Season 1, Episode 23: Dr. Amy Whitesel describes the work that she and her colleagues in the Early Growth and Development Study have been conducting. The EGDS is a longitudinal study that includes birth/first families, adopted individuals and their adoptive parents. Dr. Whitesel begins by outlining the design and goals of the EGDS, discussing ways that their study has provided a window into the complex interactions between genes and environment and their impact on child development. Additionally, because of the adoption design, the EGDS allows the team to examine a number of research questions related to the experiences of birth/first families, adopted persons, and adoptive families. Dr. Whitesel highlights some of the ways that their findings push against stereotypes and simplistic narratives about members of the adoptive kinship network and describes future plans for the EGDS as the adopted persons included in the study now approach adolescence and early adulthood.
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Dr. Emily Helder: Hi, I’m Dr. Emily Helder and I’m here with Dr. Amy Whitesel, who is an assistant research professor of psychology at George Washington University and a member of the Early Growth and Development study, which she and her team discussed in their chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Adoption. So thanks so much Amy for being here today.
Dr. Amy Whitesel: Thank you for having me! I appreciate a chance to talk about one of my favorite subjects.
Dr. Emily Helder: Good. Well let’s start by giving just an overview of the Early Growth and Development study. I’d love to better understand what your goals are in that project and also who is included as participants.
Dr. Amy Whitesel: Sure. I’ve been a part of the Early Growth and Development study since it started, which was around 2000. It’s been an amazing opportunity to be a part of this team. The Early Growth and Development study, it’s a longitudinal study of birth and adoptive families and the birth parents in this sample participated in a voluntary, private domestic adoption.
So all the adoptions took place through licensed adoption service providers throughout the United States. So not child welfare. All private, with the help of the agencies, the adoption agencies, we were able to recruit this sample of birth and adoptive parents. They helped us to reach out to people who were participating in an adoption.
And so with their help, we were able to recruit 561 sets. And what I mean by a set is the birth, the birth mother and or father, the child who was placed for adoption and the adoptive family that child was placed in. And so that allows us to look at the biological family, where they are, we know about their shared genes and also the adoptive family where we are, where they’re in a rearing environment with non-shared genes.
Our oldest adopted child now is probably 18. We started recruiting in 2003 and then our youngest adoptive kids were born in 2009. And all of them were placed in their adoptive homes within their first three months of life. Now, some of the aims of our study are really about, I mean, it’s the Early Growth and Development study.
So we want to know about child development. We’re looking at how family, peers, contextual processes kind of influence children’s adjustment and how to look at that relationship that interplay with genetic influences. So for example, we’re interested in learning about how a children’s heritable characteristics are expressed in a certain process such as warm parenting or a supportive environment may influence how much or how little that characteristic is expressed.
We’re also interested in learning how a child’s heritable characteristics influence parenting style. So, for example, do parents adapt their parenting style based on a child’s temperament or, you know, how does that all influence each other? And so while the primary goals of the study are really looking at these interesting relationships in child development, because we are an adoptive sample, it’s given us this incredible opportunity to look at things unique to adoption.
So for example, where we can look at how the impact of openness influences adjustment on the birth family side and on the adoptive parents side, we can look at things like identity formation and adopted children. It’s been a really awesome second opportunity just because of the design of our study.
Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Well, and I’d like to follow up on that because some of the goals that you’ve just described, I mean, these are questions we’ve been seeking to answer in the field for a long time, but, I was so excited to see your study come out and read the results of it because it’s such it’s large scale.
It’s prospective, it’s longitudinal. You have members from the whole adoption triad. So, I’m curious if you could say a bit more about the advantages that you feel like that design has for answering those kinds of questions compared to some of the existing research that might be like retrospective, looking back, or cross-sectional, kind of one-time point.
Dr. Amy Whitesel: Sure. I’d say in relation to what we’ve learned about adoption, having a prospective study, this means we’re collecting data as it happens, right. We’re observing child and family development as it unfolds. We aren’t asking participants to think about many years ago. And a lot of samples or studies of adoption have really, you know, one person is looking five years ago, someone’s looking 10 years ago, 30 years ago, we’re looking at these families as their adoption journey is unfolding on a daily basis.
