Pat and Bonnie Pearson of Sunland know the statistics. But that doesn't mean they're afraid of using the "A-word" in front of their young son.
Statistics show that parenting an adopted child can result in mental health problems for everyone involved. They also suggest that a majority of parents are afraid of using the word adoption around their adopted children.
Once a week for the past three years, the Pearsons have met with adoption specialist Stephanie Siegel. Together, they air their concerns and prepare for the kinds of questions and feelings the Pearsons' son, Glenn, 4, will inevitably have as he gets older.
"Stephanie has helped us feel comfortable about the future," Bonnie Pearson said. "We're trying to deal with the issues now rather than handling it poorly later on."
Last spring, Siegel joined the LifePLUS Foundation's North Hollywood facility, where San Fernando Valley families involved in adoptive issues receive specific group counseling. Presently, about 100 people are receiving counseling, but the program is reaching many more, Siegel said.
"The statistics clearly show that between 20% and 30% of the people in mental hospitals or receiving outpatient mental care are adopted," said Siegel, who is also a licensed marriage, family and child counselor. "At LifePLUS, we're taking steps to change that."
Adoption issues are nothing new for Siegel. She and her husband have raised four children, three of whom were adopted. When her children were nearly grown, Siegel returned to school and earned a doctorate in clinical psychology and her counseling license. In 1981, she began a private practice in Van Nuys.
"It was obvious that many of the issues people were dealing with were really hidden adoption issues," said Siegel, who has coined the term "adoption specialist" after years of analysis and research in the field. "Because of my personal experience with adopted children, I began doing more research on the topic and seeing more and more people dealing with adoption in some way."
Siegel still operates her private practice but is now running several adoption support groups and inpatient therapy programs in conjunction with LifePLUS, a nonprofit mental health organization that deals with the issues of abandonment, rejection and separation.
Diane Ullman and her husband, who have three children, one of whom is adopted, drive from Manhattan Beach to meet weekly with Siegel. They agree that, since receiving counseling and becoming part of Siegel's adoption support group, they are more at ease about raising 4-year-old Bryce, who they adopted as an infant.
"In the beginning, I was really afraid of the day when Bryce might want to find his birth mother," Diane Ullman said. "I thought she'd somehow be better than me and that, by then, I'd be this old lady and his birth mother would be this beautiful, young, energetic thing, and Bryce wouldn't want me anymore."
Siegel said the Ullmans' anticipations are typical but that, in all but the rarest situations, adopted children who find their birth mothers do not run off with them never to be heard from again.
The Pearsons' concerns were different. They say they will not feel threatened if their son searches out his birth mother. Rather, they worry that, if she is not interested in him, he will suffer a far worse rejection than if he never looked for her in the first place.
Siegel's job, she believes, is to talk out these issues with the couples before their children are old enough to be interested in asking questions.
Adopted children often feel abandoned when they realize that their birth mother gave them up for adoption, Siegel said. This feeling may show up in young children, or it may be something that the adopted child harbors and doesn't deal with until later in life.
"They think to themselves, 'How could she have looked at me and given birth to me and not wanted me for her own?' " Siegel said.
Once they feel this way, the next stage is often rejection, because adopted children may feel that they weren't good enough for their birth mothers. In this way, they often internalize a feeling of blame involving their adoption.
Finally, it is common for adopted children to feel a separation or loss because they are not part of their biological family. There is no one at home who looks like them, acts like them or has any of their genetic traits. During this stage, adopted children tend to look at the faces of strangers, searching for someone who looks like them.
"It is perfectly normal for adopted children to go through these stages," Siegel said. "The problem arises when the issues aren't dealt with because the adoptive parents are afraid of adoption, or the 'A-word,' as we call it during group discussions."
Adopted children tend to be curious about pregnancy, and how they entered the world, between ages 3 and 5, Siegel said. The questions progress until finally, during adolescence, most adopted children are curious about where they can find their birth mothers.