Adoption Parenting: Young Adults

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This article has been taken directly from Child Welfare Information Gateway.

As discussion of the adoption process becomes more open and accepted in American society, and as more Americans have experience with adoption, there is also more attention focused on those involved in adoption—the adopted person, the birth parents, and the adoptive parents (often referred to as the adoption triad or the adoption constellation). This information examines the impact of adoption on adopted persons who have reached adulthood.

While it is difficult to make sweeping statements about such a large and diverse group as adopted persons, adopted persons generally lead lives that are no different from the lives of nonadopted persons; however, they have experiences that are unique to being adopted, and these experiences may have an impact on their lives at various times. There are several themes that emerge from personal accounts and data from academic studies about issues that adopted persons may face. The information provided addresses these themes, which include loss, the development of identity and self-esteem, interest in genetic information, and managing adoption issues.

Postadoption Issues

Adopted persons may deal with a range of issues at different points in their lives.

Loss and Grief


The loss of birth parents as a result of adoption may set the stage for feelings of grief for many adopted persons. The loss experienced by adopted persons may be characterized as ambiguous loss, or the loss of someone who still is (or who may be) alive (Powell & Afifi, 2005). This type of loss also may increase the feelings of uncertainty (e.g., “Do I resemble my biological parents?”) an adopted person feels. Adopted persons who feel secure in their adoption and have open adoptive family communication may be better able to manage their uncertainty and grief (Powell & Afifi). Additionally, adopted persons may have difficulty finding an outlet because their grief may not be recognized by others.

Feelings of loss and grief, as well as anger, anxiety, or fear, may especially occur during emotionally charged milestones, such as marriage, the birth of a child, or the death of a parent.

Adopted persons may also suffer secondary losses. For instance, along with the loss of their birth mother and birth father, adopted persons may experience the loss of brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. There also may be a loss of cultural connection or language (in cases of intercountry or transracial adoption). For those who were adopted as older children, there may be a loss of friends, foster families, pets, schools, neighborhoods, and familiar surroundings.

Identity Development

Identity formation begins in childhood and takes on increased importance and prominence during adolescence (Grotevant, 1997). Adoption is a significant aspect of identity for adopted persons, even when they are adults (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2009). The task of identity development may be more difficult for an adopted person because of the additional issues related to adoption, such as why he or she was placed for adoption, what became of the birth parents, does he or she have siblings, and whether he or she resembles the birth parents in looks or in other characteristics. Adoption remains an important aspect of identity throughout adulthood, and one study described the development of adult adoptive identity as having five phases:

  1. No awareness/denying awareness: The adopted person does not overtly acknowledge adoption issues.
  2. Emerging awareness: The adopted person views adoption as a positive influence and recognizes some issues, but he or she is not ready to explore these issues.
  3. Drowning in awareness: The adopted person has feelings of loss, anger, and sadness about the adoption.
  4. Reemerging from awareness: The adopted person recognizes the issues related to the adoption, but also sees the positive aspects and is working toward acceptance.
  5. Finding peace: The adopted person has worked through his or her issues with the adoption and is moving toward peace and acceptance (Penny, Borders, & Portnoy, 2007).

Self Esteem

Often accompanying these issues of identity are issues of self-esteem—that is, how the adopted person feels about him or herself. A number of studies have found that, while adopted persons are similar to nonadopted persons in most ways, they often score lowers on measures of self-esteem and self-confidence (Borders, Penny, & Portnoy, 2000; Sharma, McGue, & Benson, 1996). This result may reflect the fact that some adopted persons may view themselves as different, out-of-place, unwelcome, or rejected. Some of these feelings may result from the initial loss of birth parents and from growing up away from birth parents, siblings, and extended family members. They also may be caused by an ongoing feeling of being different from nonadopted people who know about their genetic background and birth family and who may be more secure about their own identity as a result. Additionally, some adopted persons report that secrecy surrounding their adoption contributes to low self-esteem.

Thinking About the Adoption

The amount and degree of thought an adopted person devotes to his or her adoption may change over time and may vary based on each person’s circumstances. For example, the birth of a child to an adopted person, which may be the first experience with a biological family member, may cause the adopted person to revisit earlier issues of identity. The new parent may also be prompted to think about what his or her birth mother experienced in giving birth and what the birth mother and father may have experienced in making the adoption placement decision. Adopted adults who become new parents may be sympathetic to the difficulties of their birth parents, or they may wonder how their birth parents could ever have placed them for adoption. In a study of adopted adolescents’ thinking about adoption, 13 percent never thought about adoption, 54 percent thought about their adoption once a month or more, and 27 percent thought about their adoption once a week or more, with males thinking about their adoption more frequently than females (Kohler, Grotevant, & McRoy, 2002). Adolescents in closed adoptions were no more likely to have increased frequency of thought about their adoption than those in open adoptions

Genetic Information

Adopted persons often lack birth family genetic and medical history. This information can be vitally important to the diagnosis and treatment of genetically based medical conditions (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2010). In addition, being asked to supply medical history information at a doctor’s appointment may make adopted persons acutely aware of how they differ from those who were not adopted. Finding out later in life that they were adopted as infants puts adopted persons at risk of misdiagnoses or other medical issues due to their long-held assumption of a family medical history that they later find is incorrect. Additionally, when adopted persons plan to get married or become a parent, they may want to know about genetic characteristics their children may inherit.

