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For most adoptees, being adopted is just one piece of a multifaceted identity—and like other identity markers such as race, gender, sexual orientation, or personality, it’s often necessary to navigate feelings of uncertainty, pride vs. shame, and questions about who one is and where they’re meant to be in the world. Adoption has unique influences on identity formation as a child grows up and may require that children confront loss and feelings of rejection; it may also present distinct challenges in adulthood, particularly when it comes time to discuss family history that might be unknown. Though being adopted has its challenges as children grow into adults, many adult adoptees report feeling stronger for having navigated them—and may even end up feeling more connected to their adoptive families, their birth families, their cultures, and their inner selves as a result.

Growing Up Adopted

Nowadays, in the U.S. and other countries where formal adoption is common, most adoptive families start discussing adoption with their child from the moment they arrive home—thus, the “big reveal” in which a child suddenly finds out they’re adopted is less common than it once was (though not unheard of). Growing up knowing that one is adopted generally has beneficial effects on children’s mental health and sense of self. However, it also raises questions that the child will need to grapple with as they grow: What does it mean to be adopted? Does being placed for adoption mean that they were unwanted? Is it possible to truly fit in in one’s adopted world?

Talking to adoptive parents—and birth parents, if they’re in the picture—about these questions can help adoptees navigate them. But parents, even loving ones, may not fully understand the complexities of growing up adopted or may feel uncomfortable talking about adoptees’ experience with identity, culture, loss, and trauma. Thus, talking to other adoptees, either online or in person, can perhaps be even more helpful for adoptees trying to build their identity and make sense of their past.

Should adopted children try to find their birth parents?

If an adoption is closed, or a child is adopted internationally, adoptees may spend much of their lives wondering who their birth parents are or whether they’re still alive. Whether or not to search for or ultimately attempt to meet them is a deeply personal decision that should be left up to each individual adoptee. Finding birth parents is not a cure-all for the challenges of growing up adopted; birth parents may not be who adoptees expect or they may not be interested in a relationship. However, many adoptees who decided to search or who did get a chance to meet their birth parents report that the process brought a greater connection to their roots, a better understanding of their past, or answers to long-standing questions. What’s more, some adoptees do go on to have close relationships with their families of origin after meeting in adulthood.

How should I prepare for my first meeting with my birth parents?

It can be helpful for adoptees to think about specific topics they’d like to discuss or to draft a list of questions they’d like to ask their birth parent(s). Though it’s difficult, adoptees and other experts recommend keeping expectations and assumptions to a minimum; even if a birth parent is happy to meet, it may still not be the picture-perfect reunion an adoptee hopes for. Most experts also recommend that adoptees set internal boundaries beforehand—how long the meeting will last, whether they’re interested in a second meeting, etc. Above all, it can be helpful for the adoptee to remind themselves that no relationship forms instantaneously; it will likely take time for both adoptee and birth parent to feel comfortable with each other.

Life as an Adult Adoptee

By the time they reach adulthood, many adoptees feel that they are more secure in their identity than they were as children and adolescents. But there may still be aspects of being adopted that can feel challenging for adults to navigate—particularly when it comes to accessing family records, sharing their adoption story as they grow older, and meeting others who have shared their experiences and are willing to connect.

In addition, the rapidly growing popularity of genetic testing has led many people to discover later in life that they were adopted; this can, naturally, come with countless questions about identity, family relationships, and trust. Connecting with others who have undergone similar experiences—and seeing a therapist if necessary—can help people cope with such discoveries and come to terms with this new facet of their life story.

How can I connect with other adult adoptees?

Forming close relationships with other adoptees is a great way for adults to feel understood, speak openly about the ups and downs of growing up adopted, and build a community wherever they live. While it’s not always easy to meet other adult adoptees organically, there now exist myriad tools that can assist. Online support groups are a great place to start and are easy to find with a simple internet search; it’s also possible to locate in-person meetups online, especially in major cities. Adults may also have success visiting a local church or community center; some run support and discussion groups specifically for adult adoptees.

How should I talk about my adoption with my own children?

Even adoptees who are comfortable openly discussing their adoption with adults may hesitate to bring it up to their own children, especially biological ones. Some worry that the knowledge may affect the child’s relationship with her grandparents; others fear that their child will begin to worry that he could be placed for adoption at any time. Despite these challenges, however, many experts recommend being honest and telling children as early as possible. The same advice given to adoptive parents generally applies to adult adoptees, too: Talk about adoption in positive, age-appropriate terms, and be prepared to answer any questions they may have. And make sure the conversation doesn’t end there—talking about adoption regularly and casually can go a long way toward making their parent’s adoption a normal part of the child’s overall life story.

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