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Adoptee Issues: The Impact of Adoption Trauma, Loss and More

No two adoptees are alike. Every adoption journey is unique, as is every adoptee’s life experience. And, when those experiences play a role in adolescent development, a variety of adoption issues in adults can emerge.

Here at American Adoptions, we know that adoption is hard — perhaps for no one more than the one person with no choice in the matter. Just as adoption can have lifelong effects on birth parents and adoptive parents, it can also leave its mark on adoptees.

While adoption can have both positive and negative impacts on adoptees, we’ll use this article to tackle the more sensitive of the two: commonly seen adult adoptee issues. However, please note: We are not mental health experts, so the information below is not intended as medical advice. Instead, we have simply attempted to provide a research-based look into those adoptee issues commonly reported in personal anecdotes and experiences.

Possible Adoption Issues in Adults

Below, you’ll find just a few of the commonly seen adoption issues in adults. Remember: If you are struggling with some of these common adoptee issues, please reach out to a local mental health professional or counselor for the support you deserve.

Adoption Trauma: Grief and Loss

Every adoption involves some sort of loss for the adoptee. Whether they were adopted as an infant or an older child, an adoptee undergoes a separation from biological parents that will impact the rest of their life. Exactly how much will vary from person to person.

That said, it’s common for adult adoption issues to emerge from this loss, especially if it was never grieved properly. When you’re an adoptee, your loss is something you had no control over — but you do have control over how you respond to it.

If you’re experiencing adoption trauma from grief and loss, know that you are not alone. While there’s little research into exactly how trauma manifests in adoptees, there are recent studies indicating that an infant in utero knows their biological mother’s scent, movement and sound as early as the second trimester. Separate an infant from that familiarity, and there will always be some degree of disruption for the baby.

Adopted adult issues can often stem from this loss, especially if this trauma is never addressed. Sometimes, this loss may manifest when you least expect it — even years after your last triggering event. Other times, an adoptee never feels this grief the way others do.

Whatever your personal experience is, it’s completely normal. What’s important is taking the steps to grieve and heal this adoptee pain in a healthy way.

Struggles with Self-Esteem and Identity

Everyone goes through a process of discovering their self-identity. But, when an individual is adopted, there are a few more layers to this process — especially if they have little information about their adoption story.

According to Ken Watson (member of the American Adoption Congress), adopted individuals are especially vulnerable to self-esteem issues. A few key adoptee questions make formation of self-confidence harder for them:

  • Why didn’t my birth parents want me?
  • Where do I fit in — in my family and in the world?
  • Why can’t anyone understand what I’m feeling?

An adoptee must first work through their adoption pain before they can fully form their identity, but many get stuck in the five-step process:

  1. No awareness/denying awareness of their adoption
  2. Emerging awareness but not ready to explore adoptee issues
  3.  Drowning in awareness and their adoption pain
  4. Reemerging from awareness with a positive outlook
  5. Finding peace in their adoptee identity

Fortunately, recent studies have shown that modern adoption is making it easier for adoptees to cope with self-esteem issues. In fact, a study from 2007 demonstrated that there was no difference in self-esteem between same-race and transracial adoptees, and — even more important — that there was no significant difference in self-esteem between adoptees and non-adopted individuals.

But remember that every adoptee is different. If you are struggling with identity and self-esteem adoptee issues, there is nothing “wrong” with you, and you are not alone. It’s only normal, given the unique circumstances you have gone through. And there is hope.

Attachment and Other Emotional Problems

As mentioned above, adoptees deal with the difficult situation of being separated from their first primary caregiver. While this results in a sense of loss and grief, it can also make it hard for some adoptees to bond in a healthy way with other important people in their lives. Adoptees may also be more likely to develop more serious emotional difficulties.

One 2007 study of adult adoptees concluded that adoptees reported higher levels of insecurity in relationships, as well as avoidance and anxiety in their everyday lives. While the findings do support the claim that adoption may represent a risk factor for relational difficulties later in life, researchers did caution that the amount of variance explained by adoptive status was small.

So, what does this all mean?

There’s just not enough evidence to say that being adopted causes attachment issues. But, as attachment and bonding specialist Gregory C. Keck, Ph.D., says, “Most adoptees do not have attachment disorders. Many people who have attachment disorders, however, are adoptees.”

So, while attachment and bonding may be adoption issues in some adults, they are not present in everyone. Oftentimes, those who are adopted through foster care or international adoption have many overlapping life circumstances that impact their ability to bond with people — and this topic is simply too complicated to say being adopted is the only reason.

How to Cope With Adoption Pain and Challenges

Studies have shown that the more positive adoptees feel about their adoption story, the higher their levels of life satisfaction will be. It makes sense; if you’re struggling with mental health issues like depression or grief about your adoption, you can’t focus on the happy moments in your life.

Remember this: You deserve happiness and healing, whatever your adoption experience may be. If you are struggling with adoption trauma and need immediate help, please reach out to the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI(6269).

There is hope. A 2019 study of adoptees in the Netherlands demonstrated that the majority became more satisfied with their adoption as they grew older. While it’s not true for everyone, time may help heal your adoption losses.

But, if you want tips and suggestions for coping with your adoption pain and challenges right now, we don’t blame you. Here are a few things you can do:

1. Learn More About Your Adoption

Many times, adopted adult issues come from the burning questions that can’t be answered: Who am I? Who are my birth parents? Why was I placed for adoption? If you have an open adoption, consider reaching out to your birth parents or the agency you were adopted through for more information. It may be difficult, but it could provide the answers you’re looking for.

On the other hand, if you’re like many adoptees, your adoption trauma and loss comes from a closed adoption — no information about your personal history or adoption story. If so, it might be time to start your adoption search.

Your relationship with your adoption history is personal. Ultimately, it will be up to you to decide how much information you want to seek out. Whatever you decide to do, your feelings about your adoption are valid.

If you were placed for adoption through American Adoptions, please contact us to be connected with an adoption specialist who can answer your questions.

2. Acknowledge — and Accept — Your Feelings.

If you’re struggling with adult adoptee issues, and you have no one to lean on, it’s understandable to feel like there is something “wrong” with you. But that’s not the case. Everything you’re feeling is completely normal — you just need to tell yourself that.

Only by truly acknowledging your feelings will you be able to accept them and move forward. Yes, adoption trauma was something that happened to you, but it doesn’t have to be the thing that defines your whole life. As adoptee Sherrie Eldridge writes in her book “Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew”:

“Adoptees need to learn to accept their wounds as part of their life history — an unchangeable fact over which they have no control, but which need not cripple them in the future.”

We offer a few tips on moving forward from that grief in a healthy way here, but you might also benefit from reaching out to adoptee support groups and reading other adoptees’ experiences to better understand your own.

3. Get Professional Help.

Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help. Adoption can be complicated, and your personal journey will be unique. Sometimes, a trained, objective counselor can provide the perspective you’re lacking.

If you decide to seek professional help, make sure to choose a counselor who is experienced in adopted adult issues. Only they can provide the specialized support and insight you’re looking for, as well as the resources and suggestions that can really make a difference for you.

Again, if you were adopted through American Adoptions, our trained specialists are always here for you. We will answer any questions we can and refer you to additional resources as you cope with these challenges. We know that being adopted comes with unique struggles, but we’re here to make them as easy as possible for all those adopted through our agency.

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