When we think about adopted children, most of us picture a happy family of cooing parents bonding with an adorable infant. For the adult who was adopted as a child, however, this blissful image is often tarnished by issues that carry over from childhood.
What problems do adopted adults have? Among other things, they often suffer from:
- Feelings of loss and grief
- Problems with developing an identity
- Reduced self-esteem and self-confidence
- Increased risk of substance abuse
- Higher rates of mental health disorders, such as depression and PTSD.
In fact, Childwelfare.gov reports that, “…most of the literature points to adopted adolescents and adults being more likely to receive counseling than their nonadopted peers (Borders et al., 2000; Miller et al., 2000).”
What Are The Psychological Effects Of Adoption?
Way back in 1982, Silverstein and Kaplan did a study that identified seven core issues in adoption that still hold true today. They are:
- and Mastery/Control
The study reports that, “Many of the issues inherent in the adoption experience converge when the adoptee reaches adolescence. At this time three factors intersect: an acute awareness of the significance of being adopted; a drive toward emancipation; and a biopsychosocial striving toward the development of an integrated identity.”
Loss first comes into the adoptee’s life when they are given up by their birth parents. Although the child is taken into a new family, there is still a sense of loss, even if the child is an infant. We know that it is very beneficial for newborns to bond with their mother – imagine how it can affect a baby who does not make this crucial connection.
Later, as the child matures and finds out they were adopted, that sense of loss becomes a theme running through the person’s subconscious. As such, adopted children typically feel succeeding losses much more deeply than their non-adopted counterparts.
Rejection is part of the initial loss the adoptee experiences. In order to be adopted, they had to be rejected by their birth parents. Later in life, if a birth parent blocks the adoptee’s search for them, the person experiences yet another rejection.
Guilt/shame comes from the adoptee’s feelings of rejection. As we know, children tend to blame themselves when something bad happens, therefore an adopted child naturally questions what they must have done wrong (or what was wrong or “bad” about them) that made their birth parent give them away. Even if the adoptee knows the reason they were placed for adoption, they often still secretly harbor the idea that they were somehow “broken” or could have been a “better” baby, which is why their birth parents rejected them.
Grief is part of adoption because the child lost their birth parents. We see adoption as a joyous occasion for the parents who are adopting the child, therefore the thought is that adopted kids should feel thankful to have a new family. Grieving for what they lost doesn’t usually have a place in the child’s life – it is considered a rejection of the adoptive parents if the child grieves.
Additionally, children sometimes don’t feel the effects of their deep-seated loss until they reach adolescence or adulthood and have developed a high enough cognitive level to understand what the loss means to their life. In many cases, this leads to substance abuse, depression, or aggression.
Identity is another loss the adopted adult must face. While they have been given a new name and identity by their adoptive parents, is it who they truly are? Or are they really the person they were before the adoption?
Even if they fully embrace their new family, the adoptee still suffers a loss of identity because they often know nothing about their birth family. What medical concerns do they need to watch out for (i.e.” does heart disease run in their birth family)? Who are their ancestors? What do they know about inherited genetic ties or family backgrounds?
Intimacy is frequently difficult for the adopted adult because they have such deeply rooted feelings of rejection, guilt or shame, and don’t truly have an identity. Often people who have gone through these negative emotions subconsciously push others away to avoid experiencing another loss.
The Silverstein and Kaplan study notes that, “Many adoptees as teen[s] state that they truly have never felt close to anyone. Some youngsters declare a lifetime emptiness related to a longing for the birth mother they may have never seen.”
Lastly, adoptees often feel little sense of mastery/control over their lives because they had no say in the matter of their adoption. Whether placed with their adoptive family at birth or as an older child, they were not given an option. As they mature, this can result in power struggles with authority figures and a reduced sense of responsibility.
How To Cope With Being Adopted
The first step to coping with being adopted is to recognize that the experience itself leaves residual problems. When the adoptee learns about and acknowledges the core issues inherent to adoption, they can begin to talk about them with someone, such as their adoptive parents, support groups, or a professional.
Accepting and exploring these core issues helps the adoptee work through them. The open adoptions that are the norm nowadays may reduce their sense of loss and guilt, while interacting with other adopted adults can allow the person to feel less alone.
It should be said that, while finding the birth parents can give the adoptee answers and closure, this is a deeply emotional process. Before contacting their birth family, the individual should prepare themselves to experience possible further rejection if a reunion is not what they dreamed it would be (or if the birth parents refuse to meet them once they have been found).
In addition, if an adoptee seeks out a therapist, they should make sure they talk to a professional who has special training in adoption issues.
We Can Help
If you are an adopted adult and are struggling with your feelings, the mental health professionals at The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders in Delray Beach, Florida, can help. For more information, contact us or call us today at 561-496-1094.