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How psychology can help adoptive parents

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The creational family described in the Old Testament, yet picked up in some places in the New, provides a lens for the redeemed family in the way that natural or created marriage provides a lens to Christ and His bride explicitly highlighted in Ephesians 5 and Revelation 22. This provides, then, the context for how Christians ought to think about parenting.

But how do we apply it to adoptive children? We, too, have a category for thinking about adoption given that we, too, have been adopted as children of God according to Romans 8:28. When we enter into union with Christ as the Bridegroom of which we become the Bride and brothers, we are adopted as children of God. This means that we are not natural children in the way that Christ, as the second person of the Godhead begotten of the Father, or that we are natural in the way that our parents begat us when they conceived us. We are adopted.

And, like the Old Testament, adopted children assume the rights, responsibilities, and blessings as natural born children of their parents. Adopted children share, in some real way, the benefits of a natural child. They inherit the same inheritance of the natural child. Yet, that inheritance, according to Scripture, is not merely an inheritance of physical property, soil, and the apparent benefits of the blood line, but it includes more than that. It includes an intellectual inheritance, a relational inheritance and with it the name that carries the prestige of said family (just consider Genesis 5:1-3; Psalm 8 read with Romans 8).

Characteristic of God’s intentions to craft a royal family that acts as the priests on terrestrial plane in which we all exist, children (and, yes, adoptive children) share in this inheritance. 

This provides the frame then for how we ought to think about our adoptive children. And it is not merely true to say that it comports well with the findings of science, or psychology, but also that these principles can be taken up and developed utilizing psychological tools that are consistent with them.

Unfortunately, psychological research on modern adoption indicates a different experience for adopted children. Adopted children often experience a kind of displacement rather than the secure placement that comes with natural-born children — at least initially. This lends itself to the feeling of no home — and ultimately the feeling of being alone. Quite the contrary to familial bondedness, the adopted child often feels ambiguous notions of being alone.

And we know that the sort of “rugged individualism” commonly celebrated among many Americans is something that is not our natural habitat. In other words, it’s not the way it ought to be. It is a corruption of the collective identity that permeates the biblical notion of individuals in addition to the natural identities of our families and nations.

The modern experience of being adopted might be the result of another dysfunction. That dysfunction seems to be the motive or aim of parenting adopted children. There is a common tendency to approach adoption as one that serves the parents rather than the parents serving the child being adopted, which culminates in the ongoing process of being “re-homed.” This is the first, immediate problem with modern adoption, advanced by psychologists today.

Evolutionary psychologists describe the process as something that must consider how it is that children “thrive.” Thrive is a term in developmental psychology that studies the conditions for how children adapt well to their environment. This is called “constructive niche.” The task of the parent that meets the standards of parenting a child to thrive in the world by meeting the particularities of his or her environment. An older word, borrowing from Aristotle, might call this “flourishing.”

Parents would do well to consider the resources from developmental psychology in their raising of children, generally, and adoptive children, specifically.

To put more specifics on the problem, Bessel van der Kolk describes the experience of many adopted children in the following: “Before they reach their twenties, many patients have been given four, five, six, or more of these impressive but meaningless labels. If they receive treatment at all, they get whatever is being promulgated as the method of management du jour: medications, behavioral modification, or exposure therapy. These rarely work and often cause more damage.””

Adoptees suffer more commonly from the following:

Anxiety Disorder
Adjustment Disorder
Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Childhood Obsessive Compulsive Disorders
Conduct Disorders
Oppositional Defiant Disorder
Reactive Attachment Disorder
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

These are significant and quite the commentary on modern adoption. Some of these disorders can be curbed when we consider our own motivations for adoption and how it is that we raise our adoptive children with the biblical principles mentioned earlier. By raising the adoptee up a one’s own with all the rights and responsibilities that are intrinsic to that family and the Christian family, that child has a higher chance of identifying with the family, being inculcated with its values, and feeling the warmth and acceptance that goes along with being a natural born child. These are important insights when we consider biblical principles, psychology, and how it is that the ancient world understood adoption. Adoption was not so flippant or ungrounded as it often is in modern society.

There is something instructive about how and why it is that we adopt children. We adopt them to be one of our own by identifying with them and they with us.

Ancient practice is to treat the adoptee as one’s own — in the same way that God treats us as his own children with Christ. Guided by this frame and these principles, will take us a long way toward developing stable families with adoptive children.

Joshua Farris is a Humboldt Experienced Researcher at Ruhr Universitat Bochum focusing on biologically-engaged theological anthropology. He has been in ministry and teaching off and on for 15 years. He has also worked on topics as vast as theology and medical health, ecclesial authority, abuse, gender identity, racial identity, the afterlife and other topics. His area of speciality has been on the philosophical foundations of religious anthropology and the soul. He has a forthcoming book, The Creation of Self: A Case for the Soul coming out in June 2023.

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