When talking about adoption, it’s not uncommon to hear adopted persons being referred to as “lucky” for their situation. They were chosen by a family who loved them despite not having made them. They were given opportunities their birth parents weren’t able to provide. While it’s true that the love of their family is special and wonderful, it doesn’t paint the whole picture of adoption.
The truth is, adoption impacts every person who experiences it — adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents. These effects will last a lifetime for those individuals. But over the years, adoptees have often been overlooked in terms of the pains and struggles after adoption. As a society, we tend to focus on how the birth mother feels after the loss of her child, and not how the adoptee feels after the loss of their mother. The seven core issues of adoption are especially pertinent to the life of an adoptee.
At the heart of everything an adoptee struggles with is loss. Adoption cannot exist without it. Every adopted person has experienced a life-altering loss — their initial separation from their birth mother at a vulnerable age. There is a misconception that children adopted as infants are not unaffected, because they are too young to remember. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Infants learn to recognize their mother’s voice long before birth. Thus, no matter how young or old the child was at the time they were adopted, they feel the separation in the most profound way.
In fact, an adoptee has not only lost a birth mother, but other family members as well. Siblings are typically the longest relationships we have in life. Adoptees will tend to yearn for close relationships with their siblings, even those they never knew. Moreover, a myriad of other losses surround an adoptees life. To name a few: culture, religion, racial and ethnic connections, medical information, birth history, language, and more.
Feelings of loss are exacerbated with a sense of rejection. Why me? We’ve all asked ourselves this question before. We’ve all struggled to understand rejection. But for an adoptee, it is much more difficult. Children, especially younger children, often take responsibility for the things that happen to them, negative and positive alike. Telling stories of their birth parents placing them up for adoption out of love often falls on deaf ears. You’ll often hear young adopted children struggle to understand why their birth mother left. It is quite difficult for them to view their adoption as anything other than a total rejection. This can be worsened by learning of their birth parents having other children, leading them to feel cast away.
Additionally, adoptees are taught at a young age by society that interest in their birth family correlates with rejecting their adoptive family. Adoptees are usually able to separate their feelings of rejection from their adoptive family. But even so, adoptees may continue to struggle with a fear of rejection throughout their life, perhaps developing attachment issues along the way.
Furthermore, a sense of deserving loss and rejection leads to feelings of guilt and shame. They may feel that they did something specifically wrong that led to them being placed for adoption. Or they feel that there is something intrinsically wrong with them. Even those adopted as infants will wonder what they did “wrong” to make their birth parents not want them.
The secrecy that surrounds many adoptions only worsens this issue. Adopted children may be sheltered from truths about their birth parents and details about their adoption, especially those that had a closed adoption. Keeping secrets from adoptees gives them the message that where they came from or who they are is shameful. Luckily, these adoption practices have been evolving over the years and openness in adoption and adoption language has greatly helped the lives of adoptees.
Every loss must be grieved. It is part of healing. But in our society, adoption is a problem-solving event. Adoptees are “better off.” Being adopted is truly wonderful, but there is always room for improvement in the way we discuss the effects of adoption. Oftentimes, children’s feelings are overlooked or dismissed. Parents try to distract sad children. They want to save them from the emotional pain of dealing with their loss. In some cases, adopted children are expected to feel grateful and happy about their adoption causing them to feel that their grief is inappropriate. This is an unfair burden on a child, particularly because it undermines the validity of their experiences and emotions.
Grief comes in waves. No matter what you are grieving, there will be times where it overwhelms you, typically at times of other loss or big life transitions. Grief can present itself in many ways and it will look different for every child. Believe it or not, newborns grieve. Some ways it will show up can be numbness, anxiety, depression, anger, regression, fearful, hyperactivity, and more. For children, grief can even prevent in physical symptoms, such as stomach aches or frequent colds. It is important for adoptive parents to be mindful. The best help they can give their child is providing a safe and loving environment for their child to express this grief.
Adoption and identity are often talked about together. Identity formation is a part of growing up. Every adolescent goes through a period where they struggle to figure out what it is about them that makes them who they are. Adoptees must go through the same, however, they have an added stressor. They must learn how to integrate their identity with their adoptive family and their birth family.
