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What type of grandparent you are to your adoptee's children matters: be supportive & attuned

Dr Jenny Conrick Adoption Effects on Relationships and Parenthood - Youtube Recording

Dr Jenny Conrick is a Social Worker and Doctor of Philosophy, Melbourne University associate and educator, with a background in government and health sectors, adoption, out of home care and trauma. Dr Conrick has been exploring the lifelong impacts of adoption on adult adoptees. In particular, adoptees as parents, and the impacts of trauma, post natal depression, attachment and life transitions. She has uncovered some important areas that matter to adoptees, such as preserving the family they create and avoiding any secrecy. Similarly she has uncovered some important needs to support in adoption support services, from providing an opportunity for adoptees to speak about their adoption to validating and unravelling their experience and having specialised antenatal support. And if you are a grandparent to your adoptees children, her research highlights the importance of stepping up and being interested and attuned. It matters more than you may think so get involved and show your interest!

00:00 - Start 01:08 - Introducing Dr Jenny Conrick 02:55 - This research study into local Victorian adoptees becoming mothers received a great response, highlighting the importance of adoptees sharing their stories 06:21 - No matter how good their adoption experience, counselling was sought and most felt they weren't attuned to their adopted families 09:23 - Revelations from the study: They viewed being a mother through the filter of their adoption experience. 10:55 - They experienced a loss and grief that was unexpected and overwhelming. 14:15 - They would do anything to protect and preserve the family they created, meaning spousal relationships were important, even when divorced. 15:15 - They identified as victims of secrecy and didn't want secrecy within their family. 16:38 - They learnt to be a mother, not from their adopted mothers, but from the partners and other people in their lives. 17:46 - Being a mother further impacted their relationship with their adopted parents. The more distant grandparents caused a distance between the adopted person and their adopted parents. 19:25 - Being a mother reactivated a search for birth members and or knowledge. 23:20 - The emotional wellbeing of the mothers was impacted, and their sense of identity, and several experienced anxiety or depression. 26:15 - Early separation has wide reaching impacts with support needed for professionals to understand adoption impacts and for adopted children becoming parents to have antenatal support. Adoption impacts across the whole lifespan - a status that remains. It involves consideration of attachment and neurobiology too. 29:30 - Relevant theories: Jack Schonkof, Bruce Perry, Bessel Van De Kolk, Hal Grotevant, Amanda Baden, Mriam Steele, Arietta Slade, Peter Fonagy, 32:48 - ABC and Theraplay 33:54 Future Directions

Dr Jenny Conrick Adoption Effects on Relationships and Parenthood - Transcript

This is Sonia Wagner, representing PCA Families in one of our recordings that capture lived experience and best practice research-based learning that assist kinship, permanent and adoptive parents/carers in supporting young people. PCA Families has a zero tolerance of child abuse. I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay respect to elders past and present and express our intention to move together to a place of justice and partnership.

Today we are discussing adoption and the impacts of parenthood on adoptees with Dr Jenny Conrick.

Dr Jenny Conrick is a Social Worker and Doctor of Philosophy who has been associated with the Social Work Department at the University of Melbourne for over 7 years. She has 30 years practice as a Social Work clinician, manager and educator in the government and health sectors, providing services to those with an adoption, out of home care and trauma experience.

Dr Conrick has been exploring the lifelong impacts of adoption on adult adoptees. In particular, adoptees as parents, and the impacts of trauma, post-natal depression, attachment and life transitions.  Welcome Dr Conrick. 

01:08 I would love to know more about you and how you came to be involved in these areas of social work?

Thank you, Sonia, for the opportunity to speak with you today.

My interest in adoption began in childhood with a family friend who had 2 adopted children; and throughout my practice as a Social Worker in the Child and Family Welfare area, I have often met clients who have an adoption experience. When I worked for the Adoption Information Service, part of DHHS (now DFFH), I was struck by the issues that those I met struggled with as adults, and I searched the literature to see what it had to say about working clinically with adult adopted people.  At that stage I found very little information, and there seemed to be a view at that time, that being adopted was no different to being raised in a family to which you were born. The issues that adopted people spoke about negotiating throughout their lives, were not recognised, and although there were and are thousands of people placed for adoption in the Australian community, little was understood about their experiences as they move through life.

