The Lifelong Impact of Adoption
How adoption affects all stages of life
Adoption has a lifelong effect through infancy, childhood, and throughout adulthood in education, relationships, work, as parents, and more. The lifelong impact is a completely normal reaction to an abnormal separation from your biological family.
Society often views adoption as a positive experience, but for adoptees, the reality can be quite different. They may struggle with feelings of trauma, identity issues, lack of genetic mirroring, rejection, and more, all of which can take a toll on their mental health. As a result, adoptees are at a higher risk for conditions such as PTSD, Complex PTSD, and suicide.
These mental health challenges are often misdiagnosed as other conditions such as ADHD, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, and depression. It’s important to note that adoptees come from diverse backgrounds, and their experiences may vary widely. Some may have been relinquished at birth, while others may have spent years with their birth families. Some may have experienced neglect or mistreatment, while others did not. Some may have been subject to transracial or inter-country adoption.
Not every adoptee will face mental health challenges, but it is incredibly common. Adoptees should not be made to feel guilty for their struggles, instead, they should have easy access to the support they need to heal.
Trauma / PTSD
Even the most “successful” adoptions are not without trauma. Adoptees are four times more likely than kept people to attempt suicide, they are also at a higher risk of substance abuse disorders and addiction.
The very nature of adoption means that a child is relinquished from its biological parents. Unfortunately, the positive narrative of adoption chooses to ignore this and many adoptees grow up thinking there is something wrong with them, but not actually understanding the complexity of adoption and its lifelong effect upon them.
Adoptees often face challenges in developing their identity due to a lack of knowledge about their biological family’s stories, likes, and preferences. This missing information can make it difficult for them to understand and define themselves.
As a result, many adoptees may struggle with feelings of confusion, shame, guilt, and unresolved grief. They may also adopt coping mechanisms such as being overly compliant or confrontational in order to feel safe and avoid rejection.
Without a sense of security and access to information about their biological family, it can be difficult for adoptees to fully develop their own identity.
One of the building blocks of personality is that you look like someone. It helps us to belong if we have a family member’s eyes, hair type, or hand shape. Adoptees do not experience “genetic mirroring”, as they are brought up outside of their biological family. They grow up with no frame of reference. They just know that they are different. Genetic mirroring can be particularly acute for transracial adoptees.
The absence of “genetic mirroring” can also affect adoptees in more subtle ways, such as interests, aptitudes, gestures, speech patterns, and tone of voice. This is often a topic that is trivialised, but it is important to understand that it is a significant issue for adoptees, and individuals who claim it doesn’t matter are speaking from a place of uncritical privilege.
This creates a huge often silenced loss and sense of not belonging in the world regardless of how loving the adoptive family is. Adoptees should be given the support and understanding they need to navigate these complex feelings to find a sense of belonging in the world.
Adoptees often have no or limited family medical history. As a result, genetic predispositions are only identified after symptoms present, often too late for successful treatment or choices to be given.
This is harmful to adult adoptees and their children, resulting in life-limiting or life-threatening conditions that could be prevented.
Useful sources of information
We’ve found the resources below to be very helpful and informative:
- “From a ‘happy ending’ to a ‘lifelong journey’: the growing understanding of the support needs of people affected by adoption” – By Elsbeth Neil Professor of Social Work, University of East Anglia,
- Study into lifelong impacts of adoption by Gillian Bruce
- Seven Core Issues in Adoption and Permanency by Sharon Kaplan Roszia, Allison Davis Maxon
- 10 Things Adoptees Want You to Know Lesli Johnson