And so, also by doing this prospective study, we’re able to control for some factors that we thought may influence the data. So even when thinking about all the different types of adoptive families and the way that adoptions come about when we were recruiting our adoption agencies, we carefully chose how we were doing that.
So, for instance, we chose to recruit adoption agencies that are religious affiliated and not, we chose agencies that do a large number of adoptions or a small number of adoptions. They’re localized, they’re all over the country. We also selected adoption agencies that, that practice varying levels of adoption.
So, you know, 2003 doesn’t seem like that long ago, but it really was. And adoption has changed so much since then, but at that time you could still select an agency that did completely closed adoptions. Nowadays that’s not really such a thing. So both, but we were mindful of that because there were some agencies that would only practice open adoption and others that were really okay with if birth and adoptive families wanted completely closed. So in that regard, we’re able, when you’re doing a prospective study, you can control for some of those factors. We really wanted a generalizable sample and that allowed us to, you know, to do that. We also had some eligibility criteria for some of the study participants. So for example we wanted the infants to be placed in the adoptive family as soon after birth as possible. So we excluded things like if the child spent a significant time in the NICU after birth or had any major medical conditions. And again, that allowed us to have a sample that we thought would be more generalizable.
Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Well, and I want to follow up on some of the results that you guys have found. So we can kind of think about it with the different sorts of people you’ve been studying. So if we start with birth or first families, really a lot of the existing literature with that group, especially birth fathers probably is pretty limited.
So, it’s exciting to have such a large sample that you’re following over time. I wondered if you could say a bit about how the findings from your study have built on what was limited, but existing research with birth families.
Dr. Amy Whitesel: I’d love to talk about that. Most of my work on the study, you know, has really been with the birth families, although I’ve done a little bit of everything over, you know, 18 years, doing all these different things, but I find learning about birth parents just completely fascinating.
And I think that our research has really demonstrated consistency and just how challenging and emotionally difficult it is to make an adoption plan. So much of the previous research talks about the shame, the guilt, the grief, the worry that comes with placing the care of your child in someone else’s arms.
And I think that our data really shows, the bravery and the courage that it takes to make a life altering decision like that. And, you know, sometimes birth parents have been depicted as selfish. Well, when you read through some of the open-ended data that we have, you know, where we ask them soon after placement, like, what is, what was the hardest thing? What do you remember the most? What was most important to you? You know, the primary theme was they wanted to give their child a life that they didn’t feel like they could, and whether it was because of a poor living situation, a lack of finances, not having a support system, they just wanted what was best for their, for their child.
And, well, I think previous research has touched on that some. It seems to also have focused a lot more on the worry, the grief, the shame, but also I think some of our data helps sort of humanize that whole experience and just how difficult it is. With the birth fathers we were really fortunate to recruit more than 200. I mean, we couldn’t be more thrilled about that and that alone speaks to their desire to be heard and included. The birth fathers in our sample were not always, even in a relationship with the birth mother. And I think maybe that’s like a stereotypical thing. You either loved them and left them, or, you know, maybe it’s a young couple teenage couple, you know, having a child that they weren’t planning for, but the birth, some of the birth fathers that participate in our sample, they are participating when the birth mother didn’t want to. And sometimes they had very little contact with the agency. They weren’t directly involved with the adoption planning, but they were there, they were on the sidelines.
They were kind of following the lead of what the birth mother wanted. And I think because we were able to recruit that sample, it kind of gave them a voice. And it builds on some of the work, you know, I’ve read all the studies done by Gary Clapton. I mean, he’s one of the other persons who’s really looked at birth fathers in the fatherhood experience.
And then in my own work and my dissertation more years ago than I like to say, looked at how the birth fathers, how they adjusted post adoption and the more positive relationship they had with the birth mother, and it didn’t mean they had to be married, didn’t mean they had to be in a committed relationship, but the more positive they perceived that relationship, the better they adjusted in terms of like anxiety or depression and those kinds of symptoms following the adoption.
