7 Core Emotional Issues in Adoption

by | Jun 24, 2014 | Adoption

These seven issues are so important for anyone who loves or works with a person – child or adult – who was adopted to understand. Parents, teachers, and child care providers needs to be prepared that children are likely to be very sensitive to these themes. They may appear to be over-reacting to situations; however, their response is as much to their history and beliefs as the current experience. Therapists need to look for these themes.  A lightbulb can go off for the adult adoptee or his or her romantic partner when concerns are connected back to the core issues in adoption. Some adoptees may not struggle with all of these issues, but they are so common across adoption situations that they are all important to know and look for.


1. Loss/Grief

No matter the details of the adoption, the age at which adoption occurred, or whether there are “memories” of the birth family, loss is a major component of adoption. Loss of the birth/first family can be extremely powerful even if the child was placed with the adoptive family at birth. Loss of culture can complicate identity issues, particularly in transracial adoptions; however, this loss may not be able to be fully grieved until children reach adolescence and sometimes even adulthood. Loss of country, language, etc. can be involved in international adoptions, as well.

Whenever the adopted person experiences another loss – whether it is a parental divorce, a breakup, the loss of a pet, moving, changing schools, etc. – he or she is likely to be reminded of these previous losses, and each subsequent loss is more powerful and may be experienced more powerfully than others might expect. Teachers, please be aware of themes of parental loss in the stories used in the classroom.


2. Rejection/Abandonment

While these are separate ideas, they can play out very similarly. Even when we know that an adoption plan was created with the child’s best interests in mind, it doesn’t mean that the adoptee (child or adult) doesn’t feel rejected or abandoned. Often when an individual feels he or she has been rejected or abandoned in the past, they are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop with the next person. They may be afraid to commit to a relationship.

Sometimes the person who believes he or she has been rejected or abandoned and thus believes he or she is likely to be rejected or abandoned again will unconsciously create the situation that will cause rejection or abandonment. He or she may push a romantic partner away or behave in ways to seriously test the relationship. They may not understand what they are doing or why they are doing it.

Unfortunately this emotional pain can interfere with parent-child relationships, romantic relationships, and even friendships.Sometimes even children whose parents have both died from a tragic accident can feel abandoned and all these same outcomes are risks. The key is whether a person feels rejected or abandoned, not the actual facts of one’s story.

Just as subsequent losses remind the adopted person of original losses, additional rejections can be experienced more powerfully for the adopted person that feels that he or she was rejected or abandoned. For example, when your second grade (or younger!) son is rejected on the playground, you may hear, ‘she doesn’t like me and my birth mother didn’t want me and you don’t really want me – you’re just pretending’. While it may seem like an exaggeration to you with your perspective on schoolyard romance, it is an accurate expression of how the child feels and his or her fears and feelings of shame surrounding adoption and rejection.


3. Guilt/Shame

Most who believe they were rejected or abandoned also experience shame about it. The shame experiences when rejected by a potential date is nothing compared to feeling rejected by one’s mother. Some believe that their behavior was the cause of rejection or abandonment. Some believe that they do not have value and were not good enough a or cute enough. This is too heavy of a burden for anyone, especially a child, to bear in my opinion.

Guilt and shame can contribute to low self esteem and at times self-destructive behaviors. Feelings of guilt can also play out by demanding perfection of oneself. High achieving adoptees may (or may not) be trying to earn favor and value and may experience a high level of distress when passed over for a promotion, receiving a grade lower than an A+, not making the Varsity team, etc.

Enduring feelings of guilt may lead to the experience of guilt even an inappropriate situations. Some who have been adopted into greater means have felt guilt that their birth/first family has not had the same opportunity and may be living in poverty. In some situations adoptees may try to give away possessions or large sums of money.


4. Identity

“Where do I fit?” Is a question that many adoptees ask again and again from a very early age. Even in same-race infant adoptions, children seem to innately understand that genetics contributes to who they are and what they will become. When adopting across country borders or racial lines or at an older age, the question of identity becomes even more complicated.

Adolescence brings about the psychosocial development identity crisis. Teens first define who they are not by cleaving to a peer group or clique and rejecting other groups, before determining what makes them unique from their peers. This end stage of differentiation is complicated when one has felt different for much of his or her life and is thus more motivated to fit and be like someone.

It is not uncommon for an adult to present without confidence in personal identity or beliefs. Without these things, one may find it difficult to take action, make changes, or be content with life. According to Erikson without healthy identity development intimacy may not be possible.


5. Intimacy

Many times it is relationship or marital issues that cause adult adoptees to seek out counseling services initially. Often adoption issues are the cause of relationship issues, but sometimes they simply exacerbate the concern. One reason for this is that it is often not until late 20s-mid 30s (depending on a variety of factors) when we are neurologically developed enough to fully process all the complexities and impacts adoption has had on one’s life. Struggles with identity and fear of being rejected or abandoned (again) can contribute to intimacy difficulties. If there has been any trauma in a parental, sibling, or romantic relationship in the past, that can also interfere with intimacy.


6. Control

Major, life-altering decisions were made for the adopted person, often without his or her consent or awareness. His or her world may have been entirely turned upside down with no warning. It is no wonder that those who were adopted often have a need to control certain things. This can play out differently for different people and may be recognized in anxiety disorders, dysfunctional relationships, eating disorders, hoarding, etc. It may be another contributor to perfectionism and attempting to control grades, food, workouts, etc.


7. Fear

Adoption in itself can be a trauma, not to mention the traumas that may have led to needing adoption or the traumas that may have occurred while waiting for adoption. It is not surprising that a child placed in the care of strangers who may not look like anyone else he or she has ever seen and may speak an entirely different language feels afraid. The more fear one has experienced, the more likely one is to react with fear to experiences in the future. Fear can be paralyzing or can predispose us to act out (picture a caged animal). Often behaviors that don’t make sense to others may be fear-based reactions.

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