This article was downloaded by: [University of Newcastle, Australia] On: 02 January 2015, At: 17:21 Publisher: Routledge Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

Journal of Child & Adolescent Mental Health Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:

Adoption, fostering and identity Wanda Grosso & Gianni Nagliero Published online: 12 Nov 2009.

To cite this article: Wanda Grosso & Gianni Nagliero (2004) Adoption, fostering and identity, Journal of Child & Adolescent Mental Health, 16:1, 45-48, DOI: 10.2989/17280580409486563 To link to this article:

PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLE Taylor & Francis makes every effort to ensure the accuracy of all the information (the “Content”) contained in the publications on our platform. However, Taylor & Francis, our agents, and our licensors make no representations or warranties whatsoever as to the accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose of the Content. Any opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions and views of the authors, and are not the views of or endorsed by Taylor & Francis. The accuracy of the Content should not be relied upon and should be independently verified with primary sources of information. Taylor and Francis shall not be liable for any losses, actions, claims, proceedings, demands, costs, expenses, damages, and other liabilities whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection with, in relation to or arising out of the use of the Content. This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Any substantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing, systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden. Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at http://

Journal of Child and Adolescent Mental Health 2004, 16(1): 45–48 Printed in South Africa — All rights reserved

Copyright © NISC Pty Ltd


Clinical Perspectives

Adoption, fostering and identity Wanda Grosso1* and Gianni Nagliero2 Strada del casalino 27, Campagnano di Roma, 00063 Italy ‘Bambino Gesù’ Children Hospital — S. Onofrio 4 Rome, Italy, e-mail: [email protected] * Corresponding author, e-mail: [email protected]


Downloaded by [University of Newcastle, Australia] at 17:21 02 January 2015


The authors propose to look at how identity is formed in young adopted or foster-children. On the basis that the identity results from a relational process, two criteria will be considered as key elements for the individual’s sense of self: the necessity of belonging and the need for differentiation. In the case of adopted/foster children, this process acquires particular characteristics. The condition of non-biological filiation not only requires parents and children to employ different methods and time-frames as they construct a bond of secure attachment, but also asks parents to have a greater awareness of relationship. As an internal model for the psyche, the modulation between belonging and differentiation will shape the child’s identity. It presents itself to both adoptive and foster children and parents as a particularly delicate journey in relationships that often needs professional help so as to avoid another failed relationship.

Introduction In this paper we look at the way in which identity is formed in adoption and fostering relationships. How do infants, who have been separated from their original family and placed in another, deal with the process of becoming themselves? On an emotional and cognitive level what is expected of the new parents when they become non-biological parents or shared parents with others? However, before discussing the subject fully, we provide some information about the background theories on which we shall base this paper. Identity: Belonging and differentiation Speaking of identity means to take into consideration the concept of Self. Our intention is not to confront such a vastly complicated topic, the subject of deep discussion in areas of psychoanalysis and profound psychology, between theories where the Self is considered a theoretical datum and others which see it as a self representation. Here we shall adopt Stephen Mitchell’s hypotheses (1992) in which he proposes the integration of these different theoretical positions. We shall take identity to mean the process by which becoming oneself means being able to acquire and maintain a sense of self as a single, continual individual, even when experiencing many different self representations. In saying that, we would like to highlight the way in which the integration (Siegel 1999) of apparently contrasting aspects not only provides an interesting solution regarding the theory, but a developing task, which is the basis for personality formation. Therefore, we will take identity to mean a relational derivative involving the integration of two contrasting aspects:

belonging and differentiation. To become oneself involves both the necessity to belong, to be the same, to be identical — the word clearly refers to identity — and the need for differentiation, to be a unique individual. Mental well-being may then depend on how well these two needs are integrated. The need to feel a part of something, to be the same as, to belong to…, is the secure base from which the process of becoming different and independent develops. The experience of unity and closeness on one side and, at the same time, the perception of differentiation, of being separate, of physical and mental discontinuity, is part of being human from the beginning of biological life. Indeed, this refers to the psycho- biological relationship experienced between mother and foetus. This relationship interests us because it may represent a model between the biological and the mental, which prefigures the quality of successive human relationships. As we have already mentioned, the ability to extricate oneself from the necessity of belonging and the need for differentiation or, in other words, from dependence and independence, is evidence of an individual’s mental stability and the quality of his affective relationships. It is also proof of the possibility of experiencing close and loving relationships without the feeling of being enclosed and imprisoned and the possibility of distinction, of being different without the fear of being isolated and abandoned. Identity in adoption and fostering How does identity process take place in adopted and fostered children? What is the adoptive and foster parents’ role, given the importance of the relationship on the formation of identity?

