In a perfect world, every child would live happily with her or his birth family in the safety and security of a forever home. And while there are millions of children who have been blessed with that perfect-world scenario, there have been and continue to be millions of other children, who through no fault of their own (and perhaps even through no fault of their family), have had to live with parents other than their biological mother and father. Often, these children become adopted. And while the world is far from perfect, adoption allows a child (or teenager) in need to have a second chance in a loving and safe family environment.
For certain, adoption is filled with beauty as it depicts an individual, or a couple, or a family who have made the choice to open their hearts and homes to a child in desperate need of a forever family. And we can’t but thank God that there are people who have made that choice on behalf of those in need. While adoption may never have needed to exist in a perfect world, it is a true blessing to millions of children and families who live in this world.
But, like this world, adoption is not perfect. It can’t erase the hurtful past, and it doesn’t automatically guarantee an unmarred future for the adopted child. So, regardless of what age a child is adopted, she is likely to experience several lifelong issues related to her past and related to her adoption. And while time can heal many wounds, and dedicated therapy and counseling can help heal even more, the reality is that an adoptee may continue to struggle in certain areas well into adulthood and perhaps throughout his entire life.
Let’s look at just five potential issues related to adoption that could affect a child for the duration of his or her life….
01 – The Persistence of Loss
Adoption can never replace the loss of a biological parent—nor is it meant to. While adoption does provide a child with a new family, it does not automatically erase the very real feeling of loss experienced by adoptees. Their loss is significant; it’s profound, and it doesn’t go away simply because a child is given a new mother and/or a new father. Adoptees will continue to experience that loss throughout their childhood, throughout their teenage years, and most likely, throughout their adulthood.
And that fact is nothing that should be taken personally by the adoptive parents. The child that you adopted may grow to love you deeply. She may feel completely safe, loved, and cared for in your home. He may be eternally thankful for being part of your family.
But the biological bond between an individual and his or her birth parents is tremendous, and in most cases, it will not diminish greatly over time.
Regardless of why a child is no longer able to be with his biological parents, the loss and the feeling of loss are both significant. Whether the parents have died, whether the parents have abandoned the child, whether the child had to be removed from the parent’s custody, whether the parents placed the child for adoption, whatever the reason, the child has experienced great loss—loss that will most likely remain with her throughout her life.
Through the love and care of an adoptive family, and through the support of mental health professionals, adoptees can, over time, properly process their loss and learn how to live with it. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will ever be easy for them, but they can develop the mental and emotional tools to be able to integrate their loss into the journey of their life in a way that is healthy.
02 – The Perception of Worth
Many adopted children and teenagers struggle with feelings of worth. These feelings are often connected to the circumstances surrounding their separation from their birth parents—especially if the parents made a choice to separate. If the parents chose to abandon the child or if they chose to place the child for adoption, it can feel to a child that her parents thought she was not worth keeping. This is a deeply hurtful belief to carry around for an entire life, and it is a feeling that does not go away easily—if ever.
If possible, it becomes important, at some point, for a child to understand the reasons why he was separated from his parents, especially if that separation was the choice of the parents. This may help the child better realize that his parents may not have thought he was worthless, perhaps quite the contrary.
For example, often when a mother places her child for adoption, the mother believes that it is in the best interest of the child. She may believe that she cannot properly care for the child and wants to see her child experience an incredible chance at life. In her mind, placing her child for adoption may show that she believes her child is of great worth.
Allowing adopted children to understand stories such as this may go a long way in helping them see their worth. When in doubt about how and when to share those types of stories with your child, consider speaking with a mental health professional first.
Unfortunately, the reasons for a child’s separation from her biological parents may not always be known or may be under very negative circumstances that could keep the child questioning her worth as an individual. In these cases, it becomes crucial for adoptive parents to be intentional about regularly acknowledging the worth of their child. This can be done through words and actions. Adoptive parents need to let their children know that they are worth so much. This may need to be a regularly recurring message in the parenting of the child.
If children believe that they are worthless, this is not an easy belief to eliminate, and perhaps on some level, they may always believe that. But adoptive parents must do what they can to let their children know the incredible value they truly do have.
03 – The Pursuit of Identity
Who am I?
How do I fit in?
Why am I here?
Where do I belong?
What is my purpose?
