Parenting Results from Transition Study

Mother lifting baby into the air and smiling


By Kalsea Koss and Jamie Lawler

Parents are the most important people in young children’s lives. They comfort them, care for them, and help them learn and grow. Lots of research has shown how parenting affects kids raised in their families of origin, but we wanted to look in particular at parenting in internationally adopting families. We wanted to see how it may be similar or different than other families and to see how parenting affects the recovery children make following adoption. Our team was especially interested in which aspects of parenting might help adopted kids learn to control their behavior and emotions. We also know that parenting is a hard job (maybe the hardest job of all!) and we were curious whether it was more challenging to parent a child who had tougher experiences before adoption. Finally, we wanted to see whether the consistency of family routines, such as meal times and bedtimes, helped children learn better self-control.

What we did:

We examined parenting and the family environment as part of the Transition into the Family Study. If you remember from past newsletters, the Transition Study was a multi-year project following children adopted from institutions, seeing them every eight months for the first several years that they were in their families. These initial years are a period of rapid recovery from pre-adoption deprivation for children who lived in orphanages or other institutions. To look at parenting, we asked families to come to our research lab to participate in a number of different activities four times over the first two years post-adoption. Activities included playing normally as they would at home, structured play activities (like making a scene using Playdoh), and cleaning up toys together. We also asked parents to complete several daily diaries to get a sense of the typical day for the children at home. To measure how well children recovered following adoption, we looked at how well they could regulate their behavior when asked to transition between tasks at the four laboratory visits, how children performed on a number of tasks designed to challenge their attention and self-control, and asked parents and the child’s kindergarten teachers to complete a number of questionnaires about their behavior and functioning.

Who participated:

145 families, including 93 families who had adopted a child internationally from an orphanage or other institution were part of this portion of the study. We also followed children adopted internationally from foster care situations, but these children and their families are not a part of this analysis.

What we found:

First, we looked at the quality of parenting received by children adopted out of institutions compared with children reared in their birth families. We found that parenting did not differ between the groups on either sensitivity (the parent’s ability to respond effectively to the child’s cues in a way that supports the child, encourages emotional development, and promotes the child’s confidence that their needs will be met) or structure/limit-setting (the parent’s ability to produce predictable experiences and expectations for the child as well as structure the child’s behavior). We also found that both groups demonstrated above average parenting.

Second, we wanted to see whether children’s pre-adoptive care would predict the parenting they received after adoption. We found that children adopted from higher quality pre-adoptive care received higher rates of sensitivity and more effective structure/limit-setting from adoptive parents. This may be because these children were able to provide clearer signals of their needs and wants. We were also curious how child behavior and parenting would affect one another in the first year following adoption and found that child behavior soon after adoption does NOT predict later parenting, but a parent’s ability to provide structure and set limits soon after adoption predicts how children are able to regulate their behavior 8 months later.

Next, we wanted to look past the first year after adoption and see how parenting affects children’s self-control in kindergarten. We found that better parent structure/limit-setting predicted children’s self-control on several different tasks. Children who had received more effective structure and limit-setting from parents were better able to control their impulses when asked to use their words rather than their hands to select a toy prize. They also did better on a computer game that asked them to pay attention to certain things and ignore others. These children also showed better ability to regulate their emotions in kindergarten.

Finally, children who receive poorer preadoption care are more likely to have lasting problems in impulse control and attention regulation. Because of this, we were interested in whether parenting might affect the connection between poor pre-adoptive care and later child functioning. We found that children who received high quality parenting did not show the same lasting effects of poor early care as children who received less ideal parenting. Because parents in our study generally displayed “better than average” parenting, this finding suggests that children who experienced more adversity before adoption needed really good, not just good parenting in order to recover. For example, children whose parents scored really high in their ability to structure the environment and set limits showed good emotion regulation regardless of their pre-adoptive adversity, whereas children whose parents scored in the average range on these aspects of parenting struggled more in regulating their emotions if they had experienced more pre-adoption adversity. Additionally, children in families with very consistent daily routines (for example, the same meal times and bed times each day) who had experienced poor care before adoption showed better ability to wait for a surprise and showed fewer ADHD symptoms than children adopted from similar circumstances whose families had less consistency in routines. Consistent routines did not seem to help with indiscriminate friendliness. In fact, for children adopted from more adverse pre-adoption conditions, greater consistency in routines predicted more indiscriminate friendliness. We are not sure why this might be the case, but it does suggest that stability in routines may help some aspects of recovery from pre-adoption condition but slow others.