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Yellowbrick Blog

Adoption and Young Adults

Emerging adulthood is a developmental period where the tasks for the young adult are related to separation/individuation from one’s family, exploration of an identity, establishment of self-agency, development of a passion or direction in life, and engagement in peer and romantic relationships.

Why Adoption Results in Separation and Feelings of Loss

For the adopted child, this period of life is impacted by the experience of the adoption and the loss of the birthmother. In working with adopted children, clinicians understand that, whether adopted at birth or in later years, all adopted children have the same issues on some level that evolve around separation and loss, abandonment, rejection, guilt and shame, power and control, shame , and loyalty.

The task of separation/individuation involves loss and grief. This experience for the adopted child brings up the experience of the “primal loss” which remains present as an intrinsic memory throughout the child’s life. Researchers tell us that bonding with the birth mother begins in the womb. A newborn is familiar with the mother’s voice, her smell, her energy. The newborn is not the unaware, psychologically simple beings we once thought they were. Instead, they are capable of feeling a wide range of emotions, remembering, learning, and using their senses to explore the world outside the womb. Bonding doesn’t begin at birth, but is a continuum of physiological, psychological, and spiritual events which begin in utero and continue throughout the postnatal bonding period.  This loss is experienced as abandonment in the newborn. The adoptive mother can and does provide all of the nurturing the child needs and may even do what the birthmother is not able to do. In most cases, she does it well. However, she cannot erase the scars left behind of the original abandonment. The abandonment issue has to be acknowledged before it can be resolved.

Adoption Impact on Young Adults

Despite the continuity of relationship that adoption provides, the adopted child may experience themselves as unwanted and have difficulty trusting that the adoptive relationship is permanent. This fear of abandonment may interfere with secure attachment to the birth family and impact many of their relationships-with peers and in romantic relationships. Fear of rejection remains part of the experience of the adoptee. They may experience shame around this sense of rejection and face loss of self-esteem.

The adopted child struggles with his/her own sense of self – identity due to a lack of known history and a shared sense of family with their adoptive families. The adoptee experiences him/herself as different from other members of the family and often yearns to know more about who he/she is. With the adoptee not having a role model who resembles her physically or psychologically, it is more difficult to define where his/her life shall lead. They look different from other members of their family and may have different talents and personalities. This may lead to them feeling out of the family circle despite the adoptive family’s efforts.

An Adoptees Search for Answers

Because of the age of having access to birth records at age 18, many adoptees begin a search for their birth families at this time and often report that these questions were with them throughout their lives even though often unexpressed. This journey of searching for self is fraught with many anxieties and fantasies and changes within the adoption triad.  The search can end with disappointment and a reassessment of who they are-often coming to the understanding that their adopted parents are their true parents and they then have the task of integrating the birth family into their family and life if they embrace the relationship. Development of a direction or passion in life is often difficult and is so closely tied to the search for the identity of the true self- no matter whether the search for the birth mother is attempted or what the search reveals.

How Adoptive Parents Can Help Their Children

For the adoptive family, the key is to educate themselves about the experience of the adopted child. Many adoptive families will say that the child was like their “own child” from the beginning or that they were “chosen”. While this is a lovely sentiment and so important for the developing child, ignoring that the child has experienced a trauma at birth only gives the message that not talking about it will be the correct solution. It will not be long until the adoptee figures out he/she was abandoned by the first set of parents. They may wonder why their birth mother “gave them up” and may experience shame and rejection no matter what the circumstances of the adopted home are. They may also feel expectations to be what the adoptive family wants them to be because of being the “chosen one”.  Similarly, many adoptive mothers feel afraid of the potential loss of love and attachment with their adopted child as their mother and either consciously or unconsciously delivers the message to the child that these topics are taboo-inadvertently silencing the child and leaving them to struggle with these issues on their own. Many adopt fantasies in the place of little information about their birth mother. Many adopted children keep their feelings and questions to themselves in an attempt to protect the adoptive mother in particular and through loyalty to her –the person who has given them a home and love. This lack of attunement to the child’s experience may lead to disconnection from self and other.

Adoption and Individuality

Not all adoptees are affected by these issues to the same extent. Each person is an individual but the important message it to understand and be open to how being adopted may have impacted the developing child. There are many books and articles available; many of them written by adoptees who are sharing their personal experience. We do know that adopted children make up a significant percentage of those who seek mental health treatment. Oftentimes, one may find that even well-trained and experienced clinicians do not take the adoption into account to the necessary extent. Finding the help that is available is often a daunting task but researching can reveal those who are more knowledgeable.

These issues can emerge particularly during adolescence and certainly during young adulthood during which time they are met with the challenge of separating and finding their true self. As long as the issues remain an open conversation, are acknowledged, and help is accessible, they can be worked through and the young adult can find their way in life.

Learn about our Life Strategies program for emerging adults.

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