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Emotional Issues of International Adoption Click here to contact Us with your questions about International Adoption Emotional Issues of International Adoption

Emotional Issues of Adoption

This page discusses emotional issues affecting adopted children and how to help your child.

Emotional Impact of Adoption

An adopting family and the adopted child find themselves facing some emotional and developmental issues and concerns that are different than those faced by a child that has been biologically born into the family.

The following has been adapted from the Child Welfare Information Gateway (HHS) article referenced above.

Preschoolers' reactions to adoption are almost entirely affected by the way their parents feel about the adoption and the way they handle it with their children. Children of preschool age will be as excited about the story of their adoptions as other children are by the story of their births. To help make your children feel connected and an important part of the family, share with them the excitement that you felt when you received the telephone call about them, the frantic trip to pick them up, and how thrilled everyone in the family was to meet them. As time goes on and bonds of trust build, your children will be able to make sense of their unique adoption stories.

Elementary School Years: Further Steps in Separation and Identity Formation

Adoption studies of children in this stage of life are contradictory. While some say that adopted children experience no more psychological problems than non-adopted children (Hoopes and Stein), others find that teachers and parents report more personality and behavior problems and find adopted children to be more dependent, tense, fearful, and hostile (Lindholm and Touliatos, Brodzinsky).

In general, children who have been adopted are well within the normal range academically and emotionally; however, emotional and academic problems may be greater if children were adopted after 9 months of age or if they had multiple placements before being adopted. Since these children are at greater risk of having attachment problems, their families should consider early intervention and treatment services similar to those available for other adopted children with special needs.

Middle childhood has often been described as a blissful period when children play and visit grandparents, get involved in interesting activities, and have few responsibilities or worries. Nonetheless, as adults we know from our own experiences, that there is a different side to this period between the ages of 6 and 11. The more worrisome serious period is usually experienced in children's inner lives, as indicated by their dreams and fantasies. There their feelings are played out about themselves and their families, their wish to belong outside of the family circle, to have attributes that make others admire them and seek them out, and their contrasting fears that they are dumb, ugly, mean, and useless.

At the same time, their horizons are expanding and they are ready to learn from school, friends, and other adventures outside of their homes. Competitive games and team projects attract them and make them nervous; they search everything and everyone for signs that they are loved and acceptable, while worrying that bad things might happen to pay them back for their seemingly evil deeds and thoughts.

The chief task of elementary school-aged children is to master all of the facts, ideas, and skills that will equip them to progress toward adolescence and independent life. During this time, children are supposed to consolidate their identification with parents and cement their sense of belonging to their family.

It is no wonder that in such a state, even without contemporary pressures resulting from divorce or other family disruptions, that emotional and behavioral problems frequently beset elementary school-aged children. Common problems include hyperactivity, poor school performance, low self-esteem, aggression, defiance, stubbornness, troubled relationships with brothers and sisters, friends, and parents, lack of confidence, fearfulness, sadness, depression, and loneliness. Adoptive parents wonder whether and how much these problems are caused or influenced by adoption or a history of faulty attachment.

Smith and Miroff state in their book, You're Our Child: The Adoption Experience, "It is extremely important, and also reassuring, to realize that the most common source of problems are developmental changes which follow a child from infancy to adulthood, not the fact that the child was or was not adopted."

Why Was I Given Away? Loss and Grief in Adoption

Loss is a feeling that runs through the lives of children who have been adopted. It shows itself in different ways at different stages of their lives. But knowing that their birth parents made an adoption plan for them, and then not hearing a lot of information about the birth parents, often makes adopted children feel devalued and affects their self-esteem. Sometimes they feel as though their status in society is ambiguous.

The full emotional impact of that loss comes to children, usually between the ages of 7 and 12, when they are capable of understanding more about the concept of being adopted. It happens because they live more in the world outside of their families and are more tuned in to the world inside their heads. While this is a giant step toward self-reliance, it leaves parents in a quandary about when and how much adoption information to share, and uncertain about whether their child is wanting or dreading to hear it. It is especially difficult at this time to decide what to do or say to children who do not inquire about their birth parents.