One of the things I wanted to say about previous research in terms of birth parents, and this has been touched on a little bit is just the value of support. The birth mothers, you know, they used to be sent away. It was a family disgrace, you know, an unplanned pregnancy was a terrible secret.
And so we asked extensively about the type of support that birth parents received while they were planning for the adoption and after, and they tended to have a more positive adjustment when they could talk openly, at least with one person. But also their parents. So the birth parents’ parents still had a really strong influence on, you know, how they perceive things and what their support system was like.
Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Oh, that’s so great to really get that rich kind of qualitative data from them as well. I wanted to follow up, you mentioned a little bit about maybe stereotypes that we might have. So I want to ask a little bit more about that. Especially because I see those things that are so relevant to adoptive microaggressions and, and some of that work.
So I wondered if you could say a bit about how your work has corrected or worked against, or provided, you know, contrasting evidence to some of those stereotypes that exist right now about birth mothers, birth fathers.
Dr. Amy Whitesel: Honestly I think one of the biggest stereotypes, and maybe this has changed over time, but I think about like those afterschool specials or the lifetime movies that unfortunately don’t always depict adoption in the most positive light, but where all, where birth parents are seen as teenagers.
And that is not the average age of birth parents, at least in our sample of more than 500 birth moms and 200 birth dads. You even see, you know, Jerry Springer, all these other shows where they do this paternity test and all these different things, have these teens. And that’s really not, that’s really not what we’ve seen.
So the average age of birth moms in our sample is 24. Our youngest birth mom was 13, our oldest birth mom, 43. The average age of our birth dads, 26, the youngest was 15 and the oldest was 58. So it’s a big range. But really we’re looking at young adults in their mid twenties.
And more than anything, they just wanted their child to be placed in a safe, loving, financially secure home. Something that many of them felt they never had personally. We also had a lot talk about, you know, “this is just at a time in my life where I wasn’t prepared for this, I’m in college. I, you know, I’m in a relationship that wasn’t committed.”
We’ve had some birth parents that were assaulted and this is, you know, there’s, there’s a lot of different reasons, but honestly, I think one of the biggest stereotypes really is about the age and that birth mothers are not selfish and birth fathers aren’t abandoners, you know, the spectrum is large, but generally what we’ve seen are people that really care about what happens to their child and they’re just in difficult circumstances.
Dr. Emily Helder: Well, and thinking too about the practical implications, I’m wondering about how all this, all these findings that you’ve been describing with the birth families, how that might inform the work of adoption professionals, agencies who are working with these birth parents too, as they make their adoption plan.
Dr. Amy Whitesel: And, you know, I was thinking about that as I was preparing for today, you know, thinking about how would we put this into practice, right? Part of it is the outreach, maybe the outreach really on college campuses, for example, really needs to be present or, you know, just education more in high schools for the stresses that you might experience outside of, or the things that you may experience.
So that we’re targeting services in the right way and based on developmental, you know, on the developmental stage of where people are.
Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Well, and I would think too, you know, even adoption agencies and professionals, depending on how much experience they have in the field might, you know, we all carry those stereotypes.
So let’s switch gears and talk a little bit about the adoptive parents as well. So, you have longitudinal data on them and I wondered, you know, are there stereotypes that you think about for adoptive parents where you feel like, Oh, you know, our research is really providing a correction for that?
Dr. Amy Whitesel: Well, sure. I think what our research has shown is just sort of broadened our idea about why, the reasons families choose to adopt. And so I think the most common assumption for why individuals or couples adopt is because of fertility challenges, and the parents in our sample more often than not cited, just wanting to be a parent and wanting to be able to provide a loving home to a child.
And sure. Often, you know, the ability to have a child biologically was a challenge for, for many. Others chose adoption because, and honestly, we saw this a lot because adoption was already a part of their family. So they were adopted, they had a sibling who was adopted. Their lives had already been touched by adoption in such a way that they wanted to, to continue that.
