Adoption - The Case of Melanie

Melanie, 15, had been a good student and socially shy until the beginning of 10th grade. At this time, she began to associate with underachieving, more popular kids and began behaving like them, e.g., disrupting class, talking back to adults, and not coming home on time from school activities or visits to friends. After several months of trying to work the problem out by themselves, Melanie's parents finally took the school's advice and came to see me.


Melanie was the oldest of two children, but the only adopted one. The other child, a boy, 5, was currently showing no signs of problem behavior. Melanie's parents felt extremely protective of Melanie, because both parents were only children and adopted, and they wished to provide a more nurturing experience for Melanie than each of them had had. They, therefore, tried to buffer unpleasant experiences and minimize or excuse underachievement, uncooperativeness, and disrespect.

Assessment & Intervention

When Melanie began to misbehave, Melanie's parents, particularly her mother, began to look for advice in books on adopted children. These books generally recommended more special treatment for Melanie. A therapist they went to worked with Melanie individually and, again, recommended understanding and leniency. One of Melanie's friend's mother allowed Melanie to stay at her house against Melanie's parents' wishes. The town police would bring Melanie home when requested, but when she would run away again, the police would act annoyed if the parents called. They offered no other advice. Melanie's parents soon began fighting with each other.

When Melanie's parents finally sought my help, the problem behaviors had escalated to outright defiance. Melanie refused to come home at all on certain nights. She also did homework only occasionally, was disrespectful most of the time to her parents, and refused to come to my office for therapy. I advised the parents to give Melanie an option: either she come to therapy or her parents would confiscate all her possessions, including her bed, dresser, and clothes. Melanie still refused to give in and also to return home. Her misbehaving friends provided clothes for Melanie, and she continued to go to school most of the time. Melanie's parents filed a Child with Service Needs petition with the Juvenile Court.

The stand-off between Melanie and her parents continued for two weeks or so with various conversations taking place by phone. I had advised the parents only to talk to Melanie when she was respectful and talked about the important issues of the Rules of Life. Unfortunately, it took the parents several days before they realized that trying to be "nice" and offering to compromise only produced more defiance in Melanie. When they finally took a stand on the rules and refused to discuss anything else, Melanie began to weaken and to suggest a return to home.


Melanie did return home after two weeks out of the home. She discussed her situation with a Juvenile Court officer. Mom and Dad worked together to present a united position on expectations for Melanie. Melanie agreed to come to a therapy session with me and was amenable to rules that she, her parents, and I negotiated. I suggested that she only had to come back if she was unwilling to follow the rules. She did not come back. The parents continued for a half dozen sessions or so to get ongoing parenting advice. Melanie became respectful and began to do well in school. She and her parents began to discuss a plan by which she could transfer to a private school the following year. Together, they picked a school. Melanie did transfer and did attend and do well at the private, residential school.


Melanie needed a balanced parenting regime, involving the right amounts of protection and control. Unfortunately, because of the parents' background, in which they felt underprotected by their parents, they began to over compensate with Melanie, and do too much for her. When Melanie began to show signs of the parenting imbalance, her parents began to fight with each other, one favoring more lenient treatment. When the parents looked for advice and help outside the family in the form of books, therapists, the police and Melanie's friends' parents, they got little help and/or bad advice. The Court, at least, was helpful. It was only when Melanie's parents began to feel less sorry for her and to abandon their perception of her as handicapped that they began to turn the problem around.

More case studies:

Greg | Melanie | Jared | Samantha | Jeremy | Marie | Linda | Michael | Jonathan

For appointments and scheduled consultations, please contact Dr. J. Brien O'Callaghan at or write to him at J. Brien O'Callaghan, Ph.D., 246 Federal Road, C-32, Brookfield, CT 06804