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Raising an Adopted Child

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Every adopted child is unique and has the potential to flourish in a loving home. However, because of the nature of adoption, there are several potential challenges that many adoptive parents will need to be prepared to confront. These include the aftereffects of trauma or neglect, feelings of abandonment, questions of identity, and social and emotional challenges related to race.

On the other hand, it’s important for parents to remember that not every problem, whether physical or mental, can be directly traced to a child’s adoption. Focusing on the whole of the child’s life and needs, rather than assuming adoption is behind every negative behavior, is the best way to address challenges and promote overall well-being.

Common Adoption Challenges

Some children who have been adopted, though not all, may experience psychological, neurological, social, medical, or behavioral problems unique to their individual situation. These potential problems, which can develop at any age, include bonding, attachment, relationship issues, cognitive delays, ADHD, defiance, and matters related to identity formation.

These problems may be due to separation from birth parents, trauma, stigmatization, cultural changes, environmental issues such as malnutrition or lead poisoning, or biological family history, including alcoholism or drug abuse. Since it is not always possible to obtain records of an adopted child’s medical history, there may be unforeseen physical health matters to address.

What are the possible negative effects of adoption?

Adoption will not necessarily have negative effects on every adopted child. Some children, however, may experience negative emotional or psychological symptoms as a result of their adoption. 

For starters, adopted children may struggle with feeling rejected by their birth family and/or like they don’t fit into their adoptive family; such feelings can be painful for children and parents alike, and may trigger negative behaviors as the child attempts to reconcile these emotions. 

Adoptees, particularly those adopted at an older age, may have endured trauma, abuse, or neglect. Such children may be distrusting of adults and may struggle to bond with their adoptive family as a result. They may also present with emotional or behavioral challenges as they attempt to cope with their difficult past. Seeking help for traumatized children—and trying to see frustrating behaviors through a lens of trauma, rather than one of deliberate disobedience—can help parents put their child on a path to improved psychological health. 

Are adopted children more likely to have mental health problems?

Evidence shows that the majority of adoptees are in the normal range of behavioral and emotional adjustment. However, evidence does suggest that adoptees may be more likely than non-adopted children to be diagnosed with mental health disorders, including depression, ADHD, and addiction. 

Though the exact causes for this disparity continue to be investigated—and likely differ from adoptee to adoptee—it’s likely that a combination of genetic vulnerability, past trauma, feelings of rejection, and identity crises may be responsible for the increased risk of mental health disorders seen among adopted children.

Bridging Differences Between Parent and Child

Adopted children may be of a different race, ethnicity, or cultural background than their adoptive families. While many families consider these differences something to be celebrated, they can also create barriers between parent and child that will require dedicated effort (particularly on the part of the parents) to overcome.

In the U.S., most adoptive parents are white; many adopted children are not. When parent(s) and child are of different races—a situation known as transracial adoption—it’s imperative that the situation be discussed openly and honestly. Attempting to gloss over differences, or act as if they don’t exist, will likely only result in distance between family members.

What are the challenges of transracial adoption?

Since race can be a visible indicator that a child was adopted, transracial adoptees may feel acutely as if they don’t “fit in” with their family, which can aggravate the questions of identity that affect many adoptees. Strangers (or even loved ones) may further exacerbate this feeling by making rude or incorrect comments about the family or about adoption. 

Adoptees of color may also experience racism or microaggressions in their adoptive community, particularly if few other people of their race or ethnicity live there. Living in a predominantly white community may also make them more likely to feel disconnected from their racial or ethnic group; some may question whether they can rightfully self-identify with their race or ethnicity if they have white parents. 

A major challenge of transracial adoption is related to adoptive parents’ frequent discomfort with talking about race. If a child learns that race is an “impolite” subject to bring up, he may feel pressured to keep his race-related questions and problems to himself. Feeling unable to talk to their adoptive parents about race can create further identity challenges and may make adoptees feel isolated in their own homes.

Should adoptive parents talk about race with their child?

Absolutely. Adoptive parents—particularly white ones—may struggle to navigate conversations about their child’s race or openly discuss how race is viewed by society at large. But avoiding the subject altogether, or acting as if conversations about race are somehow improper, can have serious negative effects on children. 

Many adult transracial adoptees report that their parents refused to talk about race at all; others adopted a “colorblind” approach and taught their children that race did not matter, despite the child’s lived experience to the contrary. Either approach can result in the child feeling shame or confusion about their racial background, or even resentment toward their adoptive parents later on.


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