It was part of their family system. We have also seen adoptive parents that didn’t want to experience a pregnancy, maybe there was a medical condition that runs in their family, mental illness running in the family, something like that, where it would be a risk, to, to go through a pregnancy to them.
Also I think just the changing family structure in our country, you know, adoption provides an amazing opportunity to become a parent for singles or same-sex couples. And so it’s just really broadened our horizons in terms of, you know, how we think about creating family. Yeah. Yeah.
Dr. Emily Helder: Well, and I want to touch too, on one of the goals you mentioned at the beginning, you talked about, even over and above what we can learn about adoption this study is really helpful in thinking about, you know, the interaction and interplay between genetics, prenatal experiences and environmental factors. I think sometimes we can, there can be more simplistic understandings of nature vs. nurture, and I was curious if you could give us some examples for how your study has pushed back against the more simplistic narratives about that.
Dr. Anne Atkinson: I mean, one of the awesome things about being a longitudinal study has allowed us, you know, you don’t just get a grant for 18 years, right? You have to, you have to have new ideas and fresh things that you want to look at. And our principal investigators all have these amazing ideas about what we can continue to learn from a design like this.
And so these range from emotional health to parenting styles, to physical health. And so I’ve got a couple of examples. One I’ll start with is physical health. So this design allows us to look at prenatal rearing environment and how those kinds of things may interact with each other. So think about from a physical standpoint, if you have a child who has a genetic risk for obesity, that child may have the genetic risk to be obese, but if they’re raised in their adoptive families with a really active home, healthy diets, regular exercise and activity that may weaken the expression of that gene.
So maybe that lowers the risk for that child to become obese. Now in the reverse, if the child is then raised in an adoptive home where we don’t have healthy lifestyles, we don’t eat as well as we should. They may be more likely to become obese. So that’s a physical health example.
Also adoptive parents want to know, you know, how is my parenting going to influence this child, right? What is it about my parenting? Is the child predisposed to certain behaviors or different things. And so obviously we look at that a lot. That’s, that’s something, you know, our study is really important to us.
And so one aspect that our data has shown us is there’s a connection between like self-regulation of behavior. So for example, if a birth mom has good self-regulation of her behavior. We’ve also found that adopted children have good self-regulation behavior and that’s at a younger age, that’s at about age four.
We’ve also found that there’s an association between harsh parenting and adopted child regulation. So, for example, if the child has good sort of self-regulation behaviors, then a parent is going to be more likely to have positively reinforce and you have better outcomes. And, you know, in terms of, in terms of parenting, there are relationships between the temperament and how it influences the parenting.
And I think one of the overarching things that we’ve learned is that positive reinforcement is so important, right. And that’s parenting all the time, every day. But positive reinforcement and structure is so important for kids. Yeah.
Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Well, and especially, I would think too with kids who are, have a temperament that might be a little more impulsive, that you know, that working on the parenting side of warmth and positive reinforcement would be so helpful.
Dr. Amy Whitesel: I was going to say one more thing about that. Because one part of your question was about sort of like trying to break down nature versus nurture, right? And I think the message is it’s not black and white, right? So these types of studies can help sort of diminish our black and white thinking.
It’s not as simple as one or the other. It’s not as simple as well, if your parent had this behavior, then you’re going to have that behavior. It’s a really interesting and complicated weave of individual and family characteristics. And it does demonstrate that just because a mother or father has a certain characteristic, it doesn’t mean you, you will, you know, we’re influenced by so many things as humans.
And we have to just, we continue to adapt and adjust, you know, as our environments change. So it’s not one or the other. So I’ve had so many people ask me, so what is it? Nature or nurture? I was like, well, my answer is it’s complicated. It’s just depends on so many different factors, but that’s what makes the study of human beings, so fascinating.
Dr. Emily Helder: Right. Oh, completely. I love that “it’s complicated” answer. Right. I give that so many times to my students. So in thinking about openness, especially within adoption, you know, you, you mentioned that because of your recruitment strategies, you really, at least initially had quite a full range from people who are entering into planned, closed adoptions, people who are pursuing open adoption.
