Laura R. Brooks, LCSW-C

Director of the Research Committee

The Adoptive Family Study

The Adoptive Family Study, beginning in 2005, is a longitudinal qualitative study of adoptive families that addresses the question of why children in the same family turn out so differently. Long-term case studies of two families with both adopted and birth children provide an in-depth view of the impact of two concepts in Bowen theory, family projection process and intergenerational emotional cutoff, on outcome.

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.

Annual interviews with eight adoptive families have documented the facts of functioning of at least three generations of the family. In the first long-term case study, three patterns of family projection were identified in the transcribed interviews: mutual sensitivity, overfunctioning/underfunctioning reciprocity, and difficulty seeing self and the other objectively. More recently, a second long-term case study has focused on how intergenerational emotional cutoff between the parents and their parents contributes to family projection in the nuclear family. Patterns of cutoff were identified as unresolved emotional attachment between the mother and her parents, reciprocal interactions, and limited contact.

To date, the data suggest that the level of cut-off and family projection in adoptive family relationships affects each child differently. While the relationship process is fluid, however, 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. Intergenerational emotional cutoff appears to contribute to the intensity of family projection. Future directions for the Adoptive Family Study include ongoing observation of multigenerational family variables that affect the nuclear family.