For many adopted children, the ability to attach to caregivers with a normal attachment bond had been broken. This has happened as they have passed through the foster care system as they finally settle into a permanent family. It is possible to correct this over time with proper physical and emotional care. “Seven Core Issues in Adoption”, published in the early 1980s, outlined lifelong issues experienced by adopted children which include: loss, rejection, guilt/shame, grief, identity, intimacy, and mastery/control. Children may react with different ranges of emotions regarding their adoption. Some may feel positive and focus on how much their adopted parents want them while others may struggle more with feelings of rejection and abandonment from their biological parents.
Attachment Issues in Adoptive Children
A primary issue involves unshared genetic and social history. A major loss for the child often involves the inability to link shared physical and emotions traits to a biological family member. Children who are adopted early in life face this loss as they get older and are surrounded by others who link family traits and physical factors.
A feeling of rejection is common among foster children and adoptees. The new family can do everything possible to overcome this and the child can appreciate this fully but will still often face frustration with an underlying sense rejection throughout their lives. It is important for the child to talk about this and discover ways to cope with this need that may never be met. This is healthy and may have nothing to do with the love, support, and incredible care provided by a new family. The loss can be even greater if the child has experienced a portion of their life with the biological family. It is important to find favorable memories and repeat those stories in casual settings with the child when they seem overwhelmed with the losses.
Children may believe that there is something wrong with them that prevented their parent(s) from maintaining a relationship with them. They often feel responsible for issues that were totally out of their control and develop sense of guilt. This may cause a child to avoid situations and circumstances that could provoke others to reject them. They may choose to validate the negative self-perceptions by causing others to reject them. It is critical to help the child work through this issue.
The grieving process affects children differently and may merely involve passing thoughts throughout their lifetime or and they may suffer intense loss. If suppressed, it can result in depression or aggressive behavior. Grieving adoption can be complicated. There can be conflicting emotions regarding loss of birth parents, anger at adoptive parents even though there is unconditional love, and a sense of abandonment even though it is understood that the birth parents made the decision out of love.
The issue of identity is often related to the feeling of loss. Adopted children often feel incomplete and at a loss regarding their identity because of gaps in their genetic and family history. Children like to identify with those who have similar emotional traits, physical traits, and mutual interests. This is a common bond found between biological family members. This loss is often less for sibling sets who are able to be adopted simultaneously when they share mutual interests and traits. It is important for adoptive families to find similarities with adoptive children or find mentors who can fill in the gaps. This can create a natural sense of belonging.
Many adopted children, especially those with multiple placements or histories of abuse, have difficulty attaching to members of their new family. Early life experiences may affect an adopted child’s ability to form an intimate relationship.
Mastery and Control
Parent/child struggles are faced by all. At times an adopted child may sometimes engage in power struggles with their adoptive parents or authority figures in an attempt to master the loss of control they have experienced in adoption. Whether they recognize it or not, most adoptees deal with a certain degree of trauma and loss upon their adoption. This issue involves the child’s attempt to recover from that trauma. This is common and may require the assistance of a therapist.
In conclusion, experienced therapists who have a working understanding of loss, attachment, trauma, along with the issues associated with adoption are well suited to help address the concerns of adoptive parents and effectively treat their children. Therapists with a knowledge of adoption understand that the origin of the child’s problems may be embedded in the abuse or neglect experienced before the child was adopted. They will understand that children can heal within the context of new family relationships with parents who have skills to support them.
Silverstein, D. and Kaplan, S. (1981), North American Council on Adoptable Children Fact Sheet, https://nacac.org/category/adoption-assistance-subsidy-us/fact-sheets/