In many cases, nonidentifying information, such as medical history, may be placed in the adoption file by the birth parents or agency at the time of the adoption. Adopted persons are allowed access to this nonidentifying information, which is usually at least as old as the adopted person. In some States, adopted persons can petition a judge to have their adoption records opened, and some judges will agree to do so in order to provide urgently needed medical information.

However, obtaining access to information provided by the birth parents at the time of the adoption may not be sufficient to provide a full medical history. For example, a birth parent, sibling, or grandparent may later develop or be diagnosed with a genetic disease or condition. It is more useful if birth parents regularly update the file that is kept with the adoption agency or attorney. Additionally, those in open adoptions may be able to get this information directly from their birth parents.

For more information about the collection of and access to birth family information, see the following Child Welfare Information Gateway factsheets:

Other Behavioral Health Issues

A review of the research on the mental health of adopted adults shows there is a divide about whether adopted adults’ psychological well-being is comparable to their nonadopted peers. Many studies report that adopted adults have a higher degree of mental health issues, but some researchers view these differences as minor while others view them as substantial (Baden & Wiley, 2007). Additionally, the studies are not always in agreement about what the differences are. For example, some studies cite higher rates of depression among adopted individuals than their nonadopted peers (Borders et al., 2000; Cubito & Obremski Brandon, 2000), while others have found similar levels of depression within both groups (Feigelman, 2005).

Even with the split in research conclusions about adopted adults’ psychological wellbeing, most of the literature points to adopted adolescents and adults being more likely to receive counseling than their nonadopted peers (Borders et al., 2000; Miller et al., 2000). Studies comparing adopted persons to their nonadopted peers also indicate that adopted adults have similar rates of antisocial behaviors (Grotevant et al., 2006), and that adopted persons are at an increased risk of substance use disorders during their lifetime (Yoon, Westermeyer, Warwick, & Kuskowski, 2012).

Openness, Searching, and Access to Family History

Openness-Searching-and Access-to-Family-History.jpg

Being placed for adoption does not necessarily mean an adopted person will never be able to contact his or her birth parents again. Adoptions may have some degree of openness, meaning that there is some communication between the birth and adoptive families—possibly including the adopted person.1 Additionally, the birth family or the adopted person may attempt a search and reunion later in life. The number of open adoptions (in which the birth and adoptive families know each other’s identities and have direct contact with the adopted child) and mediated adoptions (in which contacts between the birth and adoptive families are made indirectly through a mediator) are on the rise. In a 2012 survey of adoption agencies with infant adoption programs, the agencies reported that only 5 percent of their placements during the previous 2 years were confidential, with 55 percent of the adoptions being fully disclosed and 40 percent being mediated (Siegel & Livingston Smith, 2012).

There are myriad reasons adopted persons may seek information about or contact with their birth families, such as a desire to establish or reestablish a relationship, help further develop their own identity, or to obtain genetic or medical information. The desire to search may be prompted by specific life events, such as marriage or having children (Corder, 2012). Studies have shown that adopted persons rarely search for their birth parents because of a negative relationship with their adoptive parents (Muller & Perry, 2001). Perhaps half of all adopted adults search for identifying information or try to make contact with their birth parents (Curtis & Pearson, 2010; Evan B. Donaldson, 2010; Muller & Perry, 2001). Adopted persons in an open adoption or who otherwise have contact with their birth parents generally have positive feelings about the relationships (Grotevant et al., 2007; Siegel, 2012) and are glad they searched (Penny et al., 2007). Some earlier studies, however, found that adopted persons who search for their parents may exhibit lower self-esteem, have lower family and friend support, have higher incidences of anger and depression, and more frequently use mental health services (Borders et al., 2000; Cubito & Obremski Brandon, 2000).

For additional information about open adoption and birth family contact, visit Child Welfare Information Gateway

For additional information about obtaining birth and/or adoption records, including State laws that govern this access, visit Child Welfare Information Gateway

Managing Adoption Issues


Most adopted adults overcome any adoption-related issues they experience during childhood and adolescence and are as well-adjusted as nonadopted persons (Borders et al., 2000; Corder, 2012). However, there is also significant research that suggests that many adopted persons struggle with issues such as grief, loss, identity development, and self-esteem. The following describes some ways that adopted persons manage these and other issues.

Support Groups

Many adopted persons are helped by support groups in which they can talk about their feelings with others who have similar experiences. The support group may provide a long-needed outlet for any lingering feelings related to the adoption, such as loss or grief. In addition, support groups may provide help with the decision of whether to search for birth relatives.


Some adopted persons may need more help than they find from family and friends or through a support group. In these instances, adopted persons may seek professional counseling. Many mental health practitioners report not having enough training in adoption-related issues, so it is important for adopted adults to find a counselor who has the requisite skills, knowledge, and outlook (e.g., the counselor does not assume all issues are related to adoption) (Baden & Wiley, 2007; Corder, 2012). Also, support groups may have experience with local counselors and be able to make a recommendation. For more information, read Selecting and Working With a Therapist Skilled in Adoption, available on the Child Welfare Information Gateway website here.


For many adopted persons, learning about the experiences of others, whether through first-person accounts or through adoption research, can be a helpful coping mechanism. There are an ever-increasing number of books, articles, videos, and websites (including blogs) that focus on a wide range of adoption-related topics. Adopted persons may be reassured discovering that others who have gone through similar experiences have had similar reactions.

Continue to Part 2

  • Conclusion
  • Additional Resources
  • References

Return to Adoption Parenting