updated 5/24/2005 7:21:25 PM ET 2005-05-24T23:21:25

A surprising new study disputes the notion that children adopted from other countries tend to be badly damaged emotionally because of the hardships they had to endure.

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The analysis of more than 50 years of international data found that these youngsters are only slightly more likely than nonadopted children to have behavioral problems such as aggressiveness and anxiety. And they actually seem to have fewer problems than children adopted within their own countries.

Fighting a stereotype
“Our findings may help them fight the stereotype that is often associated with international adoption,” said researchers Femmie Juffer and Marinus H. van IJzendoorn of Leiden University in the Netherlands.

They pooled results from 137 studies on adoptions by parents living in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Israel.

In the study, adopted children in general had more behavior problems than nonadopted youngsters, regardless of where the adoption took place — a result that is not surprising, since both groups often suffer deprivation and come from broken families.

But with backgrounds that often include abandonment, orphanages and civil strife, foreign adoptees are sometimes thought of as difficult, disruptive children — an image that the study does not support, the researchers said.

Most children able to catch up
The results are generally reassuring for international adoption — an increasing phenomenon involving more than 40,000 children a year moving among more than 100 countries, the researchers said.

“Before adoption, most international adoptees experience insufficient medical care, malnutrition, maternal separation, and neglect and abuse in orphanages,” the researchers said. But to their surprise, they found that these children do well and are largely able to catch up with their nonadopted counterparts.

The study appears in Wednesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

A JAMA editorial said sensationalized stories about severely disturbed children adopted from abroad have been widespread in the media, and that may have skewed perceptions of these children.

The analysis involved studies on adoption between 1950 and 2005, involving more than 30,000 adoptees and more than 100,000 nonadopted children.

During that time, adoption has evolved from being a “shameful secret” to being celebrated and often very visible, especially with the relatively recent phenomenon of white parents adopting Chinese children, according to editorial author Dr. Laurie C. Miller of Tufts-New England Medical Center. In the United States alone, parents have adopted more than 230,000 children from other countries since 1989, she said.

Behavior problems relatively uncommon
Behavior problems were relatively uncommon among all children studied, but internationally adopted children had a 20 percent higher chance of being disruptive than nonadopted children, and a 10 percent higher chance of being anxious or withdrawn. They also were twice as likely as nonadopted children to receive mental health services.

Children adopted within their own countries had an 36 percent higher chance of being anxious or withdrawn than the international adoptees did, and a 50 percent higher chance of being aggressive or disruptive, the study found.

These children also were four times more likely than nonadopted children and twice as likely as internationally adopted children to receive mental health services. Also, domestically adopted youngsters had a 60 percent higher chance of having behavior problems than nonadopted children.

Some of the results probably reflect the parents who adopt foreign children, said Dr. Gregory Plemmons of Vanderbilt University’s clinic for international adoptees. These parents often are high-achieving and financially well-off, and tend to seek out services like counseling for their children, Plemmons said.

Also, children adopted domestically may suffer from the instability of living with different foster families before getting adopted, Plemmons said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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