Myths About Adoptees and How We Can Dispel Them

Let’s face it: when something is “different” from what we define or believe is “normal,” in our culture or society, we tend to make assumptions and form beliefs about it. People tend to take one personal experience and generalize it to fit all similar experiences which can cause myths to arise. Because of the media’s portrayal of adoption, viral videos, and social media, and even personal experiences, people form views about adoptees that are just not true. Below are some common myths about adoptees and ways that we can dispel them.

1. Adoptees don’t face special needs or emotional hardship once they are adopted

Healing is an important word in adoptive families. When we see the feel-good adoption stories in the news, with the happy smiles and the child crying because she has found her forever family, it is important to keep in mind the complexity of adoption. Adoption is beautiful, and it provides children with a forever family, but loss is also an integral part of adoption. All adoptees experience trauma, even if they were adopted as a baby. And once we acknowledge that adoptees experience trauma, we can also acknowledge that adoptees are not free from mental, physical, and emotional hardship just because they have found a forever family. An adoptive family is the loving force that ushers in healing, not a magical formula for fixing the fundamental loss that adoptees have faced.

Growing up, I always believed that once children found a family, they were “fine.” From the outside looking in, everything seems “fine.” I had ignorantly assumed that the child had found a family and forever home, which was all he needed. It is true that forever families provide a healing home for adoptees who have lost their attachment with their birth families, and, in some cases, have also experienced neglect and abuse. Adoption is a lifelong journey for all parties involved, but mostly for adoptees. They will be working through their identity as adoptees their entire lives as well as additional special needs and emotional hardship that comes with trauma. Many adoptees (and their adoptive families) will need to go to therapy, and it’s possible that they will face emotional and behavioral obstacles.

Dr. Karyn Purvis has researched the need for Trust-Based Relational Intervention as a way to approach caring for adopted children and those in foster care. Through her extensive research, she has written The Connected Child to help those who have adopted or who are fostering with behavioral interventions that promote connection. Many children who have been adopted have experienced problems with attachment, reactive attachment disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome, and other diagnoses that profoundly impact their mental health and success in families, school, and society. Without acknowledging adoptees’ needs, we will not be able to serve them and help them heal in the ways that they need. We can only usher in healing when we know and respond to adoptees in helpful ways. Trust-based intervention practices, therapy, and time can all contribute to healing in an adoptee’s life. It is so important that we acknowledge the grief and trauma that an adoptee has experienced because it validates her experience and allows her the space to heal.

2. Adoptees are “damaged goods” 

While we do need to recognize and acknowledge the loss of adoption, we also must not believe that adoptees are damaged or less valuable because of their difficult beginnings. In the popular movie Instant Family, Pete and Ellie’s family show their true, underlying beliefs about adopted children during the all-too-real Thanksgiving dinner fight scene. During the fight, Pete and Ellie announce to their family that they are not going to adopt from foster care, and their family let out a collective sigh of relief. Ellie’s sister and parents reveal that they were secretly worried about their “real” kids’ safety because Pete and Ellie’s kids would surely be the “offspring of some criminal or drug addict.” In real life, people may not communicate their fears about adoptees this bluntly, but the underlying belief comes out in different ways: through remarks and questions that are asked of adoptive families and adoptees.

People have come to believe the myth that if a child has a trauma history, they are incapable of love and family life. Adoptees may have struggles and challenges that they face because of their story, but don’t we all? All humans encounter obstacles, identity issues, emotional hardship, grief, and pain. For adoptees, many of these struggles derive from their identity as adoptees. But does this fact make them damaged, unable to love, or less valuable? People would never outright say that adopted children have less worth, but there are still 100,000 children in the foster care system waiting to be adopted.

If we are not outright saying that we don’t think they are valuable, we are definitely saying it through our actions.

This idea that adoptees and children in the foster care system are not our “real” kids or that they are “damaged” is harmful and, at the root, tells what we believe about their value and worth. By holding this false belief, a child’s value is connected to their past. However, we know the truth: all children are inherently valuable because they are human beings. They are precious, not because of anything they have done or because of who their parents are, but because they are beautiful humans capable of love, joy, and of changing the world. I look at my precious children, both adopted from the foster care system, and think to myself, “Who would I be without them?” They have contributed to my life in profound ways, shown me what it means to be truly generous, and have inspired me to persevere when life is hard. My kids amaze me every single day with their strength and love.

One way that we can dispel this myth is by highlighting adoptees’ strengths, perseverance, and beauty. We can be honest about the hard things that adoptees go through while still making sure to lift them up, edify them, and show their worth. The world needs to know that adoptees are more than just their identification as an “adopted child.” They are complex, beautiful human beings, and they should be celebrated as such.

3. Adoptees were “Plan B” for their adoptive families

Many people hold the notion that adoptees were “Plan B” and that an adoptive family only pursued them because they were infertile or otherwise couldn’t have biological kids. This often comes out in less obvious remarks (even in front of the adoptee), such as asking adoptive parents, “Are you going to have ‘your own’ kids?” This implies that the adoptee does not truly belong to the adoptive family, that somehow they are less of their child as a biological child would be.

