Write On: Adoption Facts in Fiction

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Today, we are lucky to feature my colleague and friend, Dr. Jennifer Crissman-Ishler, who is a Senior Instructor in Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State and a resident expert on the adoption process and adoptive families. Dr. Crissman-Ishler is a trained counselor and also an adoptive parent herself. She teaches HDFS 453, which examines the complex process and dynamics of adoption across the adoptive triad of birth parents – child – adoptive parents,  and is one of the most sought-after courses in our department.

We asked Dr. Crissman-Ishler for her advice for authors writing about adoption, adoptive families, and characters experiencing adoption, and are so thankful for her willingness to share her knowledge with our readership. . .

  1. What do you feel are some of the common misconceptions about adoption that you encounter in fiction and/or the media?
  • The birth mother is a single mom who is a young teenager – but the reality is that birth moms are all ages and of different marital status (single, married, etc). And in the past several years, the economy has created situations where many woman cannot afford to parent their child.
  • The birth mom (or birth parents) will come back and try to remove the child from his/her adoptive family after the adoption has been completed.
  • Adoptees are “messed up”, weren’t wanted, and/or will not be able to form meaningful relationships when they become adults.
  • If couples can’t have a biological child, they should “just adopt” (totally ignores the grieving process that adoptive parents need to experience)
  1. How can writers make sure to avoid these cliches or misconceptions in their work?
  • Become educated on the facts and realities of adoption; don’t just base your stories on what you see on TV; talk to members of the triad (adoptive parents, birth parents, adoptees) for their perspective; become aware of the 5 core issues surrounding adoption (loss, grief, identity, rejection, guilt/shame) that impact all triad members
  1. Adoption is multifaceted, and includes domestic, international, and foster care adoption. Can you provide a bit of a primer about each of these processes for our readers?
  • Domestic – any adoption between adoptive parents and adoptive child that takes place within the same country; so adoptive parents and adoptee both live in the United States, for example. For a domestic adoption that is taking place in two states (adoptive parents live in one state and the child is born or living in a different state), all parties must follow the ICPC (Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children), which means before an adoption can be completed, the rules/regulations/laws of BOTH states must be followed.
  • International – child is born and living in one country and adoptive parents are living in a different country; must follow the laws of 3 bureaucratic systems (the state in which the parents live, the country in which the parents live, and the country in which the child is residing). The central location and authority in the US that oversees International Adoption is the Department of State.  Must also work with INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services) to have child obtain Visa (I-600 and I-600A Visa Petitions)
  • Foster Care – children who have been placed in the State’s or County’s legal custody because their birth parents were deemed abusive, neglectful, or otherwise unable to care for them; goal is to place them with parents who are fostering to adopt; foster parents must go through intensive training and background checks before they can become foster parents; birth parents must have their parental rights terminated (TPR) before children can be legally adopted by others
  1. As a professional with expertise in adoption and as an adoptive parent yourself, what important lessons have you taken away about adopted children and adoptive families?
  • No two adoptive families are the same – each family will have different experiences with their adoption experience – celebrate your own unique experience
  • Find support – participate in adoption support groups; join on-line communities; befriend other adoptive families; there will be issues that adoptive families must deal with that biologically created families will not have to, so it helps to have support ready to go and in place
  • As an adoptive family, be sure to communicate – talk openly, freely, ask and answer questions; make adoption something to be proud of or “normalized”; don’t hide it
  • Being an adoptive parent is like a biological parent – there is no handbook, there is no manual. You just do the best job you can do!

