There has been an enormous amount of research conducted about adoptees and their problems with identity formation. Many of the researchers agree on some of the causes of identity formation problems in adolescent adoptees, while other researchers conclude that there is no significant difference in identity formation in adoptees and birth children. This paper will discuss some of the research which has been conducted and will attempt to answer the following questions: Do adoptees have identity formation difficulties during adolescence? If so, what are some of the causes of these vicissitudes? Is there a significant difference between identity formation of adoptees and nonadoptees?
The National Adoption Center reports that fifty-two percent of adoptable children have attachment disorder symptoms.
It was also found that the older the child when adopted, the higher the risk of social maladjustment (Benson et al., 1998). This is to say that a child who is adopted at one-week of age will have a better chance of “normal” adjustment than a child who is adopted at the age of ten.
This may be due in part to the probability that an infant will learn how to trust, where as a ten-year-old may have more difficulty with this task, depending on his history. Eric Erickson, a developmental theorist, discusses trust issues in his theory of development. The first of Erickson’s stages of development is Trust v. Mistrust. A child who experiences neglect or abuse can have this stage of development severely damaged. An adopted infant may have the opportunity to fully learn trust, where as an older child may have been shuffled from foster home to group home as an infant, thereby never learning trust. Even though Trust v. Mistrust is a major stage of development, “the greatest psychological risk for adopted children occurs during the middle childhood and adolescent years” (McRoy et al., 1990). As children grow and change into adolescents, they begin to search for an identity by finding anchoring points with which to relate. Unfortunately, adopted children do not have a biological example to which to turn (Horner & Rosenberg, 1991), unless they had an open adoption in which they were able to form a relationship with their biological families as well as their adoptive ones. Also key to the development of trust is the ability to bond with adoptive parents. The absence of a biological bond between the adoptee and adoptive parents may cause trust issues in the adoptee (Wegar, 1995). Baran (1975) stated, “Late adolescence . . . is the period of intensified identity concerns and is a time when the feelings about adoption become more intense and questions about the past increase.” Unless the adopted child has the answers to these arising questions, identity formation can be altered and somewhat halted. McRoy et al. (1990) agree with this point:
Adolescence is a period when young people seek an integrated and stable ego identity. This occurs as they seek to link their current self-perceptions with their ‘self perceptions from earlier periods and with their cultural and biological heritage’ (Brodzindky, 1987, p. 37). Adopted children sometimes have difficulty with this task because they often do not have the necessary information from the past to begin to develop a stable sense of who they are. They often have incomplete knowledge about why they were relinquished and what their birth parents were like, and they may grieve not only for the loss of their birth parents but for the loss of part of themselves.
In essence, it seems that the adolescent’s identity formation is impaired because he holds the knowledge that his “roots” or his “essence” have been severed and remain on the unknown side of the adoption barrier.
The identity struggles of the adolescent are “part of a human need to connect with their natural clan and failure to do so may precipitate psychopathology” (Wegar, 1995). Also in agreement with Wegar, McRoy, and Baran is Frisk. Baran et al. (1975) wrote, “Frisk conceptualized that the lack of family background knowledge in the adoptee prevents the development of a healthy ‘genetic ego’ . . . .” In most of the studies surveyed, the researchers are in agreement about one fact. Vital to the adopted adolescent’s identity development is the knowledge of the birth family and the circumstances surrounding the adoption. Without this information, the adolescent has difficulty deciding which family (birth or adopted) he resembles. During the search for an identity in adolescence, the child may face an array of problems including “hostility toward the adoptive parents, rejection of anger toward the birth parents, self-hatred, transracial adoption concerns, feeling of rootlessness . . . .” (McRoy et al., 1990).
While searching for an identity, adolescent adoptees sometimes are involved in a behavior which psychologists term ‘family romance.’ This is not a romance in a sexual manner, but rather a romance in the sense of fantasizing about birth parents and their personal qualities. Horner and Rosenberg (1991) stated that “the adopted child may develop a family romance in order to defend against painful facts.” Often times, adoptees wonder why they were adopted, and because closed-adoptions are common, the adoptee is left with many unanswered questions about the circumstances of the adoption. The adoptee may have a tendency to harbor negative feelings about himself, feeling like he was unwanted, bad, or rejected by the birth parent. These feelings can be quite powerful, so the adoptee will engage in this family romancing behavior in order to offset the negative feelings and try to reconcile his identity crisis. This point is stressed by Horner and Rosenberg (1991) when they write, “The painful reality to be confronted by adoptees is that their biological parents did not want, or were unable, to find a way of keeping and rearing their own child. The children feel that they were either ‘not meant to be’ or ‘intolerable’ . . . .”
Finding an identity, while considering both sets of parents is a difficult task for the adolescent. The adoptee does not want to hurt or offend his adoptive parents, and he also does not want to ignore what is known about his biological roots. Horner and Rosenberg (1991) write:
Adoptive status may represent a developmental interference for children during adolescence. Instead of the usual struggles over separation and the establishment of a cohesive sense of self and identity, the adopted child must struggle with the competing and conflictual issues of good and bad parents, good and bad self, and separation from both adoptive parents and images of biological parents.
