sætersdal and Dalen 1999) that adopted teenagers have ”additional work” to do when forming their identies. They have to integrate the awareness of their background into their perception of their personality.

Adoption and Ethnicity

Another key aspect of teenage foreign adoptees’ identity development is their attitude to their own ethnicity. If the way that the adoptees themselves feel they belong (ethnic self-identification) is the same as the way that those around them categorize them (external self-identification), then there is no problem. It becomes more of a conflict if a child feels Norwegian but, because of his or her exotic appearance, is treated as being non-Norwegian. Identity and the formation of identity are closely connected to relationships with others. The ethnic component is a complicating factor, in the same way as the adoption component is.

Attitude to Their Appearance

The adoptees’ appearance is the ethnic marker that sets them apart from their own families from the start, and which later puts them in the category of being ”alien” - like immigrants or foreigners. Other markers that otherwise distinguish ethnic minorities, such as their language, accent, dialect, body language, clothes, cultural behavioral norms, etc, will not be any different from those of the adoptees’ adoptive families or other Norwegians around them. Their appearance is the reason why they are often assumed to be immigrants or refugees. These are groups with which the adoptees themselves do not identify and that have a low status in our society, thus making life problematic for them sometimes. It is not their appearance in itself that is the problem, but the fact that their appearance sets them apart from their family, siblings, relatives and friends. Their appearance is the visible marker that stamps them as being ”different” and non-Norwegian.

Attitude to Their Culture and Background

Foreign-born adoptees are more accepting of their background than they are of their appearance. However, for some, their ideas on their cultural background are strongly linked to their thoughts about the adoption itself and their own biological family. They do not want to think constantly about a past that no longer feels relevant to them. "It's best not to think about such things." Several of them also refrain from raising any questions about this because they care about their parents - and are afraid of hurting them with their statements.

Attitude to Immigrants and Refugees

Teenager’s foreign adoptees have a varied, ambivalent, complex attitude to both their own ethnic group in Norway and other immigrants. Most of these teenagers stated in different ways and more or less covertly that they wanted to distance themselves from immigrants and refugees (Brottveit 1999 and Sætersdal and Dalen 1999). Such a distancing may be physical or psychological. They distanced themselves physically from immigrants in the school playground, on buses, at social events and in public places. The distancing may also be psychological. Even though many had had immigrants in their class at school, very few had been friendly with them.

Most of them rejected any community of interest with immigrant groups. They thus also lost the opportunity to obtain information on current conditions in their native country, or on the country’s religion, traditions and customs, which many of them otherwise showed an interest in other ”non-dangerous” connections. Interviews with young adults adopted from Colombia, India, Korea and Vietnam all confirm this distancing (Brottveit 1999, Sætersdal and Dalen 1999).

Brottveit (1999) claims that immigrants have a culturally stigmatized minority position comparable to that previously held by Lapps and gypsies. Although opinion surveys show a relatively positive attitude to immigrants - especially on the part of younger people - Brottveit claims that these factors mean that foreign-born adoptees have problems defining themselves. Brottveit calls this an "ethnic role disability".

However, by distancing themselves from immigrants and refugees, they also distance themselves from their background and origins. There is a risk that they will develop self-hatred and double communication. Some of the oldest teenagers were aware of this and stated that they did not like their own reactions.

Follow-up surveys of adult Vietnamese men and women who had been adopted and were now in their thirties (Sætersdal and Dalen 1999) showed that these had a more clarified attitude to their ethnicity as adults. The question of adoption, their biological family and their attitude to immigrants and refugees no longer interested them in the same way. The problems that were so important during their teenage years were no longer problems or were lesser problems than they had expected. The past lay there like a backcloth, but it was the present and future they were now interested in.

Strategies for Coping

When they are young, strangers relatively protect foreign adoptees against discrimination. On the whole, their schools and local environments have shielded them because they were accepted and recognized as members of Norwegian families. However, the protection and shielding provided by the adoptive family during childhood disappears once the child becomes a teenager and has to face many situations alone. Strangers may not identify them as Norwegian and may treat them as immigrants or refugees, with all the discriminatory attitudes that this involves. The young foreign adoptee is defined as "belonging" inside, while teenagers are often defined as being outside the context with which they identify themselves. Sometimes they belong, and sometimes they do not - depending on how those around them define them. Their position is marginal, or rather double marginal because of both their adopted status and their ethnic origins, which do not define them as either "Norwegian" or immigrants. They do not belong to a clearly defined cognitive or cultural category.