  1. Are there any examples of adoption in literature that you feel represent the experience well and that authors could use as a benchmark for their own writing?
  • Todd Parr is a wonderful children’s author who does a great job writing about different families and how it is okay to be different and there are many different ways to make a family
  • For adults, Mamalita by Jessica O’Dwyer is a great book for adoptive parents
  • http://www.umass.edu/ruddchair/ (Their adoption research program is a great place for the most current and up-to-date research)
  1. Many writers examine the inner workings of their characters when writing a novel or story. If they are writing about a character who is adopted, can you identify any commonalities adopted individuals encounter during their journey through life that would be important to contemplate as an author?
  • The core issue of identity is part of anyone’s lifespan development, but it takes on a more significant role for the adoptee (Who am I? Where did I come from?  Who do I look like?  What personality traits do I share with my biological family?  Do I have siblings?)
  • Core issue of loss – losing one’s biological family (and perhaps culture, language and country); a lack of knowledge of one’s medical history, etc.
  • Grief – realizing as they age, what they have lost (for children adoptive when they are older, it could be more severe as they have memories of their families, language, culture, home, friends, school, etc.)
  1. What can you tell our readers about the differences and/or similarities experienced by children who are adopted as infants vs. those who are adopted later on in childhood or adolescence?
  • All adopted children will still experience 5 core issues in their life, just at different times or in different degrees
  • Some pros and cons to consider, though, depend on the needs of the adoptive parents…
    • Pros of adopting an older child
      • Shorter wait to adopt
      • Older children will know their birth parents/family/history (which can help with identity and grief issues)
    • Cons of adopting older child
      • Attachment bonds may take longer to form
      • Educational needs – child may need to “catch up” in school because they are behind
  1. Open adoption, where birth parents remain in a child’s life after adoption, seems to be increasing in our country–what are your thoughts about this approach?
  • Again, my thoughts are simply my own. This is a highly personalized decision and no two families will have the same reasons for how they create their families.  From a historical perspective, adoption began in our country as a closed process and it was only in the 1970s that adoption became more open.  And now, states like PA require some degree of “openness” to be part of a domestic adoption or it cannot be finalized.
  • Some advantages of an open adoption are: 1) children have a sense of where they came from; 2) they have access to important medical information and medical history; 3) they can ask questions as to why they were placed.
  • For birth parents, an open adoption gives them some control – they are making the adoption plan for their child; they can answer questions that an adoptee may have; and they are not left wondering through the years if their child is doing okay or not.  I think the only “right” answer in terms of open adoption is what every member of the triad feels comfortable with.
  1. Can you recommend any references for authors who want to include adoption as part of their novel’s or story’s narrative?
  1. If any of our readers are considering adoption for their own family, what recommendations would you have for them? What do you wish you knew before you became a parent through adoption?
  • Do your homework (interview adoption agencies and lawyers to make sure the fit is right and they know what they are doing; and that they are reputable!)
  • If doing an international adoption, check the State Dept.’s website to make sure that “your” country is not in jeopardy of closing and that your agency is Hague Compliant
  • Talk to other families who have gone through the process to see what worked and didn’t work for them (and to also start building connections and support)
  1. Ok, one more: What’s your favorite memory from your own experience with adoption (if you don’t mind sharing!)?
  • Don’t mind sharing – you know me – I love to talk about adoption and how we created our family!!! It’s hard to pick just one favorite memory.  However, one “favorite” memory would have to be Oct. 9, 2005, our “Gotcha Day” in Guatemala. Our foster mom and lawyer had just left our hotel room and it was just Matt, Emily and me.  Matt and I were looking at each other and looking at her and looking back to each other.  We kept passing the baby back and forth to hold her and saying, “Oh my gosh, we are really parents!  We are a family!  We have a baby!  Oh my gosh, NOW what do we do???”  Just that feeling of holding her, feeling her little finger wrap around my finger, her eyes gazing soulfully into my eyes and then smiling was priceless.  It was in that moment, holding her for the first time, looking into her eyes, feeling pure love that I knew it didn’t matter how I became a mom, all that mattered was that I finally was a mom and it felt so right.

Thank you so much for sharing, Jen–it has been an Education and an Inspiration!

The #1 Parenting Mistake We All Make (But Don’t Have To!)!