Subsequently I worked with VANISH as a counsellor; I have been providing education for prospective Intercountry Adoption parents; and more recently offered consultations to the Relationship Matters intercountry counselling service. I currently teach at the University of Melbourne and have a small clinical practice, mostly with people who have an adoption or out of home care experience.

2:55 You have recently released a study where you researched women adoptees that became mothers. You identified some significant revelations.  Can you tell us a little more about the study: who was included and your findings?

Yeah. So, my Ph.D.  focused on adopted women and their experiences as a mother. The study was initially advertised in a magazine called Melbourne’s Child (a free magazine distributed each month to health, education and recreational locations within Victoria) and then through word of mouth. I had about 45 responses and 21 fulfilled the study selection criteria, which were that their adoption took place in Victoria and they still had children living at home. Of the 21 women included in the study- 18 were interviewed and 5 were part of a focus group that evaluated my interpretations of the findings. I decided to locate the study solely within Victoria as each State has its own adoption legislation, processes and histories, that can impact differently on each individual and their experiences.

The average age of the participating women was around 44 years, and the average age of their children was 12 years; so, they were experienced mothers who were able to reflect on being a mother over years of parenting. The average length of their marriages/ partnerships was 19 years and 3 had separated from their partners. 18 had completed tertiary study (10-university; 8- vocational training) and interestingly 75% held professional occupations in community services, health & education areas. Two were in business and 1 was focused on raising her children and caring for her adoptive parents.

6:21 It was significant to note that each of the 21 women had learned that their early weeks of life (up to 3 months in fact for 2 women) were spent in more than one pre-adoptive setting such as a hospital nursery, or baby’s home, with only 2 women having been additionally placed in pre-adoptive foster care- so they had unsettled beginnings. And from what we now know about the impacts of stress on the developing architecture of an infants brain, we can wonder about the impacts of these early experiences for the adoptee, and their subsequent need for a particular understanding by their new parent/caregivers, about how they learn to trust, to regulate their physical and emotional responses, their attention, and their behaviour.

When the women in the study reflected on growing up in their adoptive families, a spectrum of experience emerged: 9 women said they had had very good adoptive family experiences; 3 said they had had a good upbring, but with challenges, such as the death of an adoptive parent, or a parent with mental health issues; 6 women said they felt they had never quite fitted with their adoptive family and/or had never felt they had been understood by their adoptive parents; and 3 women recounted experiences of abuse of one kind or another, including sexual abuse.

18 women had known of their adoption status since infancy; 1 had learned about this as a primary school aged child; and 2 women were late discovering of their adoption status. The openness and freedom to discussion being adopted, had also varied, with those who had a more open experience commenting that this had been positive for them.

9:23 The main finding from the study was that all but one woman consciously viewed being a mother through the filter of their adoption experiences. The participant who felt a little differently was in the midst of parenting young children and caring for her adoptive parents and said she could not afford to reflect too much on her adoption as she feared it might open a can of worms. She did however state that she had no knowledge of any medical conditions that might be inherited by her children, and at times felt this was something she would like to find out about.

10:55 Having children and raising them, for this group of women, awakened a profound sense of grief and abandonment, which by and large caught them by surprise. What they once may have accepted in some measure now held a new, visceral meaning. Birthing and holding their infant children led them to wonder who had held them when they were that age; who had thought about them and who had considered what they needed? These thoughts and emotions also led them to consider the losses experienced by their birth and adoptive mothers- to ask what was `it like for my natural mother to have been separated from me; and what was it like for my adoptive mother who has perhaps never been through this birth experience. So they wrestled with many conflicting emotions and 3 women described falling into a depression after the birth of children. The women also spoke about this sense of loss re-emerging at varying points, as their children grew.

For all but one woman, their own children were the first biological relatives with whom they had a close relationship. They spoke about how incredible it was to be with someone and be able to touch someone who was like them in some way. Nine of the women reported that they were afraid to be separated from their infants and one described how she had spent the first 6 months with one foot in the cot- almost superglued to her child. There was of course a continuum of experience and another participant said that while she loved her children, she couldn’t allow herself to be in love with them, for the first two years of their lives- she was anxious that there might be a separation, and this was of course very challenging for her.

