What Problems Do Adopted Adults Have?

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:

  • Loss
  • Rejection
  • Guilt/Shame
  • Grief
  • Identity
  • Intimacy
  • 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.

15 Comments
  1. Pingback: What Problems Do Adopted Adults Have? - Natural Anxiety Care Guide & Tips

  2. Reply
    Jaydon

    Hi there, this artical literally made me cry i been trying to find/seek something like this almost explaining exactly how i feel being adopted, many of these things have only really emerged or come to a reality in my mind recently ( i am 24 now adopted when i was 2)
    thankyou so much, i have realized i have very severe identity issues and amounts many of the other issues in this artical. i always thought i was fine with being adopted i always told people i was to ease my mind but i knew deep deep down i had issues but always pushed them aside.

    thankyou again this has truly help me

    • Reply
      FocusedLum

      I feel you so much. Also started prossesing this at the age of 22 and was adopted when I was 1. @Jaydon

  3. Reply
    Ian Forsyth

    Hi
    My name is Ian and I am English. I read this with a lot of emotion and interest. I was adopted in Liverpool 68 years ago and have had problems all my life. There is little support in the UK and I am glad there is somewherr in the US that people like me contact.
    Well done and good luck.
    Ian

  4. Reply
    nightengale

    I didn’t think I had issues from being adopted (closed adoption at birth) but now as a middle-aged adult, I’m learning online for the first time that I actually do have problems most likely stemming from the fact that I was taken from my birth mother and then never bonded with, and was actually rejected and abused both physically and verbally, by my adopted mother . Articles like this are helpful to me, thank you.

  5. Reply
    Chris Potts

    Very interesting.

    I’m 70 and was adopted at 5 months.
    I was given an incredibly good upbringing.But was difficult as a child and prone to go my own way outside the mould.I was a delinquent at boarding school and have always been anti authority.The very good English boarding school I attended got me onto the right track.

    I have always had a strong sense of restlessness and insecurity.Which have driven me to be extremely hard working and goal oriented.

    I became a solicitor in a top London firm.And set up my own law practice aged 31.

    I’m restless and bored if not occupied.I channel into risk taking sports :motor bikes,wreck diving,flying,speedboats.

    My half blood sister traced me in 2011.I was hesitant to see her.But we did meet and now have regular contact,although 6,000 miles distant.She has told me about our mother who died 14 years ago without us ever reuniting.I have also met several of my birth family.And the experiences have generally been very rewarding.
    Relationships are difficult and I blanch from total commitment.I have a strong sex drive and have fathered numerous children.I currently provide for 6 from different mothers.2 girls are de facto adopted.I’m fervently committed to treating them all the same as the blood children.

    I have been divorced for 6 years and am living with a partner,with another partner living with my 4 kids 1.75 hour flight from here.I really love and miss them but we’re separated because of C19 regulations.

    I have been a multi millionaire since age 40 and continue to have strong business acumen and tangible material success.

    From what I read ,I may have some of the adoptee problems but I’ve always got over them.

    I hope you find this helpful in your studies.