Although it may feel awkward, it sometimes helps to think back to your child's life and death questions during the preschool years and introduce the subject yourself. You might preface your conversation with what you would say to an adult. For example, "I just want you to know that if you want to talk about your adoption, I'd be glad to" or "You haven't asked much about it lately, and I thought, now that you're older, you might be thinking about it in a more grownup way." Such an introduction gets across to children that you are interested in talking about the subject and that you are aware of their getting older and more sophisticated in their thinking. In any case, your willingness to "connect" with your children about their adoptions and not to deny the difference between being adopted and being born into a family can help them grieve this important loss.

You can help your children work through their loss if you can be non-defensive about their adoption as well as sensitive to how much they want or need to talk about it at a given time. Do not, however, place undue emphasis on the adoption, as this is likely to make children feel painfully self-conscious about it. But if facts and feelings about adoption are not discussed at all, children's fantasies about their backgrounds may be acted out unconsciously, thus carrying out their unconscious self-identification as an unworthy person.

Once they have understood the biological facts of life, and something about the social and cultural aspects of family life in their community, children of elementary school age begin to imagine things about their birth parents. One 7-year-old asked if her birth mother looked like their 15-year-old neighbor. An 8-year-old boy asked if his birth father could have been a friend of the family. A 9-year-old reported to her mother that she was looking in the shopping malls for a woman who had a nose like hers.

Although preschoolers want to hear how they were adopted and entered their homes, older children discover the reality that their birth mother relinquished them for adoption and ask why. Just as preschoolers try to make sense of reproduction by developing their own theories and mixing them with what their parents told them, older children try to reconcile their own theories with the available facts. What they learn produces a gamut of emotions ranging from incredulity to sadness, disappointment, anger, and guilt. Children may not express these feelings, but they have to be acknowledged, lived with, and digested before they develop a new understanding of adoption and themselves.

Some researchers think that children must grieve for the loss of the birth parents much in the same way that infertile couples grieve for the loss of a biological baby. Some children feel that they were given up because there was something wrong with them or because they were bad. Some become fearful that they will hurt their adoptive parents' feelings or make them angry if they want to find out more about their birth parents. Where preschoolers would often be quite open about expressing these feelings, older children have a greater sense of privacy and are not sure that their parents can tolerate their questions or feelings. Older children may, therefore, keep much more to themselves.

A common situation in children of this age, which you may recall from your own elementary school days, is imagining that they had been adopted or kidnapped from another set of parents who were usually better in every way than their own. These parents might have been rich or even royalty, and they did not make you take vitamins, eat spinach, go to bed at 9 p.m., or refuse to let you watch MTV. When life at home was unpleasant, we could daydream about this "better" family to soothe our angry or sad feelings.

These fantasies provide an outlet for times when children are infuriated or disappointed by their parents, and when they do not know how to cope with their anger toward them. Usually, as a child recognizes that love and hate, anger and affection, can be felt toward people without ruining the relationship completely (i.e., the preschooler's-"I won't be your best friend any more" changes to the 8-year-old's, "I'm so mad at Jenny that I won't sit near her at music today"), these thoughts of another family fade. Then your children can continue to identify with your characteristics, activities, and values.

The fantasy world of the adopted child is complicated by the existence of the birth parents, and is influenced by whatever information is available about them. Sometimes the facts make it more difficult for children to idealize their birth parents or put pressure on them to "choose" to "be just like" or "totally unlike" one or the other set of parents.

Psychological Identification

If your child has had several homes before yours, there is often a brief honeymoon period where s/he will try to be perfect to ensure your love. But soon the sense of loss, hurt, and anger surfaces. Your child may, consciously or not, break your rules, steal, lie, or act out physically or sexually. The child's message is "I'm going to leave here anyway, so I'd better make sure I don't get too close" or "Families don't last, and I'm angry about that."

