Adopting a special needs child also presents strong demands on time and energy that "normal" families do not usually have to deal with. According to Cloud and Townshend (2001) "As a rule, children don't know what they are doing. They have little idea how to handle life so that it works right. That's why God gave them parents - to love them, give them structure and guide them into maturity" (p. 40). Special needs children often require additional nurturing, stricter discipline and setting of limits, and markedly more attention than traditional children. This can sometimes seem overwhelming for the parents, especially if this is there first experience raising a child. Even if there are other siblings, these extra demands can cause great amounts of stress for the entire family system. If the parents are spending too much time dealing with the needs of one child, then the other children may feel neglected and begin acting out just to gain their parents' attention. Then suddenly all of the children are becoming 'difficult' and the parents become increasingly stressed, which in turn inhibits their ability to provide top quality parenting. This is a vicious cycle that can often only be impeded with professional family counseling (Brodzinsky, et. al., 1984).
The idea that family problems are linked to developmental processes and transitions is critical to the structural family systems theory. For instance, when a family member is either removed or added to the family structure, great disruption can occur. This is true of any family, traditional or otherwise. However, families that adopt a child with DIS are facing potential disruption from both the addition of a new family member and the intrinsic challenges that special needs adoption can present.
According to Vangelisti (2004) in systems theory, "when one or more of the constraining parameters shifts past a certain point, the stable system grows unstable" (p. 290). Therefore any type of disruption in the family dynamic will cause at least some level of instability. Parents of children with SID are constantly trying to keep that dynamic stable, however the nature of the disorder breeds instability. Therefore there is an ongoing conflict in families that are dealing with a special needs child- a conflict between the desire for stability and the inevitability of chaos.
Corey (2002) asserts that, "families can be described in terms of their individual members and the various roles they play" (p. 442). This 'whole is more than the sum of the parts' perspective is at the heart of family systems theory. When one or more family members is having a hard time defining his or her role, and how and where they fit into the larger structure of the family, this is when the system begins to break down. Therefore dealing with a special needs child, whether or adopted or biological, it is important for parents to understand how much of their role is parental in nature, how much is therapeutic, and how much is being 'a friend'. All parents must define these parameters however when dealing with a special needs child, especially when there are other children in the home, these roles can become confused.
Addressing the interactive processes that occur between family systems and their surrounding environments is also a key aspect of family systems theory....
This means that it is not only the structure of the family that is important, but also the external interactive processes that shape and define it. Haskins (2003) explains that "family systems theory supports this understanding of sibling relationships as well as parent-child relationships as being an interactive, interdependent network in which the behavior of each individual or subsystem modifies that of the other individuals or subsystems" (p. 337). This is a valid assumption for families in general, who can also be affected by alternative family structures from a comparative perspective, even if they themselves are not directly involved. By this I mean that traditional families cannot help but to compare themselves to non-traditional families, and vice versa. Therefore if, for example, a mother sees her next door neighbor raising a SID child, she may think "She is so strong -- I don't think I could ever do that." This in turn helps to shape her own self-perception, perhaps making her feel that she is weak or uncompassionate by comparison. These self-perceptions could then influence the manner in which she interacts with her own family, thus having a resonating effect.
Of course, part of maintaining a strong family system is the ability to be flexible and willing to accept change. According to Rosenthal & Groza (1992) "Family adaptability is the ability of a family system to change its power structure, role relationships, and relations rules in response to situational and developmental stress" (p. 98). Families that are aptly prepared to handle change, both planned and unplanned, are more likely to survive disruption than those who are not aptly prepared. Thus the primary difference between a family system that works and one that does not is how well the family reacts to change. Families who are not able to handle change effectively may need to seek professional family counseling.
Of course not all families have the resources or the inclination to seek professional counseling, which is an unfortunate but inevitable part of reality. Regardless, all families rely on both internal and external support systems to guide them through turbulent times. How these systems interact with one another, and how each of the subsystems within these systems function, are the key to whether a family is psychologically healthy or unhealthy.
Whether parents are adopting a special needs child or raising a traditional, biologically related family, the fact remains that the strength of the family unit is reliant on how well change and disruption are handled as individual family members, and in terms of the family as a whole. Children and their families can benefit from counseling that centers on the family systems theory, because this approach is directed at dealing with the changing dynamics of the family. Raising a child with special needs will always be a challenge. However parents who have the faith in God and in themselves to see them through the inevitably rough times are bound to succeed at raising a happy, healthy, well adjusted child, regardless of the obstacles they face.
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Pearson, F.C., Curtis, R., & Chapman, M.M. (2007). Use of mental health services by adults who were adopted as infants. Journal of Mental Health, Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 29, 163-185
Rosenthal, J.A. & Groza, V.K. (1992) Special-needs adoption: A study of intact Families, New York: Praeger Publishers.
Ryan S.D., Pearlmutter S. & Groza, V. (2004) Coming out of the closet: Opening agencies to gay and lesbian adoptive parents, Social Work 49, 85-95
Simmel, C., Brooks, D., Earth, RP, & Hinshaw, P. (2001). Externalizing symptomatology among adoptive youth: Prevalence and preadoption risk factors. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 29, 57-69.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2008a) Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children's Bureau, Preliminary Estimates for FY 2006 as of January 2008, Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/stats_research/afcars/tar/report14.htm
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2008b, October) Adopted children with special health care needs: characteristics, health, and health care…
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