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The China Earthquake Child Adoption

Stephen Myler

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This is the second paper is in response to the work being carried out in China by counsellors in the field. China on May 12th suffered its worse earthquake for 30 years measuring 8 on the Richter scale, causing at this time over 70,000 deaths and millions of people homeless and injured. In the aftermath of the earthquake people from all over China were concerned with the plight of the children left victims of tragic parental loss and death. Good hearted people rushed forward to offer adoption of these children to give them a new home and a new beginning. This paper is to explore the psychology of what to expect from a child who will have severe mental anguish for many months if not years and to make potential adopters aware of the pitfalls of rushing to quickly to adopt what may turn out to be a problem child with severe mental problems in the future.


Research into child adoption is well established particularly in the United States and Europe following disasters in other areas and the long-term study of the effects of psychological harm seen to manifest in children over the short and long term. As far back as 1937 David Levy in the USA began the first study into how children are affected by adoption into a stranger's family, in a new environment and the absence of the biological mother. Levy saw the distress in these children from an early age and the cumulative effect over the years to mental problems in adulthood. Since this pioneering research many other psychologists have followed suit and confirmed the harm of adoption when the compulsion to help over-rides the needs of the child.

The Effect of Adoption:

Jean MacLeod wrote in Adoptive Families Magazine, “The day to day life with a new child, who is scared and perhaps angry or rejecting, with little sleep can make even the most confident parent lose their composure" This then is the fundamental problem of removing the child from its environment, natural parents and friends to a strangers home (however welcoming) to begin a new life where all they knew and understood has been torn away from them in a moment of horror.

The children of the earthquake will suffer emotional problems brought on my sudden loss of their parents soon after birth, as small children and as middling to teenage years. Each child according to age and experience will deal with the loss in differing ways but often with similar reactions. The youngest will have not have had the chance for a bonding relationship with the biological mother, this often lies at the deep route of a child's later personality as physical and psychological aspects are merged in the child (Clothier 1943). Child development research by such eminent psychologists such as Bowlby (1960's) clearly show the affect of sudden loss, separation anxiety and developmental damage to a child's psyche in the future and how they can easily become dysfunctional adults later in life. Even with the best-substitute mother in the world the subtle effects of interactionism at an early stage of development cannot be made-up for in kindness and patience by an adoptive parent. Older children from two years to ten know they have a personal loss; they cannot however evaluate the process of grief with the reality of the situation. Disbelief as in any grief process is the first reaction and they angrily reject any attempt to re-parent them to another family. In China because of the one-baby-policy this has an even worse affect as no older sibling as available for secondary bonding and sharing of the grief process for them. For the teenagers it can be even worse - they have the cognitive ability to understand the loss, but they are too young to fend for themselves and are treated as younger than they really are by well-meaning helpers. They often feel their needs are ignored and the feeling for self-determination is not taken into account as the authorities determine their fate for the next five to ten years.

What can new Foster Parents Expect?

The emotional problems will manifest in many ways but some are more common to most age groups, such as, fear of close relationships, low self esteem, and anger, immaturity that produces problems such as, lying, oppositional behaviour, school underachievement, quick temper, frustration and depression. (Katz M. )

Fear of Close Relationships:

You are young, your parents have died in an earthquake, and it was sudden, horrific and unexpected. You are now alone, strangers are feeding you, sheltering you, you can here counsellors talking but do not understand the words. Your personal belongings, the things you cherished are gone. Soon you are told a nice couple are going to look after you? You are confused, who are these strangers what do they want me for? The first thing most children learn is to trust or mistrust adults, in this the child's reactions to situations can often be the foundation of decisions. In the child's mind their parents have been taken away, lost forever, no chance for goodbye or a last kiss, hug or smile. This can happen again the child surmises and in this moment decides that getting close to someone hurts terribly, so the only solution is to keep your distance both physically and mentally. The new parents cannot understand why the child hates them, rejects their kindness, and does not communicate with them, soon the new parents feel guilty, they want to give the child back; they feel it is ungrateful for this new chance, this new beginning. The new parents start to reject the child and so the child sees this rejection as confirming its new belief that to be close is dangerous. In the child's mind safety lies in self-reliance without the need for adult care.

Low Self-Esteem:

All ages of children will feel the sudden loss as somehow a punishment to them for something they did not do or think about prior to the earthquake. To an adult this is irrational thinking but to a child it makes sense. They (the child) must have done something wrong to be punished in such a terrible way. Feelings of worthlessness abound as the child develops. New parents talk of future expectations, how they are going to help the child become something, but to the child this pressure to please the new parents is hard work when they have not even had time to grieve for their own loss. This thinking leads to the “Chosen Child" complex where the child feels they are special to the new parents and so must make every effort to show their gratitude for being adopted. However for the child trying to live up to these expectations can lead to feelings of failure, lack of self-worth and depression. They cannot become the “Perfect Child" for them and become emotionally drained. As the child grows they see the physical differences between them and their adoptive parents, this further highlights their strangeness and feelings of being misplaced in the family and the world.