You will need to help your children build trust and gain confidence that you will not abandon them. Part of that job is helping your children to develop the psychological identification that distinguishes them as individuals.

What is this identification process that is so critical to success and confidence in later life? It takes us back to the initial attachment process, when it is important for babies to make an emotional connection that shape their personalities and make them someone who is a unique individual as well as a member of a particular family.

During the elementary school-age years, children's identity comes from a combination of their genetic heritage, their experience with their families, and what happens to them as they try to find their place in the wider world. They want to be like their peers and their families.

The creation of a family tree, a common elementary school assignment which asks children to construct a portrait of their geographical, ethnic, historical, and birth connections, offers an opportunity and a challenge to the adoptive family. This assignment will bring to the surface knowledge and ignorance about your child's background and legitimize discussion of family facts and secrets.

If there has been openness about adoption and sensitivity to not insisting on discussing adoption when a child is not receptive, parents will be able to discover from their child what can and cannot be included in the family tree assignment. A 10-year-old, after moving to a new school, said she would like to be the one to decide whether to tell new classmates that she was adopted, because now she was the boss of that information. Is it farfetched to think that a 10-year-old is old enough to be "boss" of her adoptive information? At this age, the child's self-esteem will flourish if she can feel her parents trust her as she learns and masters new facts about herself and the world.

Sometimes during the elementary school years, before or after the family tree experience, children learn about heredity, genes, and "blood relationships." At this time, the adopted child realizes at the highest cognitive and emotional level so far, the differences between biological and adoptive relationships. Reactions to this information are probably as varied as the children and include feelings of relief, a sense of enlightenment, heightened interest in learning more about birth parents, denial of any interest, or feelings of loss and grief.

Remember that all adopted children have feelings about their adoption, and that many times in their development they will struggle with why their birth parents made an adoption plan for them. You can help your children by letting them know that they are not alone in these feelings and that it is all right with you if they express them and try to get explanations for what puzzles or troubles them. The more open family discussions have been from the beginning of verbal communication, the more likely it is that communication will continue no matter how intense or complex the subject becomes.

You may also want to remind yourself and your child that learning about adoption, like learning about life, is an ongoing adventure that you want to share with your child as much as you can, but that you understand that some of this learning has to be pursued alone as well. At this point, your child is old enough to choose the pace at which s/he wants to consider these new ideas. However, you as parents are still in a position to guide, instruct, and set limits. A 9-year-old who wants, suddenly, to look for her birth mother the day after a fight over bedtime can be told that Mom feels she has to do some maturing before she is ready for that step.

Since these are the years when youngsters appear to seriously confront the "sad side" of relinquishment and adoption, opportunities to meet with and talk to other adoptees their age, as well as with adolescent and adult adoptees, are beneficial. It helps children see a bit into their own futures.

Foreign adoptees can benefit from cross-cultural experiences appropriate to elementary school-aged children. Some children are thrilled to attend an adoption family camp or summer program. Others prefer to process their feelings within their adoptive families or even alone. The more sensitive to your child's feelings you can be, and the more experience you and your child have in discussing feelings together, the more consoling and comforting you can be to each other. You will then survive and eventually triumph over this period of self-discovery and grieving.

Adolescence-Who Am I And Where Am I Going?

No sooner do your children begin to understand the wonders of biology than their own bodies begin the surge of growth toward puberty and the awesome stage of adolescence. Adolescence, for all its newness-it was not considered a distinct stage of life until after the first World War-has quickly acquired a reputation as a difficult and trying period for children and parents. Physical growth changes the person from a child to an adult, in preparation for procreation, but mental and emotional development may take years to catch up with the body. Adolescents' behavior is in transition and not fixed; their feelings about the world and their place in it are tentative and changeable, like a chameleon's.

The adolescent's primary task is to establish a secure sense of identity; the process is arduous, time-consuming, and intense. Establishing a stable identity includes being able to live and work on one's own, to maintain a comfortable position in one's family, and to become a contributing citizen in one's community.

