When Parents Lie About Adoption
Psychologists Say Lying to Children About Adoption Could Be Traumatizing
May 8, 2008 — For more than 17 years, Jodi Applegate believed she was adopted.
And she had no reason not to, until her mother passed away and left her aunt to tell her the real story about her birth.
Applegate, 44, an anchor on the New York City Fox News affiliate, shared her family's secret on "Good Day New York," explaining how when her mother became pregnant with her in 1963 she disappeared from Wheeling, W.Va., where she lived.
She gave birth to Applegate and put her in a foster home in Pittsburgh for eight months, only to later return and take her back.
When she returned to Wheeling with her daughter, she said she had adopted the little girl, Applegate said.
"In those days, it was a scandal for a single woman to have a baby," Applegate said Tuesday on her morning program. "She said she had adopted me."
"I grew up believing that I was adopted," added Applegate, who did not return calls from ABCNEWS.com.
Several child psychologists told ABCNEWS.com that lying to children at all -- let alone about who their birth mother is -- could be traumatizing in the long run.
Lies May Be Toxic for Children, Docs Say
Applegate is proof, several psychologists said, that traumatic events affect everyone differently. While Applegate, who has had a successful career, has seemingly not suffered any debilitating psychological effects, other adults who find out important truths about their lives late in life often react differently.
"I've seen secrets play out in a number of different ways," said Mary O'Leary Wiley, a psychologist based in Pennsylvania who specializes in adoption issues and has not treated Applegate. "Sometimes the secret will not be a really big deal and people will go on with their lives and understand the context and cope well."
That is the likely scenario in Applegate's case, Wiley said.
"Other times when presented with a secret in adulthood or late adolescence, the young adult questions everything that has ever been told to them and wonders if they can trust anything in their life," Wiley said. "It shakes them to the core and causes great difficulty on a personal level but also with trust among a family."
Wiley said that finding out that your parent isn't really who you believed them to be is much like a spouse finding out they've been cheated on for years.
"It makes a person distrust a lot of things that person said," Wiley said. "Even though people will say that they didn't tell you for your benefit, often times the reason they don't tell the truth is that they're afraid their fragile family will blow part if the truth becomes known."
For those traumatized by lies, Wiley said depression, anxiety and general intimacy issues can result.
David Kirschner, a psychologist and the director of the New York-based Adoption Treatment and Research Center, told ABCNEWS.com that one of the reasons Applegate may have coped well with the lie is that she may have had a gut feeling that her mother really was her biological mother.
"I have a hunch that [Applegate] may never have believed she was adopted," Kirschner said. "The opposite happens a lot with adopted kids who are lied to."
"Late discovery adoptees who find out that they aren't actually biological children often say, 'I never felt that woman was my real mother,'" he said.
Adoption Lies Less Common Now, Experts Say
Wiley said that while 25 years ago many parents hid the truth from their adopted children, it's less common to do so now. It's even less common, Wiley said, to lie to your children that they are adopted when they really aren't.
"Over time the shame factor [surrounding adoption] has diminished," Wiley said. "For birthparents and adopting parents it's considered more acceptable to adopt or relinquish children, so society is a bit more compassionate."
Several psychologists told ABCNEWS.com that Applegate's situation is quite unusual, and that there is no research about the long-term effects that could result in falsely telling your child he or she was adopted.
Academy Award-winning actress Loretta Young experienced almost an identical situation to that of Applegate and her mother. Young gave birth in 1935 to the love child of Clark Gable, and because she was unmarried she gave the baby to an orphanage.
Later, Young adopted the baby girl, according The Associated Press.
"People do unusual things when they're stigmatized," said Adam Pertman of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. "The genesis of this was this young woman was stigmatized and she dealt with it in some way that was acceptable so she could live within the culture she was in."
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