Adoptive Parents: At Risk or Resilient



This study advanced knowledge regarding the demographics of a nationally representative sample of adoptive parents and their use and level of satisfaction with adoption agency services, specifically that they are functioning well both psychologically and in their marital relationships and are satisfied with the adoption agency services that are being offered and used. It also examined the contributions of (a) psychological functioning at nine months postpartum, (b) infertility experiences, (c) tangible resources, and (d) the marital relationship in predicting the psychological health of adoptive parents at 27 months postpartum. Findings revealed that the psychological health of adoptive parents at nine months was the strongest predictor of depressive and anxiety symptoms at 27 months for both adoptive mothers and fathers, with tangible resources also contributing unique variance to the prediction of fathers’ depressive symptoms. Moreover, marital hostility was found to partially mediate the relationship between mothers’ depressive symptoms at nine months and 27 months postpartum.

Adoption affects the lives of thousands of Americans with 58% of Americans having a personal connection to adoption and over one third considering adoption at least somewhat seriously (Evan B. Donaldson Institute, 1997). Approximately 135,000 adoptions occur in the United States every year, and over 1.5 million adopted children live in this country (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 1997). Most of the research related to adoption focuses on children who were adopted; very few studies investigate the experiences and functioning of adoptive parents (Zamostny, O’Brien, Baden, & Wiley, 2003). An integrative review of published empirical research on adoptive families noted that, on average and with non-special needs adoptions, adoptive parents functioned as well as the biological parents with whom they were compared (O’Brien & Zamostny, 2003).

Given that adoptive parents often face social stigma and myriad challenges associated with creating families through adoption (Leon, 2002; Miall, 1987; Wegar, 2000), O’Brien and Zamostny proposed that adoptive parents may possess assets that enable them to function well in the face of adversity. This investigation advances knowledge regarding a sample of people rarely studied in psychological research (i.e., parents of infants adopted domestically) and their use of adoption services. Moreover, the factors related to psychological functioning among adoptive parents are assessed based on an indirect model of risk and resilience posed by Masten (2001). This work also addresses limitations associated with adoption research, specifically the focus on negative outcomes, the presence of salient methodological problems, and a lack of theoretical foundation.

Risks and Assets: Tangible Resources

Parents who have access to tangible resources including high income, educational attainment, financial comfort, and employment opportunities likely experience fewer stressors and have higher levels of parenting functioning than individuals without these benefits. Adoptive parents tend to be equipped with readily available tangible resources (Berry et al., 1996; Mosher & Bachrach, 1996; Stolley, 1993). Adoptive mothers and fathers often have graduated from college suggesting that they have been exposed to information and resources that may serve as an asset against adversity and stressors. The adoption process itself is costly, suggesting that adoptive families are financially stable. Financial resources allow for better quality of life as well as access to needed services, such as psychotherapy and health care. High incomes also suggest employment situations that could contribute to healthy psychological functioning.

Possible Mediator

One mediator was examined in this study, marital hostility. Studies examining resilience in marriages have identified flexibility, open communication, intimacy, cohesiveness and closeness to be salient predictors of strong, healthy marriages (Graham, 2000; Hawley & DeHaan, 1996; Patterson 2002). Resilient couples do not avoid crises but prepare for problems, seeing challenges as affecting the couple, not just the individual. They are able to manage expectations and offset pragmatism with optimism (Hawley & DeHaan, 1996). Santona and Zavattini (2005) suggested the importance of examining the marital relationship, particularly their interactions, as a means of understanding the transition of adoptive parents to parenthood. Marital hostility, in particular, has been associated with negative outcomes in marital functioning (Miller, Markides, Chiriboga, & Ray, 1995; Newton & Kiecolt-Glaser, 1995). Thus, because of the profound impact that marital hostility can have on marital functioning, marital hostility was examined as the mediator in the current study.

Outcome Variables

Controversy exists among researchers studying resilience regarding the operationalization of outcome variables (Masten, 2001). Some investigations focused on indices of external achievement while others assessed internal functioning (e.g., psychological health). In this study, internal indicators of resilience were examined. Specifically, the psychological health of each parent was assessed using measures of selfesteem, depressive symptoms and anxiety symptoms. Self esteem was used in this study as an indicator of psychological health. Self esteem has been found to be correlated negatively with high anxiety and anxiety-related problems, while correlated positively with indicators of healthy psychological functioning (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, & Schimel, 2004).

Issues regarding self esteem may arise among adoptive parents (Cudmore, 2005), as they confront and work through infertility and adoption stigma. Another indicator of psychological functioning used in this study was depressive symptoms. Depression is highly prevalent, affecting 1 in 5 females and 1 in 10 males at some point in their lives (Johnson & Flake, 2007). Due to a variety of challenging factors experienced by adoptive parents including adoption stigma and infertility (Vondra & Belsky, 1993), adoptive parents may experience symptoms of depression. Understanding depression among parents is important because of the potential effects of parental depression on child outcomes, such as behavioral, social-emotional, and cognitive problems (Johnson & Flake, 2007).

The presence of anxiety symptoms was the third indicator of psychological health in this study. Anxiety disorders affect around 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, representing approximately 18% of the population in any given year (Kessler, Chiu, Demler, & Walters, 2005). Johnson, Cohen, Kasen, Ehrensaft, and Crawford (2006) found associations between parental anxiety disorders and child rearing behavior, specifically, high parental possessiveness. These findings suggested that a parental personality disorder may be related to an increased likelihood of problematic parenting behaviors. Parenting in general may produce feelings of anxiety, but the adoption process may contribute additional stressors (Levy-Shiff, Goldshmidt, & Har- Even, 1991). The adoption process includes long, anxiety-producing periods of waiting and uncertainty. Adoption stigma also may create feelings of anxiety in adoptive parents.


To summarize, although many studies have assessed the functioning of adopted children, to date, few studies have investigated positive and negative outcomes among adoptive parents while addressing methodological limitations, and grounding the research in a theoretical framework. The first purpose of this study was to learn more about a sample of people rarely studied in psychological research, parents of infants adopted domestically. Specifically, we were interested in advancing knowledge regarding the demographics of a nationally representative sample of adoptive parents of non-special needs children, their psychological and marital functioning, experiences of the process of adoption, and use and satisfaction with services provided by adoptive agencies. A second purpose of the study was to ground the work in theory and identify the contributions of the risks and assets to psychological functioning. Finally, a third purpose investigated the degree to which marital hostility mediated the relationship between depressive symptoms and anxiety symptoms at nine months and 27 months, respectively, based on Masten’s (2001) model of risk and resilience.

Reference :

Schmidt, L., Holstein, B., & Christensen, U. (2005). Does infertility cause marital benefit? An epidemiological study of 2250 women and men in fertility treatment. Patient Education and Counseling, 59(3), 244-251.

Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (Eds.). (2000). Positive psychology [Special issue]. American Psychologist, 55(1).

Dissertation Done by Erica Shawn Merson, University of Maryland






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