As a parent and a behavioral psychologist, I often find myself applying my training in my daily life. Naturally, though, I also regularly find myself forgetting my training as well in my moment-to-moment interactions with my three children.

Our children are all teenagers now, which presents a stage of parenting unique from when they were younger in many ways. In other ways, though, there are universal parenting strategies that can extend from infancy, into toddlerhood, childhood, and adolescence. I just tend, in the maelstrom of hormonal flux that is my family, to forget these universal truths.

To terribly paraphrase Ms. J. Austen, I can definitely say that it is a truth often universally ignored that “It gets worse before it gets better.”

Parenting 1

This is a very common parenting mistake we all make, often out of concern that our actions are making our child’s behavior worse, when really it is simply a principle of human behavior.  What I’m describing, in technical terms, is an Extinction Burst.

Extinction Bursts by definition are an increase in a previously reinforced behavior after reinforcement of that behavior has ceased (or become extinguished).  What this means in everyday parenting life is that, when you realize that you’ve been mistakenly rewarding inappropriate behavior in your child (e.g., giving more attention to your child after they do poorly on a test or giving your child a sweet treat to calm them out of a tantrum), and you decide to stop providing that reinforcement, your child is going to naturally escalate their inappropriate behavior in the hopes of getting that reward to come back, before eventually decreasing the behavior.

It looks something like this:

Extinction Burst
From Blueskyparent.blogspot.com

When you remove the reward of giving your child cookies after a tantrum, your child’s tantrumming behavior is likely to significantly increase in frequency or intensity (or both) because of the past history of being reinforced with cookies for tantrummimg. It’s going to take them a little bit of time to realize that:

Oh, hang on. No matter how big my tantrum is, my parents aren’t going to give me cookies.

And that’s when you start to see the tantrumming behavior decrease substantially.

Often times, though, this burst of inappropriate behavior makes parents (including myself) think that we are doing something wrong–that our attempt to shape our child’s behavior into more appropriate responses is going awry.  And then we do something that only makes things worse.  We go back to giving the same reinforcement we just stopped a few hours or days ago, and this time we give the reward when our child is acting even worse than before!

As a result, not only have we failed to end the inappropriate behavior in our child, we’ve also managed to reward even worse behavior!

But falling prey to extinction bursts need not be our parenting destiny!  We just need to pull ourselves together and, in the face of our child acting worse after we’ve removed that reward, repeat calmly:

It gets worse before it gets better.  It gets worse before it gets better.

So, you’ve noticed that you tend to give your child a lot of attention, through heartfelt discussions about respect and communication that take way too long when he or she offers snarky remarks when requested to do chores (ahem, guilty as charged!), and you’ve decided to ignore the snarky comments (i.e., put them on extinction).  Get ready, then, for even more of an onslaught of eye rolls and dramatic huffing.  Stay your course, dear maternal and paternal leaders.  I promise, in a few days time, they will do their chores without the attitude. And when they do, that’s when you can have heartfelt discussions about how their actions are helping the family significantly!

Or perhaps you’ve realized that, whereas your children earning excellent grades are offered praise and encouragement, your child who refuses to study for Spanish quizzes seems to be eating up a lot of the dinner table conversation with comments the likes of “I’m not going to study for my Spanish test–a C+ is a perfectly good grade” to which you respond with rejoinders about future job opportunities, wasted potential, and appointments to sit down and work together on that academic attitude. Don’t be surprised when you decide extinguish this reward and, after calmly listening to that comment about a C- on that last quiz, your child proceeds to wax poetic about the wasted hours spent in academic training that could be superimposed with MineCraft exploration.  Trust yourself here. Keep it up, breathe deep.  Eventually, you’ll start to hear more about the A- and or B+ on that last quiz, and smiles will be had all around (and you can put that antacid back in the medicine cabinet).

Let it be a mantra for all of us struggling to raise good future citizens of the world:

It gets worse before it gets better.

And if you can hang out and trust yourself while it gets worse, you and your family will absolutely enjoy ‘the better’ together!