These are all questions of identity that most of us ask ourselves at one point or another in our lives. But with children who were adopted, these questions take on a whole new level of meaning as they may frequently ask themselves who they really are. They have experienced loss. Perhaps they have also experienced other forms of trauma such as the following: abuse, neglect, abandonment, or prolonged grief. This trauma can, and very often does, lead a child or teenager to really question who he or she is and why he or she is even alive.
If a child is left alone to process these questions, it could result in very negative results. It is important for adoptive parents to help their children process identity issues in a way that is healthy and positive. These issues can also be dealt with in the safety of a licensed counselor or therapist.
It is important for children who were adopted to understand who they are—to understand that they are not simply a random product of a traumatic experience and to know that they are a unique individual, created for a purpose. Struggles with identity can stay with an adoptee throughout her or his entire life. That’s why it is so important that adoptive parents make themselves available regularly to help their children process these difficult identity issues.
04 – The Permanency of Family
“Forever family” is a term that gets used a lot in adoption circles, and with good intent. It is the genuine desire of millions of amazing adoptive parents to provide a forever family to a child or children in need. It is certainly unfortunate, to say the least, that we live in a world in which there are so many temporary families, but adoption usually does provide a forever option to those who need it. And that’s a good thing!
There is a problem, however, that often surfaces. Imagine being a child who is no longer able to be with his birth parents—the biological family that was supposed to be his forever family. Then further imagine that some of these kids have also been passed through multiple foster homes and might have been told that those homes would be their permanent home, but those homes also turned out to be temporary. It becomes difficult for a child or teenager (or even an adult) to truly believe that her or his adoption is going to be permanent.
Regardless of how much children love, trust, and care for their adoptive family, it can be hard for them to truly believe that this is forever. And that may make it difficult for some children to completely connect on the deepest emotional and familial levels. This can be challenging, but adoptive parents have the role of helping their children understand that they are part of a forever family.
05 – The Potential for Trust
It is likely that most adoptees would admit that they struggle with trust issues. And honestly, who can blame them? They trusted their birth parents who are now gone. Perhaps they trusted caseworkers who lied to them. Maybe they trusted foster parents who didn’t follow through on their promises. For many adopted children and teenagers, they have been lied to their whole lives. They are all too familiar with broken promises and shattered dreams. Their lives may seem like one big lie after another.
So is it any wonder that they are unwilling (or even unable) to place their trust in people? No, of course not. They may want to trust their adoptive parents; they may even trust them in some small ways, but offering adoptive parents full trust may not be possible right now. It may not even be possible down the road.
So the role of the adoptive parent is to try to develop a trusting relationship between parent and child. This may take time—a lot of time—and much intentionality, but if parents are on a mission to earn the trust of their adopted children, the potential for that does certainly exist. But it means that parents need to work hard at it. They need to show up for their children. They need to be there for their children. They need to consistently love, support, and care for their children. And if parents mess up (which they will because no one is perfect), they need to own it and ask for forgiveness of their children.
Earning the trust of a child or teenager who was adopted may be one of the biggest parenting challenges around, but with intentionality, patience, and a lot of time, it really can be earned.
So as we consider these five issues common to adoptees, it is important to remember that any of them (or even all of them) could be issues that adoptees deal with their entire lives. And while through supportive parenting and the guidance of mental health professionals there can be great progress, we must be aware that many of these issues may linger for many years to come. And that is okay.
The struggles that children who were adopted face on a regular basis are huge as they recall their past, as they consider their present, and as they wonder about their future. Losing a parent, for whatever reason, is bound to be a lifelong struggle and an ongoing challenge, a challenge that these kids end up facing every day. We must never assume that they have “moved on” from the great loss that they have experienced.
So, with that in mind, the job of the adoptive parent is what it always has been: to provide a safe, loving, nurturing, and supportive family and home environment because—at the end of the day—this is exactly what these kids need, and it is certainly what these kids deserve.
Arthur C Woods is an experienced speaker, teacher and writer, covering topics related to orphan care, adoption and foster care. He holds a Masters Degree in Student & Family Ministry and in his spare time volunteers as a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) – working with teenagers in the foster care system. Additionally, Arthur serves on the Board of Directors of Camp Orchard Hill, a large youth camp in Pennsylvania. He and his wife (Liz), and their two amazing daughters live in Lancaster Co. PA with their Siberian Husky, Jadis and their adorable cat, Epi. For more information on Arthur visit www.ArthurCWoods.com or shoot him an email at info@ArthurCWoods.com.