This identity formation can be extremely difficult for adoptees who have no or limited knowledge of their birth family. They may feel incomplete or deficient. They’ll often spend their life plagued with questions of where they come from. A lack of identity can lead to adolescent adoptees to seek a sense of belonging. Sometimes they can seek extreme measures like joining a radical subculture, becoming pregnant, or running away. Adoptees need the most support during this time from their family, allowing them to explore healthily. Openness in discussions about their adoption is the key to healthy development.
Adoptees tend to me more reserved or cautious with developing relationships. All of the other core issues of adoption come into play here. Developing emotional intimacy requires trust and vulnerability. It’s not easy for the average person, but can be even more difficult for an adoptee. In many cases, early and subsequent losses have disrupted bonding and early attachments. Those early years of a child’s life are extremely important for healthy attachments.
Adopted children be extra clingy, avoidant, or anxious. Adoptive parents, in some cases, will have to work extra hard to form trusting bonds with their children, especially if they were adopted past toddlerhood. Adoptees will often struggle with intimacy in romantic relationships, staying in unhealthy relationships for longer or avoiding relationships altogether.
Finally, adoptees must learn to come to terms with the circumstances of their adoption. Adoptees have no control over what their birth parents chose and who their adoptive parents are. The course of their life and all the struggles they have dealt with were determined by the choices of other people. They may struggle with feeling accomplished or fulfilled.
Adoptive parents should give their children age-appropriate responsibilities throughout their development and do their best to avoid power struggles. It’s important to acknowledge a child’s feelings of their lack of control and help them regain balance in an appropriate way. Adopted children will often need extra attention in skill building and problem solving.
Healing After Loss
At the end of the day, we all have our own struggles and we spend most of our adult life learning to deal with various childhood traumas and experiences. Adoptees may experience more than the average child, but healing after loss is more than possible. As we’ve developed as a society, we’ve learned to be more understanding of the emotional struggles of children and the complex issues they face. The more we talk about adoption and the core issues that come along with it, the more we will be able to help our adopted brothers and sisters heal. It is our job to provide an environment for those affected by adoption to feel comfortable discussing their feelings, especially adopted children.
Adoption Choices of Nevada
If you are currently in the process of adopting a baby and have any questions or concerns, feel free to contact, Adoption Choices of Nevada. You may visit the website here or contact us by 775-825-4673 (Reno Office) or 702-474-4673 (Las Vegas Office). Our hours are Monday through Friday, 9am-5pm PST.
Support Adoption Choices
Adoption Choices, Inc. is partnering with Crowdrise, a fundraising website for nonprofits, to help our adoptive parents and birth parents with much needed financial assistance. We understand that expenses keep clients from fulfilling their dreams. Both with birth parents making a plan for adoption, and with adoptive parents growing their family. It is our mission to provide financial assistance through grants and scholarships, awarded annually in November, in honor of National Adoption Month. Funds assist adoptive parents with matching and placements, adoption finalization and helping birth mothers improve their lives through higher education — and much more.
However, we can’t do it alone. Please read up on our programs and donate money where you are able. Your donation will make a huge impact.
About the Author
Devon Thornton is a graduate of the University of Central Florida with a Bachelor’s in Creative Writing. She has recently moved from Orlando, FL to Clarksville, TN, and is pursuing her writing career with Adoption Choices and also writing personal essays in her free time. Devon is an avid reader and a big Harry Potter fan.
When she’s not curled up reading a book, you can find her somewhere on a hike or a camping trip. She loves her cat, Minerva, and considers herself a true animal lover. She hopes one day to publish a book of essays and to maybe meet J.K. Rowling.
“Post-Adoption Services: Acknowledging and Dealing with Loss.” Edited by Chuck Johnson and Megan Lestino, Adoption Advocate, National Council for Adoption, Mar. 2016, www.adoptioncouncil.org/files/large/ad07fe3e4ce31cd.
Silverstein, Deborah N, and Sharon Kaplan. “Grief Silverstein Article.” Grief Silverstein Article – American Adoption Congress, https://www.americanadoptioncongress.org/grief_silverstein_article.php.
Silverstein, Deborah N, and Sharon Kaplan. “Adoptees and the Seven Core Issues of Adoption.” Adoptive Families, 10 Feb. 2017, https://www.adoptivefamilies.com/talking-about-adoption/adoptees-seven-core-issues-of-adoption/.