Downloaded by [University of Newcastle, Australia] at 17:21 02 January 2015


The contrast between belonging and differentiation is more complicated in families with non-biological children: the condition of being natural parents takes a part of this contrast-integration for granted. In fact a part of belonging and differentiation is based on biological data: the sharing of genetic background and the experience of pregnancy. These alone are situations which, biologically and psychologically, provide both elements of community, similarity, continuity and distinction, discontinuity, diversity. Indeed, although genetic make-up lays the foundation for continuity, participation, and similarities between parents and offspring, it is also true that the genetic make-up of a child is an absolutely unique and individual combination, therefore different from the parents’. It is not the clone of a being which is the same as another, but the result of a union, which is similar but different. The same thing happens during the relationship between mother and foetus. There is a condition of extreme closeness, of continuity between one organism and another, but it is not a union — the two distinct organisms exist in close proximity. Mother and foetus do not share organs or humours, the separateness of one from the other is precisely defined and allows for extreme closeness. Regarding this, we would like to touch upon the function of the placenta. Made up of cells from both mother and foetus the placenta is, however, the only organ they have in common (Nathanielsz 1992). Therefore, the placenta is the result of the coming together of two beings and its job is both to unite and to separate. The placenta could be considered a prototype of the relationship, one that prefigures a model upon which a relationship is formed: • both partners actively participate, • there is extreme proximity/closeness, but also a definite separation/separateness, • a triangular situation is prefigured: it is the placenta itself which is the third entity between mother and foetus. Natural parents are assured of a biological connection which allows them, without being aware of this, to recognise the child as their own, similar to them but not the same. In sufficiently good conditions this occurs without it becoming an issue over which to spend time thinking and it is on this basis of union and distinction that the bonding of secure attachment is created. With adopted and fostered children however, reciprocal recognition of similarity and diversity between parents and children is a process requiring both more awareness of relationship building and more consideration of what happens during the relationship. The formation of attachment requires time to get to know each other and the mental space to be able to work on this knowledge, before the process of recognition can begin. The relationship of non biological filiation begins with the child’s temporary or definite break up from former genetic-relation continuity. Since the bond of attachment which needs to be formed begins with a strong element of discontinuity, this highlights the aspect of diversity and ‘differentness’ of the child compared with his parents. The relationship must be built on distinction and diversity: ‘You are another person, you are not me, you are different from me’. It is upon this acceptance of initial lack of connection that it is possible to create a bond of attachment. Although adoption and fostering share some of these

Grosso and Nagliero

problems, some specific aspects need to be dealt with separately. Indeed, the juridical definition inevitably conditions the way in which belonging and distinction are connected. Belonging and differentiation in adoption Where adoption is concerned, the right to belong is juridically sanctioned, therefore parents and children may be tempted to accentuate this aspect in order to try to strengthen their relationship: ‘You are only my/our son, only I am your father/your mother’. These words may be used by adoptive parents to reassure their child and themselves of the bond that unites them and to try to forget, to not consider the distance and void which marks the beginning of their life together. Included in this topic is the idea and/or the practice of changing the child’s name once the adoption process is complete. The name is an important aspect of belonging, to bear the name ‘we’ have chosen establishes a clear reminder of being part of the same group. That the child bears a name given by someone else brings memories of distance, of an uncommon beginning. ‘It’s not really the name we would have chosen’, the mother and father say. The name is not suitable until the process of attachment is consolidated. At this point the initial not belonging is no longer a problem, it has been accepted as a fact, in the same way as the idea of ownership, which was behind the changing of the name, has been accepted. A name given by someone else reminded the parents of fears of not recognising the child as their own and of non being recognised by the child as his legal parents. The fear that not belonging may initially hinder bonding makes it easy to try to ignore its importance. The fears, emotions and fantasies connected to the former are relegated to a mental space from where it will then be difficult to retrieve and process them. They may return as ghosts or apparently unconnected acting. If parents and adoptive children collude in this accentuation of belonging to the detriment of differentiation, there is the risk of creating a blind area in the relationship about which it is no longer possible to speak; an area which cannot be shared, like a secret which cannot be told, but which conditions and separates because it cannot become part of the relationship. It is inevitable that children of three or four will want and need to talk about their adoptive condition, whether their parents are really their parents. It is an emotionally charged topic and the child would also like to simplify, to eliminate whatever it is that distinguishes him from other children. Having to comprehend that his life began somewhere else, with another mother/father of which little or nothing is known, but from whom he has been separated, emotionally throws a shadow of precariousness over the present, strengthening the anxiety of abandonment which is already naturally present. The child’s questions are formulated in such a way as to invite an answer which would apparently make everything much easier. As evidence of this sort of unaware and mutual trick, we will present a short clinical flash. During a session, a couple of adoptive parents say that their child of about three and a half, started some time ago to say that he has two mummies. Then one

