Coordinator of Therapy Services; Trauma-informed Therapist; Pediatric Neuropsychologist
We form our sense of identity by “trying on” aspects of other people to see how their ideas, tastes and values “fit,” keeping those things that seem to resonate and discarding those that don’t. We find those models for identification in our families, schools and community. We also find those sources in the books we read, the news we catch and the movies we see – the larger community in which we live. This larger community offers many models who may offer something that resonates with us.
This process of identification is complicated in adoptive children whose connection to their families is through relation and not genes. The challenges are even more torturous when those issues are coupled with the “othering” that occurs when a child does not fit into the American standard of being white. In my neuropsychological practice assessing adoptive children, my own little bubble of white privilege has been pricked many times by a child saying, sometimes to me or sometimes through their parent, that “no one looks like me.” The loneliness of this statement is palpable, but the cost goes beyond to indicate impediments to the healthy development of identity, which includes that of racial identity.
In an article for Time Magazine written by the parent of a transracially adopted child and with the help of adoptees and their parents, the following four “comforting but dangerous” myths about race and difference were identified:
Myth 1: Color doesn’t matter. Oh, but it does; just ask the child who has been called the “N” word or the one who is assumed to be a math whiz because they are Asian. Adopted children who are raised by a Caucasian family and in a Caucasian community will tend to think of themselves as white – sort of – until they hit the wall of the way others perceive them. People have expectations about others based on race and ethnicity and insisting that people “should” be colorblind is ignoring reality. It leaves no room for the child to ask questions about what makes them the person that they are and prevents the parent from giving them what they most need – a caring listener when they are hurt or confused.
Myth 2: If I talk to my kids about race, I’m just creating an issue. As parents, we cannot protect our children from the verbal and physical assaults of others, but we can prepare them for how to handle it if it happens. One adoptee and current adoption advocate asks parents if they would not teach their children how to safely cross a street because they may become frightened of being hit by a car. This includes having “the talk” with our African American boys about how to handle themselves with police officers and other authority figures.
Myth 3: No matter what, a “good” school is best for my child. This is the source of the “No one looks like me” plaint of many of my clients but it is the toughest of all myths to unpack for most white parents to whom education has been touted as pretty much the solution for everything. A “good school” may be the one with high test scores and good real estate value, but it is unlikely to be the school with a diverse student and teacher population that could provide a non-white child with a rich source of role models and narratives to use in the development of their own identity. Other sources of identification include churches, community groups and cultural organizations, such as language schools and adoptive family groups. Lacking these sources, the child’s options for racial identity are determined by those who know nothing about their culture.
Myth 4: You are the hero of your child’s story. As someone who has heard many terrible and tragic origin stories and stood in awe of the efforts adoptive parents have made to help their children, I have often been guilty of encouraging this kind of thinking without considering the consequence to the child who has been rescued. The burden of “forced gratitude” is emotionally crippling and prevents the child from asking questions about their biological parents or fantasizing (in the way that all children do) about what it would have been like to be in a different family. Conversely, the concept of “saving” a child feeds into the parental fantasy that if we just love our child enough and do all the right things, we can protect them from being hurt by the loss of adoption and the ugly reality of racism. This is also an ultimately futile effort. As Martha Crawford, psychotherapist and mother of two transracially adopted children, stated, “An adoptive parent’s job is to be a sturdy scaffold for kids to do their own work, not to tell them how to construct their own identities.”
About the Author:
Dr. Stephanie Monaghan-Blout is a senior clinician who joined NESCA at its inception in 2007. She specializes in the neuropsychological and psychological assessment of children and adolescents with complex learning and emotional issues and enjoys consulting to schools on these issues. Her responsibilities at NESCA also include acting as Clinical Coordinator, overseeing therapeutic services, providing therapy and psychoeducational counseling and, in the time of the COVID-19 crisis, providing teletherapy to parents and teens.
In her early career as an adolescent and family therapist, Dr. Monaghan-Blout became very interested in the needs of those contending with traumatic experiences. She brought that interest to her work as a pediatric neuropsychologist and continues to be passionate about treating this population. She has developed an expertise in working with adoptive children and others who have experienced early trauma. She is a longtime member of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI) associated with Massachusetts Advocates for Children and the Harvard Law Clinic and presents nationally and regionally on assessment and treatment of children with complex/developmental trauma.
Dr. Monaghan-Blout graduated from Bowdoin College and received a Master’s Degree in Counselor Education from Boston University. She obtained her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Antioch New England Graduate School with a dissertation entitled, “A Different Kind of Parent; Resisting the Intergenerational Legacy of Maltreatment.” She completed an internship in pediatric neuropsychology and child psychology at North Shore University Hospital in New York, and a postdoctoral fellowship at HealthSouth/Braintree Rehabilitation Hospital.
She joined Dr. Ann Helmus at Children’s Evaluation Center in 2003, and again at NESCA in 2007. A member of the Massachusetts Neuropsychological Society Board of Directors from 2010 – 2013 and from 2014-2017, Dr. Monaghan-Blout served in many capacities, including as President. Dr. Monaghan-Blout is the mother and stepmother of four children and the grandmother of six. She is also an avid ice hockey player, cook, gardener and devotee of urban fantasy.
To book therapy services with Dr. Monaghan-Blout or an evaluation with one of our many expert neuropsychologists and transition specialists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.