Monday, June 9, 2014

Three Types of Adoptive Parents

In the book Beneath the Mask: Understanding Adopted Teens, authors Debbie Riley, M.S., and John Meeks, M.D., discuss three categories of adoptive parents. The following is my paraphrasing of the categories.
The Three B's 
1) Blind: In this category are those adoptive parents who tend to minimize the impact of adoption on the adoptee and the family. These parents are apt to talk about adoption in exclusively positive terms and downplay differences between the adoptee and other family members. The adoptees in such families are not encouraged talk about adoption or the original family, and in fact may be actively discouraged from doing so. 
2) Blaming: The adoptive parents in this category tend to emphasize the impact of adoption on the family and typically blame the child for not fitting in. They are keenly aware of incompatibility and typically view it as a problem of flaws in the adoptee. 
3) Balanced: These are the parents who encourage open and honest discussion and are able to acknowledge differences without blaming the adoptee for them. Adoptees can talk about the original family or other adoption issues without damaging relationships in the adoptive family.
I find this a useful, if oversimplified, framework. Adoption and adoptive parenting are complex matters; no doubt there are adoptive parents who fit into more than one of these categories and others who fit into none. Nevertheless, I see aspects of my own experience in these three groupings. 

My own adoptive parents fit into the first category, for the most part. Like many other adoptive parents of the era (1960s), they were educated to believe that adoptedness would not be a significant factor in my life. They downplayed its significance, as they had been taught to do.They had been told that they should tell me early on that I was adopted and that as long as they did that, carefully explaining that I was loved and chosen, all would be well. I would be, for all intents and purposes, no different than as if I was born into the family. It was a well-intentioned approach that did not work well for me. Ignoring adoptedness didn't make it less of a factor; it simply meant that I had no safe space to process it. My adoption-related grief and identity confusion stayed underground until my mid-twenties, when it began to emerge in a series of small breakdowns (short of duration, but overwhelming emotionally). I've been processing ever since.

My parents were supportive of my search and reunion, but they remain largely "blind" to its significance in my life. When I tell my adoptive parents things about my relationship with my biological family members, they seem mildly but not especially interested. I never get the sense that they want more details; rather, I perceive them as wanting as few details as possible. I've also noticed that my adoptive mother has a tendency to forget things that I've shared about my relationship with my original family. I understand this as self-protective on her part, and I don't blame her, but it does not encourage openness and sharing on my part.

The "blaming" category of parents is one that, unfortunately, I have run into frequently both online and off. Blameful adoptive parents tend to talk a lot about the child's flaws and challenges, sometimes emphasizing a diagnosis, such as reactive attachment disorder, or speaking about the adoptee's original family in a way that implies that the child has inherited unappealing characteristics from the biological parents. I call this the "bad seed" mentality.

Fortunately, I have also encountered present-day adoptive parents who seem to best fit into the "balanced" category. I'm encouraged when I encounter such parents as I believe this approach is the one that is most likely to support the adoptee's well-being.

I don't believe that adoptive parents can completely shield adoptees from the challenges of adoptedness, but we can walk beside them and offer empathy. We can let them know, again and again, that whatever they are feeling is OK and normal.

"Balanced" is the category that my husband and I strive for as adoptive parents. We do a lot of listening, and we try to make connection and trust-building the guiding principle our relationship with our both of our children, one of whom was adopted from foster care and the other of whom was adopted by my husband in what is known as a step-parent adoption.

Do we always succeed? Are we always the parents we want to be? No, not at all. But I do think it helps us to have an intention and to come back to that intention again and again. You might even say that it is that intention that keeps us "balanced."

Image courtesy of gubgib /


  1. Hmmm, you may have prompted me to read another book. Margie bought me Beneath the Mask a few years back as a gift. I put it on the shelf - likely due to it being to difficult for me to try and contemplate - then - which kind of adoptive parent my daughter received and how that has impacted our (non)reunion. I suspect, from what she has told me, they are blind. Maybe now I can read it.

    1. I'm finding lots of good insight in the book. For me, it's one best digested in small bites, a little bit at a time. Maybe that approach would work for you, too.

  2. I have been in the involved in the world of adoption for well over four decades now, as a parent & professional, as a friend, coach and mentor to adoptees, to birth parents, and coaching people through rage and on their reunification journeys. I think this is a good article but do agree that the "three types of adoptive parents" is a big oversimplification. I have learned over my lifetime not to categorize people. Also people tend to shift back and forth over time in terms of attitudes and behaviors, based on what is happening in their lives and on their more recent trials and learning. I have worked with and have known literally thousands of adoptive families, adoptees and birth families. Agencies and adoption professionals sold many a bill of goods, and didn't, themselves, get the issues and implications. it is sadly true, but there have been many changes. The public needs to hear that for every vocal, embittered, regretful, unhappy, long-therapized adoptee, there is another who has had a positive experience, who feel good about themselves and their lives. There are plenty of transracial adoptees and same-race adoptees who grow up healthy and whole, who may have questions and need some answers, but who are not perpetually angry or lost people, who are able to forgive, sometimes reunite with birthparents, and love their adoptive families too. There are many transracial and other adoptees who are secure about who they are and their place in the world and who view their upbringings as a positive enabling them to transcend racial and cultural barriers, and not as an impediment that keeps them from belonging anywhere.

    1. I'm curious. Do you not view describing adoptees as "vocal, embittered, regretful, unhappy, [and] long-therapized" versus "adoptees who grow up healthy and whole," etc., as categorizing people? I'm also curious and surprised that you wrote this in response to this particular post, which was intended to imply that adoptees are more likely to thrive, in my opinion, in contexts in which they are permitted to express a range of emotions and thoughts about adoption, whatever they may be. If you took away from this that I was saying that all adoptees are miserable or irreparably harmed, please know that that was not my intention. I hold the adoptee experience as complex, multi-faceted, and shifting over time. I definitely agree with you that "people tend to shift back and forth over time in terms of attitudes and behaviors, based on what is happening in their lives and on their more recent trials and learning"!! Adoptees can pass through phases of grief and anger and even be "long therapied" (why is that a negative?) without necessarily being "embittered" or "perpetually angry"? Adoptees can be vocal about the challenges they've faced via adoption and vocal on a variety of issues, such as adoptee rights and adoption reform, and have successful reunions and love their adoptive families.

  3. I do think, however, that this book has a lot of good points and useful information!

  4. Obviously coach iris is not adopted. Vocal and therapied and sometimes angry adoptee here who is also happy and well adjusted. Those mystical happy adoptees who never had any issues may really exist but it's just as likely they are also in the fog and may not be as introspective as some others of us willing to question our plights.

  5. "Vocal and therapied and sometimes angry ... also happy and well adjusted." That fits for me, too! Thanks, Lynn.

  6. As a father who lost his eldest child to this infant adoption machine, I am in a cyclic sorrow. It is a sad business this adoption desire to take our kids from us and feel entitled to them.