Downloaded by [University of Newcastle, Australia] at 17:21 02 January 2015

Journal of Child and Adolescent Mental Health 2004, 16: 45–48

day out of the blue he said: ‘You are my mummy?’ The parents, caught off guard, quickly replied yes and changed the subject. Obviously the answer can only be affirmative, but it remains a partial answer which only works as reassurance but does not allow for further questioning on the subject. The part the child omitted from the question, which if expressed would explain what is on his mind in a better way, is the adjective ‘real’, before mummy. The question would then become: ‘Are you my real mummy?’ The conflict between the desire to know, to have everything in the right place and the opposite desire to not have to face the problems and the suffering connected to self-knowledge, is expressed in the question. While attempting to protect themselves and the child from the suffering caused by reconfronting the child’s feeling of abandonment and the parents’ inability to reproduce which marked the beginning of their relationship, parents and child may accept only part of their background, which will leave the missing part in an area in which it will be difficult to confront and share in the future. The reciprocal message is that there are things which cannot, and must not, be spoken about because they are too embarrassing and painful. The problem is, that this unapproachable part determines the child’s background, which must be considered during formation of the sense of self. We would like to propose another example regarding the difficulties of confronting a painful reality, which shows how a situation which on its own is clear, can become contradictory. One day, a lady telephoned for advice. She is a friend of a friend, therefore this is not in a clinical context. She said that she and her husband have a son of pre-school age and a teenage son born during her husband’s previous marriage who lives with them. Since his brother was born, this boy has stared to address the lady as mummy…To avoid highlighting the difference between their two sons the parents ignored this fact thinking that it was just a passing stage in which the boy was expressing his need to be assured of being part of the new family. However, as time went by, the boy reinforced this version by presenting himself as the son of Mrs…whenever the situation called for it. He denied existence of his mother and refused to see her. Now, the lady did not know how to approach the subject and what to do to come out of a situation which was becoming more and more ambiguous and embarrassing. This to us seems to be a limited situation, because the elements are clear and apparently less painful to face than situations in adoption. It is also a good example of the way in which the fear of confronting difference may lead to the point of accepting belonging, but at the same time create a problematic relationship which limits real closeness. Another inherent risk in the need to highlight belonging regards the fact that everything which has to do with difference and separation may be taken as a threat to the relationship. The child’s need to be different from his parents, which is part of the natural process of identity formation, may be made more difficult because the requests for independence may be seen as attacks on the relationship, break ups


which are no longer repairable in the way the first one was. Placed at the extreme edge of this situation, are those adoptions where the child’s adoption is kept a secret from him. If this is discovered later on, there is the risk that everything which has been built within the relationship will then be considered false, not whole. Everything regarding belonging may be put under suspicion because it is based on presupposition which denies the truth from its initial estrangement. In this way, the attempt to avoid difference as a risk to belonging becomes an element of discontinuity and rupture. It has been impossible to share the initial estrangement, to build feelings of belonging not from ignoring estrangement, but, on the contrary, from not belonging. Differentiation and belonging in fostering In the case of fostering, the child is required to take on a number of parental figures and to build up a different relationship which each one. When foster children are young, they easily become attached, both physically and emotionally, to the parents with whom they live. But to what extent does belonging to neither family influence identity formation? In what way does the presence of the biological parents influence differentiation? How much does this affect the child’s possibility of feeling part of something, of belonging somewhere? How can foster parents create a rapport with a son who is not their son? How can natural parents share parenthood with other parents? In the case of fostering, the parent-child relationship is deeply marked by diversity and discontinuity and this may cause difficulties in the formation of a close, loving relationship. ‘You are not mine, you belong to someone else and you will never be mine’. Not belonging is not perceived as an initial phase that needs time and energy to overcome, but rather as a wall which is difficult to climb over. Therefore, foster parents and children must continually face differentiation. This is particularly effected by two elements: • The presence of both sets of parents. • The temporary nature of fostering. Biological and foster parents In situations where the biological parents are present, the child and both sets of parents are expected to deal with a triangular relationship. In order to make the fostering process work, each person must find a place within the relationship which respects and allows for the circular nature of the exchange of rapport. Everyone must be able to accept both the role of protagonist and the role of spectator in the relationship. Therefore, if we consider the above, fostering further reinforces an oedipal situation. It is natural that the foster child who finds himself between his natural parents and foster parents will cause feelings of rivalry and competition to emerge between the two sets of parents. (‘Who is the best?’), will prompt attempts of alliance and exclusion, (‘Who is the favourite?’; ‘Who will be chosen?’) If the parents have not successfully overcome oedipal conflicts toward their own parents as a couple, the child’s sometimes provoking attempts to understand and define his own relationship with the two sets of parents and the rapport

