Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ethnic Identity

In 1993, the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect to Intercountry Adoption was established. (Adoptive parents recognize this as the reason they take those crazy-long online training courses!) It claimed that the goal of “full and harmonious personality development” of children requires that they “grow up in a family environment with an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding.” Furthermore, the ability to facilitate identity development was specifically identified by the Hague Convention as an important criterion by which a prospective adoptive parent ought to be judged eligible for child placement. That’s all well and good, but identity formation processes among international adoptees are very complicated things! There’s a lot of great information out there, but—truth be told—there’s also a lot about which researchers are rather unsure. In my own research on this topic of ethnic identity formation among intercountry adoptees (If you have to do a research paper for your Adolescent Development class, you might as well make it something relevant, right??), I’ve found some helpful information for my quest to facilitate my boys’ development. Perhaps the following will be interesting or beneficial for you, my readers, too!

-Adolescence is usually considered to be the pinnacle of identity development processes; however, identity processes actually begin very early in one’s life and continue to be negotiated throughout the entire lifespan. Activities for young children that may be particularly helpful for ethnic identity development include learning some distinctives of one’s own ethnic group and gaining suitable ethnic terminology for diverse groups.

-Most researchers agree that ethnic identity development is especially significant for minority youth. Certainly, an additional level of complexity is involved as the unique stresses of discriminatory environments combine with universally challenging developmental processes.

-The empirical evidence on adjustment outcomes for intercountry adoptees is consistently positive despite the fact that a substantial percentage of adoptees experience factors known to have negative developmental effects prior to being adopted (i.e. poverty, separation from birth family, institutionalization, etc.). Indeed, the overwhelming majority of studied U.S. adoptees demonstrate positive outcomes in areas such as social adjustment, frequency of emotional problems, growth issues, school performance, self-esteem, and hopes for the future.

-Three hindrances to ethnic identity formation that may be particularly salient for those who have been internationally adopted have been identified: 1) Ethnic confusion—arising from physical dissimilarities among family members or lack of knowledge about one’s birth family or birth culture; 2) Experiences of discrimination—which may be exacerbated by lack of training in coping skills related to discrimination; and 3) Integration of other aspects of identity—especially one’s adopted status.

-The most appropriate manner of providing cultural socialization for an intercountry adoptee is difficult to determine. One consistent finding is that a diverse community life is highly beneficial. The research suggests that daily exposure to ethnic and racial diversity, regardless of similarity to the particular race of the adoptee, significantly improves the likelihood of developmental identity progress, with all its benefits for psychological well-being and self-esteem.

-Parents—even throughout their children’s teenage years—remain the primary source of emotional support for their children. Furthermore, the narratives parents develop about their children’s lives may be particularly formative. Researchers who have applied a narrative approach to developmental theory have found that redemption accounts—which involve reconstructing negative experiences from the past into positive and self-transforming incidents—are especially conducive to a sense of personal well-being and social adjustment. It has been suggested that parents can help to facilitate redemptive narratives by teaching coping skills for direct use in challenging situations, promoting open and proactive communication, and providing direct guidance as children seek to make sense of their challenging life experiences.

-Individuals may vary widely in their levels of ethnic centrality, or the importance of race or ethnicity in relation to a personal identity. Increased ethnic centrality tends to be associated with increased exploration of ethnic identity and an increased sense of ethnic belonging. On the other hand, some researchers have suggested that lower ethnic centrality may actually serve some individuals well. It is each individual’s unique balance of centrality, exploration, and belonging that must be determined and reached.

So there you have it: Keep getting the “cultural” books from the bookstore/library, make some new friends who don’t look like you, and tell good stories about yourselves around the dinner table. It all counts! (And keep praying, because—although none of my scientific research mentioned this explicitly--all this identity formation stuff certainly requires A LOT of grace!)

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