Why Mental Health Professionals Need Better Training Related to Adoption
Over the past few decades, more and more families have adopted children beyond the infancy years who have experienced multiple prenatal and/or post-natal life adversities and traumas that increase the risk for future psychological and academic maladjustment (e.g., genetic risk, prenatal exposure to alcohol/drugs, heightened levels of prenatal stress, neglect, abuse, orphanage life, exposure to parental psychopathology and domestic violence).
These adverse experiences are a primary reason that adopted children are significantly over-represented in both outpatient and inpatient mental health settings, with higher levels of externalizing, internalizing, and learning problems compared to their non-adopted peers. These adjustment difficulties pose considerable challenges for parents who often seek help from professionals to understand the nature of their children’s problems and more effective ways of managing them. Parents also seek guidance from professionals regarding managing normative adoption issues, such as: talking with their child about adoption, how and whether to share difficult background information with them, supporting their child’s curiosity about their origins, managing contact with birth family members, supporting their child’s adoptive identity, and, for some, supporting their child’s racial/ethnic identity.
Given the psychological risks associated with adoption, as well as the unique parenting challenges that are inherent to adoptive family life, it is understandable that adoptive parents seek and utilize mental health services at a rate higher than non-adoptive parents. Unfortunately, surveys of adoptive parents find that their experiences with mental health professionals are not always satisfactory. Too often they feel misunderstood by professionals, blamed for their child’s/family’s problems, and feel pathologized by the professionals. They also report that adoption issues are often not addressed in therapy and too often the focus of treatment is on the child, with little or no parental/family involvement.
In short, although adopted children are over-represented in mental health settings, their parents often find that mental health professionals are poorly prepared to understand, validate, and help them with the challenges they are facing – in other words, they are not adoption clinically competent. In the presentations to follow, we will examine the empirical case for adoption clinical competency and describe different pathways for achieving this goal, with a primary focus on the training being conducted by the Center for Adoption Support and Education, what we are learning from evaluations of the training about how practices are being changed, and what is yet to be learned. In lieu of a discussant, symposium participants will be invited to engage in a discussion of implications for policy, programming and research.