Downloaded by [University of Newcastle, Australia] at 17:21 02 January 2015


between the parents themselves, may give rise to such intense, but unconscious feelings, as to cause acting. Indeed, when a parent, or a set of parents, feels excluded from closeness and can not tolerate the feeling of being out and undervalued, they may attack the shared relationship between the child and the other parent, or set of parents, by trying to stop it continuing, or they may pull out of the triangle altogether and compromise the whole fostering process. The foster parents, as the ‘sane’ part of this group of people, are burdened with the task of welcoming and recognising strong ambivalent feelings and emotions, both in themselves and in others. The foster parents are also asked to hold these feelings without feeling threatened in their own sense of self and to see the affective positive quality. The formation of attachment between foster parents and children, then, goes through testing situations not easy to understand and manage that can result in crises and the failure of the foster programme. We can witness these difficulties in the following clinical flashback. A set of parents have come for a consultation. They have three children of their own and have looked after two foster children for over a year. A month ago the girl, who is about ten, starting asking to leave the family and to go to a foster home. The foster parents have come for to ask for help in understanding what they and their daughter want to do, whether or not to continue with the fostering experience. During the consultations the parents talk about the girl’s behaviour. She particularly provokes her foster father and will not accept his authority. She often reminds him that she already has a father, so sees no reason why she should obey her foster father. Since the father spends a lot of time with his children he feels as if the girl’s attacks are a direct threat to his self image of good and competent father. These provocations are felt by both parents as attacks on the whole family. For this reason, when the girl expresses a wish to leave them they take this to be confirmation that she has difficulties integrating into the family and accept her proposed solution of going to the foster home. The foster parents cannot see that hidden behind the girl’s request to leave is an attempt to verify if, and to what extent, her foster parents are interested in her belonging to their family. The result which emerged after this hypothesis was that the father’s need to be reassured by his children that he was a good parent, was connected to childhood rivalry with his mother, whom he perceived as being uninterested and distant. Fostering and temporariness The other factor which stresses differentiation between foster parents and children is the temporary nature of fostering. The knowledge of the time limit, in other words foreseeing the end of the relationship from the beginning, may create a feeling of precariousness and instability which lessens the intensity of the relationship: why involve oneself in a rapport which is destined to break up anyway? For this reason, the relationship between foster parents and children can be defined by separation, by difference,

Grosso and Nagliero

and by not belonging. Again the message that the child receives is that he cannot completely belong to anything or anybody — not to his biological parents from whom he has been separated because they are unreliable or not good enough, nor to foster parents because the prefigured end makes it impossible to create a close and secure rapport. It is also confirmed that the only way to deal with the pain of loss is to avoid forming any kind of relationship. These children may really consider themselves as nobody’s children, children hanging in the air who will go through life never being able to remain in a deep and loving relationship. They may be able to get close, but never close enough to be able to trust the other person, or so close as to become confused with the other person. Foster care homes The difficulties in building a strong and secure attachment are more evident in foster care homes which temporarily host children who are awaiting long-term placing with an adoptive family, with a foster family, or with their own family. These homes are run by workers who are accustomed to welcome and leave children. Separation is a central theme in the life of foster care homes. When they came, children are suffering a separation from their natural parents and in a short time they will be separated from foster care homes. Separation anxieties and loss feelings are so present and difficult to manage that workers could be tempted to avoid creating a close relationship with the children in order to save them from suffering when the moment of separation comes. In such a way, the same workers who try to keep relations on a superficial level, protect themselves from becoming too attached to a child that ‘is not theirs’. As we have said up to now, it is important that the child experiences a stable and reliable relationship in which he feels ‘unique’ in order to balance the strength of feelings of not belonging. The person allowing the child to become attached to him, even in the knowledge that the affective relationship will have to end, will provide an experience of good, affective relationship the child will take with him through his affective life. This is what will help him create meaningful and lasting relationships and will teach him to tolerate the suffering and the risks of separation. In conclusion, we would like to highlight the importance of the relational experience of belonging and differentiation. The modulation between these two aspects then goes on to become the internal psyche model which moulds identity. This is a particularly delicate relational journey for adoptive and foster parents and children; one which often requires professional help in order to avoid further failed relationships. References Mitchell SA 1992 Contemporary perspectives on Self: Toward an integration. Psychoanalytic Dialogues 1–2, New York Nathanielsz PW 1992 Life Before Birth and A Time to Be Born. Promethean Press, Ithaca Siegel DJ 1999 The Developing Mind. The Guilford Press Inc., New York

Adoption, fostering and identity.

The authors propose to look at how identity is formed in young adopted or foster-children. On the basis that the identity results from a relational pr...
143KB Sizes 0 Downloads 8 Views