Feelings and perceptions of French parents of internationally adopted children with special needs (SN): Navigating the triple stigma of foreignness, adoption, and disability

Laurie C. Miller, Ellen Pinderhughes, Marie-Odile Pérouse de Montclos, et al - Children and Youth Services Review



Both adoption status and ethnic differences may contribute to stigmatization and microaggressions experienced by adopted individuals and their families. Internationally adopted children have been increasingly recognized to have elevated rates of special needs (SN), especially learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), emotional-behavioral problems, and medical-physical issues. However, relatively little is known about the feelings, perceptions, and stigma experienced by families of internationally adopted children with SN.


461 French parents responded to a questionnaire (308 on-line, 153 paper) regarding their feelings and perceptions after international adoption (feelings of difference, ease of attachment, similarities to and dissimilarities from their child), as well as their views of their child’s feelings and experiences (difference, exclusion, and prejudice). Parents were asked if their children were diagnosed by professionals as having special needs, specifically: (1) medical/physical conditions, (2) ADHD, (3) learning disabilities, or (4) emotional-behavioral difficulties. Results were compared for parents of children with or without SN.


The children (57%M; 43%F) of the parent respondents were adopted from 47 countries. The children were age (mean ± SD) 3.19 ± 2.59 years old at arrival and 11.33 ± 5.03 years old at the time of the survey. 301 (65%) parents reported that their child had at least one SN: physical-medical SN (13% of children) were reported significantly less often than the other 3 categories (ADHD 39%, learning disabilities 36%, emotional-behavioral problems 40%). Overall, parents reported 652 distinct SN among these 301 children: 102/301 (34%) had a diagnosis in a single category, whereas 199/301 (66%) had diagnoses in at least two categories. SN diagnoses varied by continent of origin: Eastern European children had proportionally more ADHD, learning disabilities, and emotional-behavior problems, as well as more diagnoses per child. Compared with parents of non-SN children, parents of SN children (especially those with learning disabilities or emotional-behavioral problems) significantly more often endorsed feelings of difference, more difficulties attaching to their child, and fewer similarities to and more dissimilarities from their child. The SN parents also more often reported that their child experienced exclusion and/or prejudice. The more SN diagnosed in their children, the more likely their parents’ feelings and perceptions differed from parents of children without SN. These relationships remained significant after controlling for arrival age, current age, gender, and adoption visibility, and after adjusting for exclusion due to adopted status or country of origin.


Compared to adoptive parents of children without SN, parents of children with SN report differing patterns of perceptions and feelings. Child SN represent an additional burden for parents of internationally adopted children, and for their children’s feelings and experiences (difference, exclusion, and prejudice, as reported by the parents). These perceptions and feelings are present, even when the SN are not physically obvious. SN must be recognized as an increasingly common, complex, and added dimension to the issues of adoptive status and (often) ethnic differences faced by internationally adopted children and their parents.