Everyone, adopted or non-adopted, is shaped by their experiences. Every adoption situation is different, and adopted people will vary greatly in the ways their adoption story impacts them.
Adoption is a lifelong experience with its own unique rewards and challenges that you and your child may face at some point in your journey. Even when adoption is a positive experience, adopted people may struggle with issues of grief and loss, confidence and identity, or emotional and learning challenges.
Here are some common issues faced by adoptive families, as well as some strategies for parents to help their children cope.
1. Grief, separation and loss
While it may be difficult for parents to understand, most adopted children experience some feelings of grief and loss related to their adoption. They may suffer the loss of their birth parents as well as siblings, grandparents and extended family. Older children who were adopted later in life may grieve the loss of foster families, friends and familiar schools or neighborhoods.
Feelings of grief and loss, as well as other emotions associated with the grieving process — such as anger, denial, anxiety and fear — may be compounded when children feel like others cannot understand or recognize that they are grieving. These issues may surface sporadically or at emotional milestones later in the adoptee’s life, such as the birth of a child or death of a parent.
Feelings of grief and loss may lead to fears of abandonment and rejection, issues with holding on and letting go, behavioral issues and fear of future losses, which could impact the development of friendships and relationships. Grief may also be complicated by guilt when an adopted person feels that he or she is being disloyal to their parents by grieving their birth family.
Everyone processes grief and loss in their own way and at their own pace, and some children may require extra support as they come to terms with these difficult emotions.
2. Self-esteem and identity
Adoption can present some challenges for children as they work through the identity formation process, especially as adolescents. Adoptees with limited information about their birth families and the reasons their birth parents chose adoption may especially experience difficulties in identity development.
Identity development issues may surface as adopted children struggle to find their place in their adoptive family. Some adopted people may view themselves as different, unwelcome or rejected and may struggle to fit in with their families or with their non-adopted peers who have more information about their backgrounds and are more secure in their identities. Identity issues may be further complicated if the child’s race or heritage differs from that of the adoptive family.
Children who face feelings of rejection and struggle to find their place among their peers or family members often also experience lower self-esteem and may benefit from counseling or therapy services to help address these issues.
3. Attachment issues, school challenges and other mental health challenges
Children who were adopted at an older age and who experienced trauma earlier in life such as neglect, abuse, multiple foster care placements or institutional care may have additional developmental, social and emotional difficulties. Some research suggests that these children may be at higher risk for issues such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), substance abuse, learning disabilities, depression, anxiety disorders and attachment disorder. Many children will struggle to form trusting bonds with adoptive parents if they experienced prior abuse, neglect or institutionalization.
Children who have experienced trauma or who are struggling with developmental or mental health issues may benefit from counseling and support services. Families may need additional education and support to address these problems with their children.
4. Managing post-adoption issues
Adoption-related issues may arise for adopted children and their parents at any time. Help your child overcome difficulties by educating yourself on common post-adoption issues and seeking help when necessary. It may also be helpful to consider the following:
- Communicate openly and honestly with your child. Don’t force your child to talk before they are ready, but make adoption a normal topic of conversation and make sure your child knows that the lines of communication are always open. Be emotionally and physically available, and listen whenever your child has something to say.
- Learn as much as you can about your child’s pre-adoption history so you can answer questions as they arise. If it is possible and in the child’s best interests, maintain a relationship with your child’s birth family. Having readily available information and contact with the birth parents can help give your child a better sense of his or her identity and potentially ease feelings of grief and loss.
- Provide a stable, loving home, be consistent and predictable, and develop routines for your child. Children will adjust better in a home where they know what to expect, and older children who have faced past trauma will especially benefit from structure. Allow the child to make age-appropriate choices to help build confidence and gain a sense of control in his or her life. Be patient and flexible as your child makes these adjustments.
- Consult help when you need it. A therapist or behavioral specialist can help you and your child work through difficult post-adoption issues. Seek providers who have experience with adoption and trauma counseling — these professionals may be better able to help you understand your child’s needs and respond more effectively. Beyond traditional therapy and counseling, there are many options for providing mental health support to your child or family, including support groups, camps and social events.
Adoption is a lifelong process that shapes children and their families. With effective communication, patience, and post-adoption support services, parents and children can work through adoption-related challenges to ensure everyone in the family is happy, healthy and well-adjusted.