14:15 Another thing the participants in the study spoke about, was their strength of commitment to the family they had created, to their children and to being the best mother they could be. Where participants were separated from their children’s father, they made a huge effort to make sure their children kept a connection to him. They felt it important that their children knew where they came from, unlike themselves, who had lost information about their own biological family, extended family history, medical history all of those things that inform who you are.

15:15 The women in the study placed a high value on openness and honesty in their relationship with their children and partners and believed that the lack of information and discussion and/or secrecy about their adoption in their formative years, played a significant role in holding these values. They also felt it was important that their children were not victims to their experience, but rather empowered by it.

Several women saw their own family as an opportunity to repair the past, and to give to their children what they had not had. However, for 4 participants being a mother did not completely fill a personal void. One person commented that she thought that having children would fill that need, but it actually hasn’t…it hasn’t filled that void that’s in my life – and this was another sadness for her.

16:38 I asked the participants where they had learned to be a mother. While two women spoke about learning to be a mother from their adoptive parents, by and large, their primary model (particularly by those who had received poorer parenting from their adoptive family) came from other sources such as partners, friends, mothers in law and even Maternal Child Health Nurses and the Australian Nursing Mothers Association.

Partners’ as ‘good fathers’ were significantly valued by each woman.

17:46 Having children also impacted on the relationships of the participating women with their adoptive parents. Relationships strengthened if their adoptive parents supported them following the birth of their children. How adoptive parents responded to their grandchildren and took on a grandparent role was significant. Five participants spoke about having come to see their adoptive parents and particularly their adoptive mothers in a more positive light after having children because of the support they provided; several felt disappointed in their response as grandparents, and one felt that the birth of her own children exacerbated the difficulties for her adoptive mother.

19:25 Being a parent reactivated an awareness of the gaps in the participants knowledge about their own origins. It freshened a desire to either get more information or to commence or recommence a search for birth family members, for themselves as well as for their children. At the time of interview, twenty women had obtained their adoption records and/or searched. Twelve had experienced at least one contact with their birth family and nine had maintained some form of ongoing contact with them. Four women had not met any member of their birth family and a fourth participant had had letter contact only. Internal conflict was experienced at times because of their sense of loyalty to their adoptive parents; several women did not tell their adoptive parents of their search or contact, and others waited to search until after the deaths of their adoptive parents.

Also, the type of contact varied as did the satisfaction with the relationships. Expectations could vary between the participants and their birth family members about the type of relationship they might have (the frequency of contact; what they called each other; how they would be introduced to others  etc); there could be misunderstanding and hurt about things that were said and the way they we said; silences between contacts could be misinterpreted and the participants needed to reconcile their biological connection to their birth family, while having little or no shared history; and having a shared history but no biological connection to their adoptive family. For those who experienced unsuccessful searches or reunions or where contact broke down, a further sense of rejection was experienced for themselves as well as a sense of loss for their children. How adoptive parents responded to their daughter’s search and contact experiences with birth family had an impact on the strength of their relationship. Negotiating these complexities and the multiple extended family relationships was an added layer of fatigue and demand for the participating women at the time of raising their own family.

23:20 All of the experiences mentioned, impacted on the emotional wellbeing of participants and resulted in several women experiencing depression or anxiety that they were concerned would impact their ability to be a parent and might influence their children’s emotional health.

Of significance was that all but one of the participating women, had sought counselling at some point in their life. Some for anxiety and depression, some following search and reunion, all for making further sense of their adoption experiences. Many had attended counselling services that had not had an understanding of adoption matters.

A final finding of the study related to the participants sense of identity. As well as the usual adjustments that come with being a parent, the women in the study also asked where do I fit, and belong. They reviewed and re-integrated in different ways, their adoptive family experiences and their birth family knowledge and experiences- their membership to two families of origins; combined with their family of procreation and the various extended family membership that accompanied this. They were aware of the changing social attitudes to adoption and changes to legislation and policies that impacted them, how they felt about themselves and how others might see them.

26:15 What does that mean for adoption support? What do you see as some recommendations or changes that we could consider in light of your research? What do we need to offer adoptees as they become parents, in response to what you have uncovered?