If all adoptions were open, the adoptee would have the ability to know about the traits of each family. He would have an easier task of forming an identity for himself, rather than struggling with the issues of to whom he can relate. If the adolescent has some information about his birth parents, such as ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and religion, Horner and Rosenberg (1991) believe that the following can happen: “From the bits of fact that they possess, adopted children develop and elaborate explanations of their adoptions. At the same time, they begin to explain themselves, and they struggle to develop a cohesive and realistic sense of who they are and who they can become.” It appears that if the adoptee has even a minimal amount of information about his birth parents and adoption, he will have an easier time with identity formation than an adoptee who has no information about his adoption.
The adoptive parents can also play a key role in aiding in identity formation of the adopted adolescent. Much of the research I surveyed at least touched upon the role of the adoptive parents. “Kornitzer stated that the more mysterious the adoptive parents make things for the child the more he will resort to fantasy” (Baran et al., 1975). This is yet another argument for open adoptions. Again, if the child knows the circumstances of his adoption and other pertinent information about his biological roots, he will have an easier time forming an identity in adolescence. It is also noted that, “ . . . young adoptees are vulnerable to feeling ‘different’ or ‘bad’ due to the comments and actions of others” (Wegar, 1995). This is to say that the child will feel more accepted, and that his adoption is not a stigma if his adoptive parents have the conviction that being adopted does not make the family ‘bad’, and it does not mean that the adoptive parents are failures because they could not have biological children. Sometimes the negativity of adoptive parents about the circumstances of the adoption can be sensed by the adoptee, thus causing the adoptee to believe that there is something wrong with being adopted. Once again, this can cause identity formation problems, especially if the adolescent believes that he is inferior or bad because he is adopted and not raised in his biological family. “The literature on adopted children has long documented particular and sometimes intense struggles around identity formation, and suggests that in many ways adopted children follow a different developmental course from children who are raised by their biological parents” (Horner and Rosenberg, 1991).
While most of the studies I read found that adoptees have difficulty in identity formation during adolescence, I did find an article which refutes this point. Kelly et al. (1998) write:
Developing a separate, autonomous, mature sense of self is widely recognized as a particularly complex task for adoptees. While many scholars have concluded that identity formation is inherently more difficult for adoptees some recent comparisons of adopted and nonadopted youth have found no differences in adequacy of identity formation, and a study by Stein and Hoopes (1985) revealed higher ego identity scores for adoptees. Goebel and Lott (1986) found that such factors as subjects’ age, sex, personality variables, family characteristics, and motivation to search for birth parents accounted more for quality of identity formation than did adoptive status.
In conclusion, it is difficult to say who is right in their beliefs about adoptees and identity formation. The research I have reviewed has mostly shown that adoptees do have quite a bit a difficulty forming an identity during adolescence, and that this difficulty can be due to a number of factors. Negative parental attitudes about adoption can have a negative affect on the adoptee. The issue of open versus closed adoptions will forever be a debate, but the research does show that the more an adoptee knows about his birth family and the circumstances surrounding his adoption, the easier it will be for him to form an identity during adolescence. Most of the researchers who wrote about the family romance seemed to do so in a negative manner, when in fact I believe that the ability to fantasize about the birth family may be a healthy option for the adolescent who is the victim of a closed adoption. It allows him to construct a view of what his birth family is like, and it also allows him to relieve himself of some of the internal pain which is caused by closed adoptions. Overall, most of the literature supported the notion that adoptees do indeed have identity formation problems.
Baran, A., Pannor, R., & Sorosky, A. (1975). Identity Conflicts in Adoptees. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 45(1), 18-26.
Benson, P., McGue, M., & Sharma, A. (1998). The Psychological Adjustment of United States Adopted Adolescents and Their Nonadopted Siblings. Child Development, 69(3), 791-802.
Benson, P., McGue, M., & Sharma, A. (1996). The Effect of Common Rearing on Adolescent Adjustment: Evidence from a U.S. Adoption Cohort. Developmental Psychology, 32(4), 604-613.
Brinch, P. & Brinch, E. (1982). Adoption and Adaptation. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 170, 489-493.
Cote, A., Joseph, K., Kotsopoulos, S., Oke, L., Pentland, N., Sheahan, P., & Stavrakaki, C. (1988). Psychiatric Disorders in Adopted Children: A Controlled Study. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 58(4), 608-611.
Hajal, F., & Rosenberg, E. (1991). The Family Life Cycle in Adoptive Families. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 61(1), 78-85.
Horner, T., & Rosenberg, E. (1991). Birthparent Romances and Identity Formation in Adopted Children. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 61(1), 70-77.
Kelly, M., Martin, B., Rigby, A., & Towner-Thyrum, E. (1998). Adjustment and Identity Formation in Adopted and Nonadopted Young Adults: Contributions of a Family Enviornment. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 68(3), 497-500.
McRoy, R., Grotevant, H., Furuta, A., & Lopez, S. (1990). Adoption Revelation and Communication Issues: Implications for Practice. Families in Society, 71, 550-557.
Wegar, K. (1995). Adoption and Mental Health: A Theoretical Critique of the Psychopathological Model. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 65(4), 540-548.
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