So I wondered, you know, as the field has been moving in the direction of greater openness, greater contact, I’m wondering if you could talk about some of the benefits that you’re seeing for all the members of the network when, when there are these open arrangements. Sure.
Dr. Amy Whitesel: I think openness matters. But what we’ve studied more so than how much openness, we’ve looked at, how satisfied are families with the openness they have, and that’s really a distinguishing factor. And so it doesn’t necessarily mean that the more open your adoption is the better it is for everybody. It’s how comfortable is everybody with the relationship that they have.
And so while all of our families for the most part, have some level of openness. We know that that’s also a huge continuum. Openness in one person’s mind is I have their first and last name and I have their phone number, email and openness for others is like we spend every Thanksgiving together or we see each other or my child does overnights there.
It’s a huge continuum and openness means something different to every family. But what we really found is that the more satisfied birth parents and adoptive parents are with what they have, the happier that they are and the more settled that they feel, and that’s what parents report for their children as well.
We’re just now starting to ask kids now that our kids are old enough, you know, they’re teenagers now, and this is really like where identities are forming. They’re having a lot more questions about their birth family. We’ve just started asking questions about what kind of relationship they have with their birth family, what kind of questions they have and also how comfortable is communication about this in their home. And we are so excited to start analyzing those data. I mean, we’ve just started collecting it in the last year, because we just can’t wait, you know, we’ve been following Hal Grotevant and some of the work of David Brodzinsky. And so they’ve really helped shape some of the questions that we’re asking now, because our sample is younger than Hal’s.
And we just can’t wait to see how they’re experiencing this, this communication and what can we do to share, you know, within the adoption community, what are we learning now in this generation about openness and about how families can communicate with their kids comfortably about their adoption and all the things that come up with that.
Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Oh, that’s so exciting. I can’t wait to see that data. You’re right. I had talked with Hal Grotevant recently and just really love a lot of the work that he’s doing. It’s so nice to have your updated cohort because his was really recruited before openness was, was as much…
Dr. Amy Whitesel: Right. I mean, he has young adults or middle adults now.
And so this really is like just adding a whole nother generation to that. And so we’re really excited to see how that’s changed or how we can compare, you know, in those two samples, what their experience is like. You know, I guess one other thing I was going to have like social media and things like that have changed adoption dramatically.
And so this gives us a little bit of window into. You know, it’s really easy to find somebody if you want to now and how that impacts these relationships. So, yeah. Yeah.
Dr. Emily Helder: I’m looking, I’m anticipating a lot more research on that from, you know, the ethical side of that, the personal experience side of that.
Yeah. Tell me more too about what you have planned for the adoptees in the study, you know, as they’re aging into a point where they can really do a lot of reporting and, and tell you how they’re feeling. I’m curious what you’re anticipating, being able to assess.
Dr. Amy Whitesel: Well, that’s a really good question.
I mean, that’s something we’re still planning for right now. We certainly hope to continue to follow this sample. We feel so fortunate to be able to have these kids that are, you know, 18 years old now and follow them through all these developmental stages of life. And so I think right now our goal is to really be able to keep this going right, to really be able to keep following these families.
They showed such a level of commitment to us, despite our big projects and our little projects. So, I mean, I think we just want to continue to find additional ways to look at their experience and also for us to really partner with Hal and with others that are looking at adults so that we’re asking the right questions.
But I think we’re really still in the beginning stages of that in terms of the Early Growth and Development study and what we want to do. But we want to do it carefully and thoughtfully and planfully, so that we really do have a good understanding of, of how in today’s world and today’s adoption and how that looks, and what we can do to help benefit, you know, what kind of research can we share?
What can we, what else can we do like this? Or write the next book, right, with those kinds of results.
Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Oh, exciting. I’m looking forward to continuing to follow the outcomes. Well, thanks. Thanks so much for taking some time to tell us a bit about your work and about the project and also thank your group for writing the chapter for the Handbook.
Yeah. Great. Well, thanks so much.