It is the nature of all adolescents, adopted or not, to question everything and everyone. It is also in their parents' nature to worry about their children's futures and their own survival in this period. Almost everyone agrees that, although often extremely difficult, open communication can smooth the process.

Adolescence is a time of trying on and choosing in all aspects of life. Two major aspects of adult identity formation will be choice of work and choice of a partner to love. Teenagers look for and imitate role models. They critically examine their family members (as they did in elementary school), peers, teachers, and all the other heroes and anti-heroes the culture offers from rock musicians and movie stars, to ball players and politicians, to grandparents and peers' older brothers and sisters. They idolize and devalue people, ideas, and religious concepts. They often bond tightly with peers in small groups that are intolerant of all outsiders. They vacillate between criticism of others and harsh self-criticism. They are sometimes supremely self-confident and often in the depths of despair about their abilities and future success.

If normal adolescence involves a crisis in identity, it stands to reason that adopted teenagers will face additional complications because of what some have called "genealogical bewilderment" (Sants). The fact that the adoptee has two sets of parents raises more complicated questions about ancestral history now that intellectual development has assumed adult proportions. The search for possible identification figures may cause the adolescent to fantasize more about birth parents, become interested in specific facts about birth relatives, or wish to search for or meet them.

Although all adopted adolescents have to struggle to integrate their fantasies and future goals with their actual potential and realities, foreign, biracial, and other cross-cultural adoptees (as well as teenagers with physical or emotional disabilities) have additional challenges. They may suffer more from what Erik Erikson calls "identity diffusion," i.e., feelings of aimlessness, fragmentation, or alienation. They may appear outwardly angrier at adoptive parents, and more critical of what their parents did or did not do to help them adjust to their adoptive status. They may withdraw more into themselves, or conversely feel they need to "set off to see the world" in hopes of finding their true identity.

Adolescents often express their reactions to loss by rebelling against parental standards. Knowing that they have a different origin contributes to their need to define themselves autonomously. According to Dr. Nickman, "An adopted son or daughter cannot be expected to be a conformist. If he is, he may be inhibiting an important part of himself for the sake of basic security or out of a sense of guilt or responsibility to his adopters."

It probably helps a child to be told by adoptive parents that they understand their son or daughter's need to take control of his or her own life, and that they stand ready to assist in any way that they can, including giving their blessing to a child who needs to "to go it alone" for a while. Of course, a youngster under 17 years of age might be asked to wait until s/he could realistically manage in whatever environment would be encountered.

Parent Network For The Post-Institutionalized Child

PNPIC is a resource for those persons involved in an international adoption. It is a support network devoted to understanding the medical, developmental, emotional and educational needs of children adopted from hospital, orphanages and institutions throughout the world.

Impact of Adoption on Adopted Persons

This is an informative document from the Child Welfare Information Gateway.  It notes that as the discussion of the adoption process becomes more open and accepted in American society, and as more Americans have experience with adoption, there is also more attention focused on those involved in adoption-the adopted person, the birth parents, and the adoptive parents (often referred to as the adoption triad or, more recently, the adoption constellation). People who have experienced adoption firsthand are coming forward to talk or write about their experiences, and researchers are conducting scientific studies to find out about the impact of adoption on all members of the adoption triad.  This factsheet examines the impact of adoption on adopted persons who have reached adulthood. While it is difficult to make sweeping statements about such a large and diverse group as adopted persons, it can be said that adopted persons generally lead lives that are no different from the lives of non-adopted persons; however, they have experiences that are unique to being adopted, and these experiences may have an impact on their lives at various times.

The following is adapted from the CWIG website and factsheet.

There are several themes that emerge from both the personal accounts of adopted persons and from the studies of academic researchers. This factsheet addresses these themes, which include loss, the development of identity and self-esteem, interest in genetic information, and managing adoption issues.

