Ghosts in the Adoption: Understanding the Impact of an Adoptive Parent’s Own History

Today’s blog post is written by Karen Doyle Buckwalter, LCSW, Director of Program Strategy at Chaddock, a multi-service agency providing a range of residential, educational, and community-based services for youth, birth through age 21, and their families. While at Chaddock, she has been instrumental in the development of an innovative residential program for adolescents, ages 8 – 16, with Attachment Disorders and Complex Trauma. One of the only programs of its kind serving older adolescents, Chaddock’s Developmental Trauma and Attachment Program® (DTAP®) has served youth from 33 different states in the U.S. originating from 18 different countries.
Karen’s energetic and interactive style make her a sought-after speaker and trainer, and she has presented at numerous national and international conferences. She has co-authored journal articles and book chapters as well as articles that have appeared in Adoption Today and Fostering Families Today Magazines and recently published her first book Attachment Theory in Action.
Karen has more than 28 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families, the last 23 of which she has been at Chaddock. She has a BS in Individual and Family Studies from Pennsylvania State University and a Master of Social Work Degree from Temple University. She has completed a 2 year post-masters training program in Family Therapy at the Menninger Clinic

Ghosts in the Adoption: Understanding the Impact of an Adoptive Parent’s Own History

In 1975, child psychoanalyst and social worker Selma Fraiberg, along with her colleagues, wrote a seminal article entitled “Ghosts In the Nursery.” The article was, in part, about the way a parent’s own history is carried into how they behave with their baby at both a conscious and unconscious level. The ghosts invade the nursery and patterns from the parent’s own history, often ones they would never want to repeat, turn up in the relationship with their own child. Since the publication of the article, we have a large body of research that supports this theory. Much of it is based on the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), which incredibly can predict the attachment style of a child based on the parent’s attachment style as assessed by the AAI. This means that even before a parent has a child and without actually seeing the parent with the child, we can know with 75-85% accuracy what the child’s attachment style will be. It will mirror the parents. I began to wonder – if this is true between parents and their biological children, would it also be true with adoptive parents and their children? What I learned at the time was that this was a controversial topic within the adoption community.

When I first began to work with adoptive families in the 90s, I was taught that traditional family systems theory (understanding the family as an interconnected system where each person’s behavior impacts and even shapes that of others) did not apply to adoptive families. This was especially true when families had adopted older children. The idea was that any difficulties the children had were developed before the child entered the family so the adoptive family was “held harmless” so to speak. This made good sense to me. All of the children I was working with had been adopted either out of the US foster care system or internationally adopted from orphanages. Clearly in both of these circumstances, the children had suffered both abuse and neglect that was certainly not the fault of the adoptive family. The adoptive family very likely did not even know the child when any of this was occurring. So that was my stance, “Don’t try to apply family systems theory or take into account the parent’s background when working with adoptive families. This is an unfair and inappropriate thing to do!”

However, as time went on I began to see that this “either or” way of looking at adoptive families was not really capturing the whole story. I began to see situations where I determined that there were things going in in the adoptive family that were perpetuating or even worsening the behaviors of their adopted children. At that point I shifted my view and began saying things to adoptive families like, “Although you are not responsible for the traumatic things that happened to your child before they came to you, you are now responsible for engaging in caring for them in a way most likely to bring about healing.” Some people call this “therapeutic parenting.” Some refer to it as “trauma-informed care.” Whatever name is given to the concept, it means that adoptive parents do, in some sense, need to take responsibility for altering their parenting to a more enriched type of care when children come to them from hard places. This is a parenting stance that requires a more conscious and deliberate way of parenting rather than what just comes naturally. Stated another way, “If you don’t work your issues, your kids will work them for you.” At this same time, it’s important that adoptive parents not feel judged or blamed for a child’s difficulties. There must be a balance.

At this point with my work with adoptive families, I insist that parents be willing to talk with me about their own background and are open to the idea that although they did not cause their child’s problems, they may be contributing to them. Attachment theory is about a relationship. When you work from an attachment-based perspective, your client is the parent/child relationship not just the child. After all, we would not think or doing marital therapy with one member of the couple. It is essential to have a deep understanding of what both the child and the parent are bringing to the relationship from their own background. This allows the therapist to have compassion for both parent and child and hold the story of each of them. And that, changes everything.

Fraiberg, S., Adelson, E., & Shapiro, V. (1975). Ghosts in the nursery. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 14(3), 387-421.

Steele, M., Hodges, J., Kaniuk, J., Hillman, S., & Henderson, K. (2003). Attachment representations and adoption: Associations between maternal states of mind and emotion narratives in previously maltreated children. Journal of child psychotherapy, 29(2), 187-205.

Karen 1400x1400

Karen Doyle Buckwalter, LCSW, Director of Program Strategy at Chaddock, a multi-service agency providing a range of residential, educational, and community-based services for youth, birth through age 21, and their families.

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