The child in anger is manifesting their frustration with the new situation, they cannot relax, they feel no familiar comfort in the home, the talk of friends and other family are not understood, they feel it is hard to ask for things without feeling awkward. Eventually their emotions boil over and they break. The anger is sudden and violent, often for smaller children breaking objects or destroying new toys as a way of expressing their grief and feelings of being lost in this new world.


Even the older children will developmentally go backward in some aspects of their behaviour. Lying is very common, some is to please the new parent, saying they are happy (when clearly they are not) saying thank you more that normal (as an appeasement to the new parents) denying breakages or stealing money (to prepare for another loss - money is useful to save). Oppositional behaviour manifest in the need for self-reliance, the rejection of help by the new parent, the lack of a suitable role model that looks, thinks and acts as they do can all lead to emotional problems such as school underachievement and violence to other children.

The New Parents:

For the adoptive parents this time can be particularly difficult, they thought they were doing a noble thing, a good deed for society in taking in this child who had such a tragic start to their young lives. However as time passes and they experience all the emotional turmoil of the child's problem behaviour they become frustrated, angry, physically violent to the child in some cases and abusive both verbally and emotionally. The little dream child has turned into a nightmare of sleepless nights and constant battles for control. As there is no natural bonding the parents feel that the child in merely a visitor they look after until such time as it no longer needs them. As the child grows it looks like the biological parent and often the adoptive parents feels that the problems over the years are the fault of the dead parents and blame them for not teaching the child proper behaviour when they were alive. Even the most patient new parent will have a test of wills on many occasions with the child causing resentment and rejection.

The Genes Question:

There is no doubt that genes play a part in the physical aspects of a child's looks and growth. However this should not be confused with social development, that takes place within first the family, later peers and significant others. As the child grows they can see they are not like the other members of the family in looks and physical attraction. This may cause two psychological consequences, first a feeling of not belonging, the idea of the outsider and second the feeling of being mentally different. This is not strictly true but merely a need for self-recognition. This often leads to the older child asking questions about where they come from, who were their real parents, what happened to them, why did they leave me with you, am I bad person then, how can I find them? This is a time of great difficulty for the new parents as they have to face the prospect of a late rejection after maybe years if coping with their problem child.

The Second Rejection:

Many new parents will not be able to cope with the problem child and come to the decision to give the child back to the adoption agencies to re-assign to other parents. This is particularly true of child-less couples who take the opportunity to have a child from the earthquake as a substitute to not having one of their own. Others cannot cope with the loss of face. They told the neighbours they are going to adopt a child from the earthquake as a badge of honour. Later they have to hide the problem child from those same neighbours who now witness much of the behaviour described above. Those who do cope for a few years can still send the child away to boarding school as a way of some respite for themselves but the child sees this as yet another loss of trust. Some that develop severe mental problems can be hidden away or sent to psychiatric hospitals, many never to return. To the growing child this maybe the last straw, in a long line of rejections and painful experiences, often leading to long-term psychiatric care and attempted suicides or drug dependency.

In Summery:

The Chinese earthquake like many other terrible disasters led to thousands of children parentless, homeless and grieving. Many kind-hearted people will rush forth to help, nurture and adopt these tragic children. However not all the new parents are fit for this task even with the best will in the world can many of them cope with an emotionally scared child who has psychological damage that will follow it for its lifetime? For many of the children they would be better to stay in the area they grew up in and make a new start surrounded by the familiar. Children of loss bond to each other much more solidly than to strange adults. Questions of trust, security and routine are far more important right now than well-meaning people who think, with money, care and comfort them can take the place of the biological parent in the short term or the long term. No solutions are perfect - but new parents should be aware of the responsibility they take on with that child of tragedy! In this paper I have looked at the negative aspects of adoption for a good reason and that is to warn, stop and get new potential adoptive parents to think first and act with compassion second. Of course many children of adoptive parents grow to appreciate their new home and loving, caring parents. However no new parent starts with the ideal child who rushes in and says mummy I love you five minutes after they arrive. Realism is called for in this tragedy to protect the interests of the child and its future as part of China's harmonious society.

End. . . . .


David M. Levy, (1937) American Journal of Psychiatry - 94, Primary Affect Hunger.
F. Clothier MD, (1943) Psychology of the Adopted Child
N. N. Verrier (1993) Primal Wound
Bowlby J (1965) Loss / Separation Anxiety

Dr. Stephen Myler is from Leicester in England, an industrial town in the Midlands of the United Kingdom. He holds a B. Sc (Honours) in Psychology from the UK's Open University the largest in the UK; he also has an M. Sc and Ph. D in Psychology from Knightsbridge University in Denmark. In addition to this Stephen holds many diplomas and awards in a variety of academic areas including journalism, finance, teaching and advanced therapy for mental health. Stephen has as a Professor of Psychology many years teaching experience in colleges and universities in England and China to post 16 young adults, instructing in psychology, sociology, English, marketing and business. He has been fortunate to travel extensively from Australia to Africa to the United Sates, South America, Borneo, most of Europe and Russia. Stephen's favourite hobby is the study of primates and likes to play badminton. He believes that students who enjoy classes with humour and enthusiasm from the teacher always come back eager to learn more.


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