The main problem - particularly during the teenage years - is to do with the difference between the rest of the world's and the adoptee's definition of identity and belonging. The most important factor for teenage and adult foreign adoptees is for them to receive confirmation that they really belong, both as a member of their nuclear and extended families and as a member of the society in which they have grown up and of which they have become a part. We interpret the considerable mental energy expended by many of them to mark the fact that they belong in Norwegian society as being a sign of their uncertainty regarding their own social position and as an indication of racial ideas in our society, where a Norwegian identity is defined as being a ”white” identity.


Most People Manage Well

Epidemiological surveys carried out in several countries show that the majority of children and teenagers adopted from other countries manage well in their new families and countries (Verhulst et al 1990, Simon and Alstein 1996, Bagley 1993, Rørbech 1989, Dalen and Sætersdal 1992, Kvifte Andresen 1992, Cederblad et al 1994, Botvar 1995 and 1999). These surveys have been conducted at slightly different points in the foreign adoptees’ lives, but those covering young people over the age of 12 years show that around 75% manage well, without any sign of major problems. These results are the same as those found in similar surveys carried out on Danish-, Swedish- and Norwegian-born young people and in surveys that have directly compared foreign adoptees with young people in general (Jonsson and Kalvesten 1964, Burman and Nylander 1969, Cederblad and Hook 1986, Lavik 1975, Rørbech 1989, Cederblad et al 1994, Wichstrøm 1994, Botvar 1995 and 1999).

The fact that so many of the foreign adoptees manage well must be seen as very positive and good feedback for the adoptive families, adoption associations, governmental authorities and, not least, the donor countries. When we take into account that many of the foreign adoptees have had a very difficult start in life, these results are even more gratifying and optimistic. It is possible to ”heal” or ”cure” previous wounds and injuries, and adoption seems to be a solution that provides new, undreamed-of opportunities for many children. Adoption is a crucial turning point in a child’s development and may lead to a better life for many people. Such a radical change of living conditions may lead to not only physical, but also mental traumas being healed, as the results of research into foreign adoption show.

The Picture Is Not Just “Rosy”

Despite the positive research results, we would be careful about presenting this area as being too ”rosy”. The research results also show that 25-30% of the foreign adoptees have some problems linked to language, learning, identity and ethnicity. We have examined these areas earlier and shown that many foreign adoptees are struggling to find their place both in their families and in society at large. In the introduction, we also pointed out that results based on ”clinically” selected persons may be both important and correct in relation to the groups they are based on, but that one must be careful not to generalize these to apply to all foreign adoptees. The research results we now have to build on, however, show that, on the whole, the teenage years are particularly demanding for many foreign adoptees and their families. The Norwegian child welfare statistics illustrate that foreign adoptees as a group are underrepresented in the child welfare statistics, but over-represented in the 13-19-year-old age group and in some towns (Kalve 1999).

These findings are thought provoking and show that adoptive families have a different course of development as regards contact with the social services, in this case the child welfare services, than families with their own natural-born children do. In interviews with adoptive parents, they clearly state that they feel under a great deal of pressure to manage their own situation. The families try to sort out on their own until things suddenly get too much for them when the child is a teenager. Maybe they have stretched things too far, and have no more energy left when the special teenage problems start. The parents shrink from seeking help for as long as possible. They were at one time approved as parents and have taken the initiative themselves to bring a child from another part of the world here to this country. They feel they have to master this situation, and preferably without bothering other people too much. Their problems have therefore been under-communicated to the rest of society, thus ”veiling” the everyday lives of many adoptive families.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Bibliography

© 1992, 2001 Dr. Monica Dalen

Monica Dalen's 1992 Ph.D. dissertation focused on international adoption in Norway. Since 1992, she has been a professor in Education at the University of Oslo, Norway.
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