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A Thoughtful Understanding All Aspects of Adopting a Child

As children grow, they develop a positive sense of their identity, known as psychosocial well-being. They
gradually develop self-concept (how they see themselves) and self-esteem (how much they like what
they see). Eventually, they learn to be happy with themselves. Adoption may complicate normal
childhood issues such as attachment, loss, and self-image. Adopted children must be accepted and
integrated into their birth and adoptive families.

Children who are adopted as babies are affected by adoption throughout their lives. Adopted children
grow up to understand adoption at different stages of development. Those who have experienced
trauma or neglect may remember these experiences as further complicating their self-image. Interracial,
intercultural, and special needs issues may also impact a child's adoption experience. All adopted
children grieve to some degree the loss of their biological family, heritage, and culture. Adoptive parents
can facilitate and assist this natural grieving process by becoming accustomed to using adoption
language (e.g., birth parents and birth family) and discussing adoption issues.

This statement reviews how children learn about adoption as they grow from infancy through
adolescence. Specific issues related to transracial adoption are beyond the scope of this statement and
will not be addressed.

Stage 1: Infancy and Toddlers

During infancy and Toddlers, children develop attachments and bonds with their primary caregivers.
Prenatal issues, such as the length of pregnancy, maternal drug or alcohol use, and genetic vulnerabilities, may ultimately affect the child's ability to adjust. The temperament of each participant also plays a role.

As a child approaches preschool, he or she will develop magical thinking, using a fantasy world to explain
things he or she cannot understand. A child who does not understand reproduction must first
understand that he or she has a biological mother and is born like any other child. Even though a three-
year-old may repeat his or her adoption story, the child does not understand it. A child must first grasp
the concepts of time and space, which usually occurs between the ages of four and five, to see some
events that occurred in the past, even if he or she cannot remember them. A child must understand that
places and people exist outside of his or her immediate environment.

Telling a child his or her adoption story at a young age may help parents adapt to the language of
adoption and the child's birth story. Children need to know they are adopted. Parental openness and
comfort create an environment conducive for children to ask questions about adoption.


Stage 2: School-Aged Children

Operational thinking, causality and logical planning begin to emerge in the school-aged child. The child is
trying to understand and to master the world in which he or she lives. The child is a problem solver. He
or she realizes that most other children are living with at least one other biological relative. It is the first
time that the child sees himself or herself as being different from other children. The child may struggle
with the meaning of being adopted and may experience feelings of loss and sadness. He or she begins to
see the flip side of the adoption story and may wonder what was wrong with him or her; why did the
birth mother place him or her up for adoption? The child may feel abandoned and angry. It is normal to
see aggression, angry behavior, withdrawal or sadness and self-image problems among adopted
children at this age. The child attempts to reformulate the parts of his or her story that are hard to
understand and to compensate for emotions that are painful. As a result, daydreaming is very common
among adopted children who are working through complex identity issues.

Control may be an issue. A child may believe that he or she has had no control over losing one family
and being placed with another. The child may need to have reassurance about day-to-day activities or
may require repeated explanations about simple changes in the family’s routine. Transitions may be
particularly difficult. The child may have an outright fear of abandonment, difficulty falling asleep and,
even, kidnapping nightmares.

It is helpful to explain that the birth mother made a loving choice by placing the child up for adoption,
that she had a plan for his or her future. The child may need to hear this statement repeatedly. There is
some similarity between the symptoms of grief and symptoms associated with attention
deficit/hyperactivity disorder; care givers must be wary not to label a child with attention
deficit/hyperactivity disorder when, in fact, the child’s behavior is consistent with a normal grieving
process. A parent’s patience and understanding are crucial at this point of an adopted child’s life.
Parents may be pro-active by educating school personnel about the natural grieving issues related to
adoption that their child is experiencing.


Stage 3: Adolescence

The adolescent’s primary developmental task is to establish an identity while actively seeking
independence and separation from family. The adopted adolescent needs to make sense of both sets of
parents, and this may cause a sense of divided loyalties and conflict. In early adolescence, the loss of
childhood itself is a significant issue. The adopted adolescent has already experienced loss, making the
transition to adolescence even more complicated. This period of development may be difficult and
confusing. Adolescents may experience shame and loss of self-esteem, particularly because society’s
image of birth parents is often negative.

Adopted adolescents will want to know details about their genetic history and how they are unique.
They will reflect on themselves and their adoptive family to determine similarities and differences. They
will attempt to ascertain where they belong and where they came from. All adolescents may have a
natural reticence about talking to their parents, and adopted adolescents may not share questions
about their origins with their parents. They may keep their reflections to themselves. Adopted
adolescents’ search for information about themselves is very normal, and parents should not see this as
a threat. Instead, parents’ willingness to accept their child’s dual heritage of biology and environment
will help their child to accept that reality.

In A Nutshell,

Children’s interest in adoption varies throughout the developmental stages of childhood and
adolescence. As children progress from one stage to another, they gain new cognitive abilities and
psychosocial structures. They look at adoption differently and, often, have more concerns or questions.
Their questions may diminish until a new cognitive and psychosocial level is reached. Parents can
facilitate this developmental process by being knowledgeable and supportive, and by continuing to
retell their child his or her adoption story. The grief that their child experiences is real and should not be
denied or avoided. Support from knowledgeable health care providers is invaluable in helping adoptive
parents and their child. Although this statement has addressed common issues that relate to a child’s
perception of adoption, a psychological or psychiatric referral is indicated if the child suffers from
depression or has symptoms that affect his or her day-to-day functioning. Pediatricians and other
professionals who care for children should provide anticipatory guidance by counselling parents of
adopted children about relevant issues that concern their child’s understanding of his or her adoption.


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