  • The Adoption Issues section looks at some of the issues that adopted persons may face, including developmental and emotional issues and the need for genetic or medical information.
  • Managing Adoption Issues reviews some of the ways that adopted persons handle adoption-related issues.
  • Resources for adopted persons includes books, articles, websites, and more.
Adoption Issues

Loss and Grief. The loss of the birth parents as a result of adoption sets the stage for the feelings of loss and abandonment that many adopted persons may experience at some point in their lives. Even those who are adopted as newborns at times experience a loss of the early bond to the mother, although this loss may not become apparent until the child is older and able to understand the consequences. In the book Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self, authors Brodzinsky, Schechter, and Marantz (1992) suggest that dealing with the loss of the birth parents, coupled with a search for self, are two processes that can contribute to shaping the psychological development of adopted persons. These authors outline developmental tasks that an adopted person should address at each stage of life in order to make a healthy adaptation and to cope with the feelings of loss and the search for self.

Loss, as well as feelings of rejection and abandonment by the birth parents, are frequent themes throughout the books and articles written by adopted persons about their experiences. Adopted persons, as children and as adults, may wonder why they were placed for adoption or what was "wrong" with them that caused their birth parents to give them up. Grief is a common reaction to the loss of the birth parents, and grieving may begin when the child is old enough to understand what being adopted means. Young children who are able to comprehend that they have gained adoptive parents are also able to understand that they have lost birth parents, and comprehension of this loss may trigger grief. The adopted child or adult may have a difficult time finding an outlet for this grief, since grieving for birth parents is not a reaction that society acknowledges. If the adoptive family is a generally happy one, the adopted child or adult may even feel guilty for grieving.

Along with grief and guilt, the adopted person may react to the loss through the normal feelings of anger, numbness, depression, anxiety, or fear. These feelings may occur during childhood and adolescence, as well as during later points in life, especially during emotionally charged milestones, such as marriage, the birth of a child, or the death of a parent. In addition, new losses may trigger memories of the loss of the birth parents. For instance, some adopted persons who face divorce or death of a spouse may find the experience especially difficult, because this new loss reawakens the old fears of abandonment and loss. Adopted persons who experience feelings of loss or abandonment during adulthood may or may not recognize a connection between their current feelings and their old feelings about the initial loss of the birth parents.

Adopted persons may also suffer secondary losses. For instance, along with the loss of birth mother and birth father, the adopted person may experience the loss of brothers and sisters, as well as grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. There may be a loss of cultural connection or language (in cases of intercountry or transracial adoption). For those who were adopted as older children, there may be a loss of siblings, friends, pets, foster families, schools, neighborhoods, and familiar surroundings. All of these losses may trigger grief and may require some outlet or some form of resolution.

Identity Development and Self-Esteem. Adopted persons' questions about identity often occur first during adolescence. The task of identity development during adolescence is often more difficult for the adopted teenager because of the additional adoption issues. The adopted adolescent's identity development includes questions about the biological family, why he or she was placed for adoption, what became of the birth parents, whether the adolescent resembles the birth parents in looks or in other characteristics, and where the adolescent "belongs" in terms of education, social class, culture, peer group, and more. The question of the influence of nature (inherited traits) versus nurture (acquired traits) may become very real to the adopted adolescent, who is trying to determine the impact of all of these influences on his or her own identity.

Identity issues may continue into adulthood. The birth of a child to an adopted person may bring up some of these issues, as the new parent may experience a biological connection to a family member for the first time. For this person, there is now someone who "looks like me." This new connection may cause the adopted adult to revisit earlier issues of identity. The new parent may also be prompted to think about what his or her birth mother experienced in giving birth and what the birth mother and father may have experienced in making the decision to place the child for adoption. Adopted adults who become new parents may be sympathetic to the difficulties of their birth parents, or they may wonder how their birth parents could ever have placed them for adoption.