  6. Reply
    John good

    Wow I have had feelings of emptiness and been somewhat depressed from time to time about the loss or not knowing my birth parents. I’m 51 years old now and I remember as early as four that my adopted dad told me I was adopted. Dad was a really kind man and he unfortunately married my mother who thinks there are no problems on this earth. She is clueless and not educated or even being interested in being educated. After my dad died nearly 20 years ago I have really felt all alone and my substance abuse flew out of control I did several stays at the Betty Ford to get sober or get 30 days in my case then afterwards went right back to it then in Feb of 2014 a friend from boarding school was in my AA meeting the day after the super bowl, which is the most called in day of the year for sickness or to be excused from work, and he called me out by saying hey john I think you need the seat more than I do and I have a double huneria operation tomorrow. I was trying to give him my seat because he looked sick but I knew he had 12 years long story short this guy by his remark embrassed me so much I have been sober ever since from alcohol I’m still a pot smoker but I rationalize due to my running daily and tell myself it’s okay not to be perfect from obstaining from everything substance wise. Ok back to adoption again when dad passed a part of me did too. I tried talking to mom about finding my birth parents and she simply replied, why, you don’t love me just unreal so I have just put my quest into hiding about finding birth parents plus it’s just too much I’m the black sheep of the family everyone the family on both sides I’m related to is a doctor lawyer etc or highly successful so were we until dad passed then my mother started dating our mayor and gambled all monies away. Now I just go sell at flea markets have five dogs run daily go to the wrecking yard and cook and take care of mother. I have had many failed relationships and very unhealthy relationships I have even chose relationships that some of my girlfriends have passed due to our laxed or party lifestyles again I have put the drink down in 2014 but I still live like a dry drunk most of the time and take adivan when needed due to anxiety and other thoughts I can’t seem to control. All the lying has stopped due to low selfsteem but the happiness and healthy relationships have yet to begin man I just feel so lost at times. I seem to give up at times in my mind but with dogs and exercising with them daily usually keeps me going in a somewhat positive direction. I use to go out with debutants and very rich women,most unhealthy, until I quit drinking. Now the tides have turned from rich educated women due to my environment and what road or path I have taken I have lived all around the country from Charleston sc to key west fla to Santa Barbara ca. I have really done and seen a lot of shit. Since moving back home the last several years to care for mom I have dated three girls in 2020 their ages vary from 27 to 33 to 47 all on disability and uneducated. Just a world of difference mt airy nc verses the other places I have lived in my lifetime. I’m at the point of never trying to have a relationship again because they all end in disappoint. I seem to relate better to my dogs and I look at it also as no
    drama if I stay out of relations and just hang with my dogs. The lack of friends use to bother me but I have come to terms most people just are work dealing with- so when it’s all said and done I’m not the happiest but I’m not the saddest either I’m just all alone except for my dogs then I deal with their deaths from time to time according to their age and I grieve and usually replace the breed I just lost with another of the same breed and the cycle just keeps running like a clock it never stops this is the only way I even know to live right now. Thanks for all the great articles and explanations it really helps to know these problems are common for the adopted child/adult again sincerely thanks John good

  7. Reply
    Heather

    After suffering from panic and anxiety I felt I needed to investigate possible reasons. I was adopted at6 months to an incredible family. I was loved and doted on and never felt I wasn’t wanted. Having said this from a young age I always felt I didn’t quite fit. My whole life I’ve felt “ not good enough” and I could never really figure out why. Because the feelings I experienced seem to go hand in hand with a poor childhood with abuse or lacking love neither which I experienced. How ever my need to please or fix or never be the one that caused someone to feel bad seem to stem from the fear of being given away or not wanted. It seems hard to understand that at 6 months old I might have been cognitively aware enough to feel abandoned. I’m not sure how to learn that it’s ok for me to accept love. I’m married with children and love them with all my heart.

    • Reply
      Dr. Andrew Rosen

      Hi Heather, Please contact us through the contact page for the options and support available.

  8. Reply
    Claudia

    Can you recommend any good literature for an adoptee suffering from pretty much all of the above? I’m 50, was adopted at birth, had an amazing life, but have always felt restless, unloved, angry, lost, and have absolutely zero sense of self. I need to get my shit together. Would love some direction on reading material. Also, to all of you feeling the same way – I SEE you!! <3

    • Reply
      Dr. Andrew Rosen

      Hi Claudia, Please contact us through the contact page for the support and recommendations available.

  9. Reply
    Darrin Beazley

    Loss of identity is my major issue. Find life pointless and abserb. Zero self esteem and motivation. Enduring total mental health bi polar so darkness is my state of being. Drug addictio. Never wanted kids and hate love. Feel alienation no self. Yet find substance in fanatical devotion 2 many successful sports teams MUFC all Boston teams Celtics ,Patriots and Red Sox. Covid 19 unemployment yet adore second lockdown AK NZ. Find respite and solice in music. Adopted from birth by exceptional loving grandparents. Close 2 birth Mother and all nine siblings. Am a completely broken puzzle with pieces missing. Abyss. Struggling through each day.
    How is it going and I reply U cannot deal with my reality always suicidal.
    Have empathetic accepting friends and family can’t destroy them.
    That above list of adoptive issues I’ve focused on my whole life. Yet am still good honest productive humorous popular wise encourageing person inspite of my mental paralysis

    • Reply
      Dr. Andrew Rosen

      Hi Darrin, Please contact us through the contact page if you are interested in the options and support available.

  10. Reply
    Davy

    My wife is adopted and we have never talked about her being adopted. I can see many of the symptoms that you write about in her and how they affect her and our marriage. Wish we had gotten counseling years ago.

    • Reply
      Dr. Andrew Rosen

      Hi Davy, If you and your wife are open to it, please contact us through the contact page for the options and support available.

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