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Emily Helder, PhD, LP

Originally published by Family Fire

In my work as a clinical psychologist who focuses on adoption and foster care, I often find myself in conversations with adopted children and adolescents as they process the reasons for their relinquishment and adoption placement. At the same time, adoptive parents often seek advice on how to support their children amid difficult emotions and questions that can arise.

Adoption is a lifelong process

In these conversations, one of the first things I usually emphasize is that understanding what it means to be adopted is a life-long process for adoptees. Adoption is not a one-time event or something that adoptees “deal with” and then don’t think about. Many adoptees describe experiencing more intense questioning and emotions at their birthdays and holidays such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Likewise, reaching certain milestones, such as adolescence, leaving home, getting married, or having children can trigger new questions and emotions for adoptees over their lifespan. Adoptive parents should see this regular returning to adoption issues and questions as a normal part of their child’s life-long adoptive identity development.

Curiosity and questions are normal

Research with adoptees ranging from childhood through adulthood suggests that, though the specific questions may change with age, adoption curiosity is common throughout the age range. In early childhood, adopted children often have questions about their birth and origins. As they reach school-age, children begin to experience curiosity about the reasons for their relinquishment and adoption placement as well as details about their biological/first family. For adopted adolescents, this curiosity and interest can intensify and may lead to active searching for answers to their questions. In adulthood, questions about family medical history are often at the forefront. This curiosity and information seeking occurs even in the context of healthy, well-functioning families, so adoptive parents should not see it as a sign that something is wrong in their relationship with their child.

Initiating the conversations can go both ways

Sometimes adoptees take the lead in bringing up questions and things they are wondering about with their adoptive parents. When this happens, adoptive parents should attempt to answer their children’s questions truthfully in a developmentally appropriate way. Even if there is difficult information about the child’s past or about the biological/first family, sharing the truth compassionately can often be easier to cope with than some of the scenarios that children can privately be envisioning. It also prevents future perceived breaches of trust between older adoptees and their parents that can occur if adoptees discover that information was withheld or misleading information was provided.

At the same time, the task of initiating these conversations should be shared by adoptive parents as well. Sometimes, adoptees may hesitate to bring up questions or emotions they are privately dealing with because of a sense of conflicting loyalty. Adoptees may have gotten the message, implicitly or explicitly, that their adoptive family would be hurt if they shared the things they were wondering about regarding their biological/first family or expressed difficult feelings they may be experiencing surrounding their adoption. Adoptive parents can remind their child that they are willing to talk about these issues openly and can follow through in a non-defensive way that leaves room for the positive and negative feelings their children may have about adoption and their biological/first family. Discussions about biological/first family should be marked by care and respect. 

Navigating connection with biological/first family

Increasingly, adoption practices have changed to include some level of openness and contact between biological/first family and adoptive families. If this type of contact is available, it can provide an avenue for adoptees to directly ask their biological/first family questions about the reasons for relinquishment and adoption placement. Again, knowing the truth directly from those involved can facilitate processing of questions and emotions for the adopted person. Research on openness in adoption has suggested that it can result in positive outcomes for adoptees and their biological/first and adoptive families, especially if there is shared satisfaction with the level of contact and a commitment to prioritizing the best interests of the adoptee when negotiating challenges that may come up.

Community support for difficult emotions 

For some adoptees, even in the context of good support from parents, difficult emotions and thoughts can arise related to their adoption. Adopted children may blame themselves for the relinquishment, resulting in shame. Self-worth can be impacted negatively due to interactions with others that stigmatize their adoption or ask intrusive questions. The adoption placement can lead adoptees to question the security of relationships, making it difficult to trust others. Also, only discussing adoption in a positive light can put adoptees in a position of forced gratitude that doesn’t leave room for loss or grief that they may be experiencing.

Developing a community of support is crucial in ensuring that adoptees have access to key relationships and resources to thrive. 

  • Fostering social connections with other adoptees through local post-adoption support organizations or adoptee-centric organizations, such as Adopteen or Adoptees Connect, can be valuable in creating peer support opportunities. 
  • Intentionally developing relationships with communities and individuals that reflect the racial, ethnic, and/or cultural heritage of an adopted child is an important way to provide connections that promote positive identity development
  • Finding a therapist who understands adoption can also be helpful in walking alongside adoptees and their families during challenging conversations and in the midst of difficult emotions. 
  • Last, providing education within the church about the complexities of adoption and the need to acknowledge potential losses and grief can be an important step to making the church a safer and healthier place for adoptees. 

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