Laura R. Brooks, LCSW-C

Director of the Research Committee

The Adoptive Family Study

Existing research on adopted children and their families explores how specific characteristics of the child and the parents vary in their impact on the life adjustment on different children in the same family. While existing research focuses on the individual and internal processes that drive functioning, it overlooks the larger context of the family as an emotional system, a self-regulating unit that affects individual functioning.

The Adoptive Family Study considers the family as an emotional unit. It applies a family systems perspective to identify relationship processes that contribute to with-in family variability in the life adjustment of the adopted child. Since 2005, annual interviews with eight adoptive families have documented the facts of functioning of at least three generations of the family. Four basic patterns of functional interdependence were identified in the transcribed interviews: shared sensitivity, over-functioning/underfunctioning reciprocity, inconsistent functioning in different relationship contexts, and difficulty seeing self and the other objectively. These reciprocal relationship patterns reflect an underlying emotional process in the nuclear family.

One focus of the study is the difference in each child’s functional position in the parental triangle in the nuclear family. A second is how anxiety, both chronic and acute, and the multigenerational family influence the nuclear family. The qualitative prospective design of the Study allows for observations of the fluidity of family relationships as well as the predictability of relationship patterns. The longitudinal design allows for observations of the family unit’s response to varying degrees of stress and anxiety over time.

To date, the data suggest that the level of functional interdependence in adoptive family relationships affects each child differently. While the relationship process is fluid, each parental triangle appears to operate in characteristic ways. Those children who are more the focus of the family projection process are more vulnerable to symptoms, especially when anxiety in the system increases. Future directions for the Adoptive Family Study include ongoing observation of multigenerational family variables that affect within-family parental triangles as well as the functioning of individuals in the nuclear family system.