Emotional Impact of Adoption in Children

When we hear of a couple adopting a child, most of us imagine a happy and picture-perfect family. After all, an adopted child is the answer to many couples’ earnest desire to have a child. 

Adopted children are widely regarded as lucky, and in many ways, they are. Being adopted certainly has its benefits, primarily the chance to belong to a healthy and nurturing family. 

Adopted children, especially those taken in at an older age, often experience a broad range of emotions surrounding their adoption, according to an article by the Children’s Bureau. 

Most adoptees find acceptance and security in their new families. Being raised by loving parents who genuinely want them lessens an adoptee’s struggles with feelings of rejection. Many adoptive children and adults say that they feel grateful to their adoptive parents for taking them in and providing for them. 

Being adopted by a loving family also means a wider and stronger support network, owing to friends and extended family. The adoptee gets to enjoy the support of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and in some cases, brothers and sisters. 

But adoption is not without its complications. The process doesn’t end with placement in an adoptive family. It is a lifelong journey for all the people involved-— biological parents, adoptive parents, and the child. 

It is critical to note that every adoption story is unique. Not all adoptive families go through the same struggles. But generally, removing a child from their birth family gives rise to a set of challenges that have a profound emotional impact.

Here are some of the issues that most adoptive children face:

Sense of Abandonment

According to a study published in Paediatrics & Child Health, adoptive children may feel unwanted and abandoned by their birth parents. This feeling leads to a damaged sense of self-esteem. Children grow up thinking that there must be something wrong with them since their biological parents gave them away.  

Even in children adopted as babies, adoption trauma is possible. When the nine-month bond with the biological mother is broken, this break can be indelibly imprinted on the subconscious as a traumatic event. 

Prenatal memories can be implanted deep in the developing brain and are quite powerful when reactivated after birth. Thus, they may suffer from feelings of grief and loss as well. 

Later in life, adoptees may feel some anger towards adults, including their adoptive and biological parents who have made these life-changing decisions without their knowledge or input. 

Children need to learn how to mourn their loss and healthily express their anger. They also need help in understanding the circumstances and choices surrounding their adoption and forgive everyone involved. 

Guilt and Shame

According to an article by the Children’s Bureau, guilt and shame often accompany these feelings of grief, loss, and anger. Adoptive individuals may believe that they are being disloyal or ungrateful to the people who raised them. 

These feelings are even more acute in closed adoptions. In closed adoptions, children do not have access to their biological and personal history. They may struggle with the idea that they might have a whole family out there that they have never met. 

When adoptees want to trace their history and look for their birth families, they may feel that they are betraying their adoptive family. 

These intense experiences of shame during the formative years may lead to the development of an inner voice that creates a negative view of the self and others. The impact of this is far-reaching and can affect the child’s view of relationships in adulthood.

For this reason, many adoption experts advocate for open adoptions instead of semi-open or closed. Open adoptions eliminate the secrecy and stigma surrounding the child’s history. 

When the birth parents are allowed to have a relationship with the child, shame is reduced. Open adoptions also enable the child to understand more easily why a birth parent chose adoption. 

Identity Issues

A 2018 study on adoptive identity and adjustment was published by the Developmental Psychology Journal. 

Research says while many adoptees report a close and healthy relationship and a sense of belonging with their adoptive families, others struggle with identity formation. 

The adoptees may feel as if they don’t fit in or belong with their new families. They may wonder if their new name and identity are truly indicative of who they are.

These identity issues are especially true of interracial adoptions. Race brings another layer of confusion to identity formation in adopted children. When children look nothing like their new families, they may feel even more fragmented and misplaced. 

Once again, children in closed adoptions suffer more intensely from identity issues. Even if they fit in with their adoptive family, they grapple with a loss of identity because they don’t know anything about their origins. 

Not knowing where they come from also leads to a huge gap in their search to answer the question, “Who am I?” 