Accompanying these issues of identity are issues of self-esteem-that is, how the adopted person feels about him or herself. A number of studies have found that, while adopted persons are similar to non adopted persons in most ways, they often score lower on measures of self-esteem and self-confidence (Borders, Penny & Portnoy, 2000; Sharma, McGue & Benson, 1996). This result may reflect the fact that some adopted persons may view themselves as different, out-of-place, unwelcome, or rejected. Some of these feelings may result from the initial loss of birth parents and from growing up away from birth parents, siblings, and extended family members; some may also result from an ongoing feeling of being different from non adopted people who do know about their genetic background and birth family and may be more secure about their own identity as a result.

Genetic Information. Adopted persons often lack genetic and medical history, as well as other family information. A routine visit to the doctor's office, where the adopted person is asked to supply medical history information, may make adopted persons acutely aware of how they differ from those who were not adopted. Those who find out only later in life that they were adopted as infants are sometimes put at risk by their long-held assumption of a family medical history that they later find is completely incorrect.

When an adopted person plans to get married or become a parent, the need for genetic information may become more important. Adopted persons have different questions about the child they will produce, such as what the child will look like, and if the child will inherit any genetic disorders that were unknown to the adopted person.

In many cases, non identifying information, such as medical history, may be placed in the adoption file by the birth parents or agency at the time of the adoption. Adoption agencies or attorneys may allow adopted persons to have access to this non identifying information. In some States, adopted persons can petition a judge to have their adoption records opened, and some judges will agree to do so in order to provide urgently needed medical information.  However, obtaining access to information provided by the birth parents at the time of the adoption may not be sufficient to provide a full medical history. It is more useful if birth parents, over the years, have updated the file that is kept with the adoption agency or attorney. In that way, an adopted person may learn if a birth parent or grandparent later developed a genetic disease or condition.

Managing Adoption Issues

Research shows that most adopted persons are similar to non adopted persons in their adult adjustment.  However, there is also significant research, along with the personal accounts of adopted persons, that suggest that many adopted persons struggle with issues of loss, identity, and self-esteem. There are a number of ways that adopted persons manage these issues.

Support Groups. Many adopted persons are helped by support groups where they can talk about their feelings with others who have similar experiences. The support group may provide a long-needed outlet for any lingering feelings of loss or grief. Adopted persons may also find support for new losses that occur during their adult years. In addition, support groups may provide help for the adopted person with the decision of whether to search for birth relatives or other issues. Listings of support groups by State may be found in the CWIG's National Adoption Directory.

Counseling. Some adopted persons may need more help than they find from family and friends or through a support group. In these instances, adopted persons may seek professional counseling. It is important to identify a counselor who has experience with adoption issues. Sometimes, the original adoption agency may be able to provide a referral. Also, support groups may have experience with local counselors and be able to make a recommendation.

Education. For many adopted persons, reading about the experiences of others can be a helpful coping mechanism. Knowing that there are others who have gone through similar experiences can provide reassurance that these feelings and experiences are normal. A growing number of books and websites deal with adoption, and the adopted person who has the time to seek these out should be able to find stories and information about people with similar experiences. These may include information about persons adopted domestically as infants or as older children from foster care or persons adopted from another country.

Searching. More and more adopted persons are acting on their desire to search for their birth families. This is reflected in the number of websites and books about searching and even in the change in some State laws that regulate access to adoption records. Reports of adoption reunions are mixed; some lead to happy new relationships, and some do not. Regardless of the result, most searchers report that they are content to have found the truth about themselves and that the truth has filled a void for them.

The searching process actually encompasses a number of steps, from making the decision to search for birth parents or other birth kin, to conducting the search, and, if successful, arranging the reunion and establishing a post reunion relationship with birth family members. The decision to initiate a search is a personal one, and many adopted persons never search. For those who do, the decision may be triggered by a life event, or it may be the culmination of many years of unanswered questions. The search process itself can be stressful and time consuming; however, the rewards can be great when it results in a reunion that is desired by both parties.

Searchers will find that there is no Federal law that governs whether an adopted person can access information about birth parents, the adoption, or an original birth certificate. Instead, access to adoption information is regulated completely by the laws of the State in which the adoption took place, and these State laws vary dramatically.


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