Where possible, support families to enable children to safely remain with their family of birth.

I think we need to understand the impact of early separation on infants and their birth family. And better support those who subsequently care for them (adoptive parents and or others) to understand that behaviour indicates a response to the past as well as the infants interpretation of the present.

We need to understand that separations such as adoption, do have lifelong consequences and impacts, and there needs to be appropriate, adequately funded service, available across the life span to support those with this experience. Professionals need training to deeply understand the impacts of adoption and other separations.

The women in my study wanted 5 things:

  • They wanted an opportunity to speak about their adoption and tell their story
  • They wanted validation of their experience.
  • They wanted the opportunity to unravel the impact of adoption for them.
  • And then to speak to someone who has an understanding of adoption matters.

They also recommended that there be information available during the antenatal period about how adoption might impact when adopted people have children.

29:30 When we last spoke you also mentioned a number of other theories that might be of value in understanding more about adoption matters, in light of your studies. I wonder if we could look at these briefly?

Sure. Taking a developmental perspective and understanding that adoption issues can be triggered at significant life transitions, is important. The work of Jack Schonkof, Bruce Perry and Bessel van de Kolk, around neurodevelopment and the impact of stress on brain architecture, attachment relationships and regulation, can help understand the needs of infants and children who experience separation. This has relevance for the adoption experience, even into adulthood.  Also, the importance of parents understanding their child’s feelings and intentions and how this impacts the parents’ interpretation of their own, and their child’ s behaviour. This flows into the idea that parents help the child to regulate their physical and behavioural responses to situations. I am thinking here of the work of Peter Fonagy, Miriam Steele and Arietta Slade around the implications of parental reflective functioning and adult attachment styles for parenting.

The work of Hal Grotevant is significant. He heads up the Minnesota longitudinal study in the US, following a cohort of adopted people from childhood across the life span. One of the things he notes is the importance of adoption openness in communication about adoption status, within the adoptive family. Responding to the child, giving them a sense that it is absolutely ok to ask about and explore anything. That adoption status is an absolutely fine thing to have. Beth Neil from the UK is also doing longitudinal work to understand impacts of adoption and foster care for all parties across the life span.

Amanda Baden from the US talks about micro aggressions that adopted people may feel throughout their lives. She is an intercountry adoption person herself. She defines micro aggressions as all those comments people make unintentionally that cause a sense of other in the person.  Some of the women in my research talked about those. They talked about comments like a new baby in the family. Comments like she looks like Grandma, or she looks like Auntie Joan. The adopted person knows the baby looks different. That just creates a little sense of distance and separation in the adopted parent. Understanding the challenges of reconciling multiple identities and understanding deep loss is essential.

32:48 You mentioned when we last spoke the work of Mary Dozier and her Attachment Biobehavioural Catchup (ABC) program?  Can we have a more detailed look at that and how it relates to Theraplay?

So, I guess I would see Theraplay as one of the available programs/ techniques/models of therapy, for assisting in strengthening the attachment relationship between parent and child. Dan Hugh’s PACE model (playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy) would be another example.  Mary Dozier’s ABC Catchup, focuses a little more on helping parents understand the meaning behind their child’s behaviour, and so address self-regulation, behaviour and attachment issues from this angle.  Each of the models are based on the theories previously mentioned.

33:54 Do you have any other thoughts or questions arising out of your research that are important to explore in the future?

In the future I would like to hear from men about their experiences of fatherhood and from the children of adoptees about their intergenerational experience. I think the reunion process, over time, is an area that needs further exploration.

I would like to the women who took part in my study, who shared their stories and taught me so much.


To anyone making the time to listen to this recording, thankyou for giving up your valuable time for the benefit of the young people in your life. Until next time have an amazing week.



Being adopted and being a mother by Jeanette Elizabeth Conrick

Mary Dozier ABC Intervention

Attachment and Biobehavioural Catch-Up Intervention

Research Report Supporting ABC

Peter Fonnicky Anna Freud Centre

Amanda Baden Micro-Aggressions National Centrer on Adoption and Permanency

David Brodzinsky The Psychology of Adoption

Beth Neil Supporting Parents of Adoption

Harold Grotvenat Adoption Research Minnesota