While some people may pursue adoption because of infertility, that does not dichotomously mean that that the children they pursue through adoption were their “Plan B.” It simply means that adoption was a different way of creating their family. Additionally, there are many adoptive parents who pursue adoption because they want to provide a home and family for a child, and forming their family through adoption was actually just the opposite of this myth: it was their “Plan A.” For my husband and me, we decided we were pretty much open to anything. We started foster care with the intention of just doing foster care for a while and, if adoption was somewhere in the far future, we would consider it. However, it became the option in the near future, and we were very excited to have the opportunity to be a forever family for both of our children. Our adopted children were our “Plan A,” and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

When people ask questions and make remarks that imply that adoptees were “Plan B” or “second choice,” it is important that adoptive parents honor adoptees and hold people accountable for these remarks, even if they are unintentional. One helpful response is to ask people, “What do you mean by that?” This turns the question back to them and allows them the opportunity to backtrack and possibly rescind their question or remark. This can help people reframe their views in a way that gets the message across but is not super confrontational.

4. Adoptees can’t successfully have a healthy relationship with their birth family and their adoptive family

It makes sense that this topic might make adoptive and potential adoptive parents squirm a little bit. Parenthood through adoption is different, in so many ways, than biological parenting. It requires an acknowledgment, love, and celebration of the adoptee’s birth family and heritage. Non-adoptees have the privilege (that we unknowingly take advantage of) of knowing where we come from, looking at baby pictures, and seeing what characteristics we have in common with our grandparents or cousins. Not only that, we have access to our birth certificates; we get to live in the same house as our siblings; we can complete family tree projects (relatively) easily. Family, heritage, and culture are significant aspects of our identities and relationships. Relationships with biological family and knowledge of our past inform our future, our relationships, and even our physical and mental health.

Adoption wasn’t ever the way it was supposed to be. And so, adoptees are already starting to form their identities from a framework that is totally different from a “traditional” family. Whereas a “typical family” has one family unit, adoptees have two family units. Adoptees must acknowledge and, if possible, build relationships with birth families in order to fully understand themselves and who and where they came from.

It is very important to understand that adoptees’ relationships with their birth families do not hinder their relationships with their adoptive family. These are both beautiful, intricate, complex, different relationships. Adoptees CAN have healthy relationships with both biological family and adoptive family. This is not easy, but it is possible. Open adoptions are becoming more and more common because people have realized the benefits of adoptees being connected to their birth families and heritage. Additionally, children who were adopted out of the foster care system can often maintain some type of relationship with family, including siblings, grandparents, or aunts and uncles. These relationships can be healthy, and, depending on the adoptee, can assist in the formation of their identities.

5. Transracial adoptees only need love

There are so many beautiful things about transracial adoption. It shows that families can look different and that choosing to love each other is what makes a family. However, adult transracial adoptees will tell you how important it is to recognize, talk about, and celebrate their birth family’s heritage and culture. Yes, it takes love to raise a child, especially an adopted child. But love requires that parents take all of their children’s needs into account, especially their culture, heritage, and identity.

My children are African American, and my husband and I are white. We have had to take many things into consideration since being in our home. Before we even adopted, we purposefully moved to a diverse neighborhood with neighbors and friends from different cultures, races, and ethnicities. We incorporate books and music into our everyday routines that showcase people of their race and culture. We make sure that they have (and we have!) African American adults surrounding us, as friends, coworkers, neighbors, and barbers. We are still working every day to better serve our children in this way, but we believe that loving them requires us to open the door and invite hard conversations about racism, as well as surrounding them with multi-ethnic spaces and supporting people who look like them, not just people who look like us.

Identity is a tricky topic for anyone, but especially for adoptees. Family is what grounds us; it lays the foundation for the ways that we form how we view ourselves, our values, and our future. Of course, love is the foundational key to making a family, but love is not enough. Adoptees must be shown and celebrated through their heritage, identity, and birth families.

6. All adoptees have the same story

There are a lot of misunderstandings about adoptees, but one of the most pervasive is that all adoptees have the same story. Many people know one adopted person, or even read one adoption story, and then assume that everyone’s adoption experience is the same. I think it’s safe to say that most people know that everyone’s personal adoption experience is different, but they certainly don’t act like it.

Many people generalize the “adoptee” experience, but adoptees’ stories are complex and different. Some adoptees are adopted at birth; others when they are teenagers. Some are adopted domestically, some internationally. Some have faced a lot of trauma in addition to the separation from their birth families; others have not faced any additional trauma. Some have positive views of adoption; others do not. No adoptees’ experience is the same, and therefore, we should be informed by listening to the adoptee experience.

The media’s portrayal of adoption is often inaccurate as it either portrays adoption as overly positive or overly negative, when in reality, adoption is a complex journey of ups and downs. This inaccuracy can happen on TV shows, movies, articles, and on social media and blogs. So how can we dispel the myths and tell the truth about adoptees? The best way to do this is to listen to them. Talking to adoptees about their experiences, listening to them, and asking them questions encourage us to learn and modify how we talk about adoption and how we care for adopted children and adult adoptees. We should honor and elevate adult adoptee voices so that we can better understand them and learn from them. When we listen to adoptee voices, we can validate their journey and begin to stand with them in dispelling these myths and telling the truth about their experiences. At our very core, we want others to know the truth about us. Little by little, we can chip away at the myths that make up the general understanding of the adoptee experience and start truth-telling.