Nowhere is this struggle more evident than in adolescence. In the early years, adoptees typically view adoption as a neutral fact about themselves. But with the onset of adolescence, they begin to have a greater capacity for identity development. 

Non-adopted teenagers struggle with identity formation as well, but for the adopted teen, the issue is more complex. Talking about how identity is formed in later years involves recognizing how it was disrupted in the early years. 

Self-esteem is closely related to identity, abandonment, and a sense of belonging. Children placed in adoptions often feel a sense of not being enough since they were “given away” by their birth parents. This sense of inadequacy leaves them with a weak core at the center of their self-image.

Difficulty Establishing Intimacy 

The ability to build intimate relationships is directly tied to abandonment and self-esteem issues. The perception of abandonment leads to difficulty in trusting other people.

Adopted children may feel like they can’t trust anybody and that everyone will end up leaving them. They may see themselves as unlovable or unworthy of attention and commitment. 

As a consequence, they may find it challenging to build and tolerate intimacy with the people in their lives. The fear of abandonment rears its head and leads them to sabotage relationships and drive others away before they can leave. 

Some adoptees report a defense mechanism consisting of sizing up situations to ensure their emotional safety. These issues can leave them insecure, anxious, and emotionally exhausted, affecting their relationships with others.  

Some cut themselves off from their inner feelings to stay detached. Outwardly, they may put on a mask of indifference or extreme independence as a way to keep others at a distance. Detachment allows them to suppress interest and avoid the risk of getting hurt. 

On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who deal with intimacy differently. These adoptive children may get trapped in an endless cycle of people-pleasing in an attempt to be worthy of love. Individuals who think this way end up trading their own needs and desires for acceptance. 

Behavioral Problems

A study on adopted children’s behavior problems reveals that adopted children may have behavioral issues ranging from emotional outbursts to violent tantrums. 

Researchers say that older children may have difficulty understanding emotions in other people, leading to misunderstandings and aggressive behavior. In some cases, this results in poor school performance. 

Children may also exhibit a controlling attitude towards their adoptive family as a result of attachment-related issues.  

Children adopted at an older age may suffer from post-traumatic stress due to their removal from their birth family or adverse experiences before adoption. They are more likely to experience psychological and behavioral problems. 

The impact of maltreatment in childhood is long-lasting and does not go away just by placement with a new family. 

These children may need psychological counseling to help tackle such issues and identify possible mental health disorders. 

Adoptive parents also need to know strategies to manage their child’s behavior and address the problem at its core. They need to be as patient as possible so that the child will feel supported. 

Increased Risk of Addiction 

Research says that one of the long-term effects of adoption on children is an increased risk of addiction. It is documented that adopted children are more likely to struggle with substance abuse than non-adopted children, especially if their biological parents or siblings had a drug problem. 

In addition to genetic factors, the deeply-rooted trauma of abandonment, fear, and low self-esteem may have lingering effects when left unresolved. 

Such issues may stack up over time and lead to depression and anxiety resulting in the individual turning to alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, or food to numb their emotional pain.

How to Lessen the Negative Impact

Given all of these challenges, it is clear that adopted children need to have as much access to emotional support and psychological counseling as they can. 

While many adoptees can overcome all the difficulties that come with adoption, there are still those who feel its impact well into their adult years. 

Even in well-adjusted families, adoptive parents need to pay attention to behavioral and emotional issues in their adopted children. Good caretaking, a sense of security, and respect for their child’s emotions and personality are all essential to help them surmount psychological obstacles.

Adoption specialists and social workers make it their mission to educate prospective adopters and birth parents and make the process easier on the child. They provide support and counseling to help fight the negative effects of adoption. 

Here are some organizations that provide such services:

  1. The Center for Adoption Support and Education
  2. Show Hope
  3. Child Welfare Information Gateway

When everyone involved keeps the child’s best interests at heart, the child’s transition to a new family is smoother and healthier.