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Growing Up Adopted

By Adam Pertman, Author of Adoption Nation

Most adoptees start coping with identity issues by the time they're seven or eight. Developmentally, that's when children begin the transition from concrete to abstract thinking; for adoptees, it's the time when the word "adoption" becomes a multifaceted concept rather than just a description of a procedure. Most pointedly, they start to internalize a fact they might have known but never really understood: that, in order for their parents to have gotten them, someone had to give them up. And, as these children acquire a rudimentary grasp of reproduction, they add another volatile variable to their emotional mix: that the someones who gave them up were their mothers and fathers, too.

It can be a confusing, painful revelation. It causes some children to begin grieving, others to become angry or feel guilty, yet others to withdraw. Whatever its effects, it's one of a series of distinct stages in most adoptees' lives that can powerfully influence their maturation - perhaps making it difficult for a child to make attachments or, alternately, to become clingy - and presenting particular challenges for their parents.

The ensuing stages, typically during the teen years, are marked by progressively greater ranges of emotion, desires to assert independence or control, and, sometimes, resentment and depression.1. Adoptees aren't necessarily tougher to raise because of their own concerns - certainly no more so than, say, the children of divorce or those with other familial issues - but it is important that adults, whether they're parents or teachers or psychiatrists, understand these phases so they can anticipate and respond to them.

How they do so obviously depends on the particular individuals and circumstances. An insecure ten-year-old boy who seems reluctant to ask questions of any kind, for instance, might need gentle reminders that he didn't cause his birth parents to relinquish him, while an assertive fifteen-year-old girl might need support for her genealogical research. At any age, adoptees benefit from reassurances that their anger, guilt, and grief are normal, that they are unconditionally loved, and that their current families are theirs forever, whatever they may do in their lives or whatever other relationships they choose to establish.

The more information adoptive parents have during these critical junctures, the better they can explain and demonstrate their points. Relationships with birth parents can also play an important role when they're possible, because they allow children to obtain a firsthand grasp of the complex reasons someone might have had for relinquishing them. It can take years for adoptees to internalize the notion that an adoption placement itself is an act of love, a selfless decision intended to do what's best for the child.

The research on adoptees shows they generally grow up to be pretty much like everybody else, but some studies seem to conflict with others. Now that adoption is coming out of the closet, better and broader work is being done, but some points of consensus already have emerged from the clinical investigations, surveys ,and personal experiences that adoption professionals have examined. Among them:

Adoptees receive psychological treatment at higher rates than the population at large, particularly during adolescence. This disparity presumably stems largely from the tumult of having to deal with complex emotions and tough identity questions. Sensitivity to loss and fear of rejection, in particular, appear to become pronounced issues in a disproportionate percentage of adoptees as they get older.2

But the increased incidence of counseling is also attributable to the heightened consciousness of triad members to developmental and behavioral issues, as well as to the fact that most Americans who adopt privately are affluent enough to afford professional help. As a result, adoptive parents often seek assistance for their children more readily, and adoptees themselves request it more frequently than do other people who may assume (rightly or wrongly) that a specific problem occurs naturally in anyone's life.

Adoptees, particularly those who get new families as infants, have comparable grades and self-esteem as their nonadopted friends by the time they are teenagers. Those conclusions are drawn from several studies, including the largest ever conducted of U.S. families with adolescent adoptees - a four-year survey of two thousand people released by the Minnesota-based Search Institute in 1994. It found no difference in outcomes between same-race and transracial adoptions, including on the questions of where adoptees wanted to meet their birth parents. Sixty-five percent said "yes."

While heartening for adoptive families, these findings weren't one-sided and have to be viewed with a huge grain of salt. The adoptions in this study were arranged by agencies that carefully screened prospective parents; consequently, as a group, they were better educated, more affluent, more demonstrative with affections, and typically faced fewer complications like divorce. The children, meanwhile, were generally adopted in good health and at young ages - and, since they filled out their questionnaires while in their parent's homes, they could have felt pressure to give positive answers.

Even children from institutionalized settings, in which they were deprived or abused, make sustained progress once they're adopted. Studies indicate about 20 percent initially have several adjustment difficulties, but the number drops by half after five years. Children from well-run well-established orphanages in countries like China and Korea (the overwhelming majority of whom are adopted by white parents) show no discernible behavioral or developmental differences from their nonadopted peers.3

Most parents of internationally adopted children, wherever they were born and whatever their backgrounds, say that all but the most severe problems eventually become manageable or are overcome with the help of counseling, medical intervention, and persistent attention. And more than 90 percent of all these parents report that they are happy with their adoptions; one out of ten dissatisfied parents is far too many, but the number can't be much different among people who are raising their biological children.

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1.See J.M. Pavao, The Family of Adoption (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998).
2. T. Lesaca, "Preadoption Risk Factors," Psychiatric Times (March 1998). Online:
3. W.J. Kim, "International Adoption: A Case Review of Korean Children," Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 25(3) (Spring 1995), pp. 141-154.

©2001 Copyright Adam Pertman.
Originally published in Adoption Nation . Reprinted by permission of Adam Pertman. All rights reserved.
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