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  • Writer's pictureEmily Smith

The Adopted Young Adult

When we think about adopted children, most often the picture that pops into our minds includes a happy family cooing over an adorably fresh infant. Seldom do we hear of the hardship and less brightly colored side of what that baby’s experience often can look like as they get older. We almost never hear about how the adoption experience has the power to impact that baby’s life beyond childhood and can lay the foundation for a tumultuous adulthood.

A 1982 study that still holds true in psychological communities today, identifies seven core issues in adoption. These include:

  • Loss

  • Rejection

  • Guilt and Shame

  • Grief

  • Identity

  • Intimacy

  • Mastery/Control

In adolescence and early adulthood, these issues often begin to emerge in ways that they hadn’t before. Three factors begin to intersect: an acute awareness of the significance of being adopted, an inherent drive toward independence, and a desire to develop a whole, integrated identity. For the adopted early adult, this time period can look like:

  • Seemingly perpetual grief

  • A feeling of, “who am I?”

  • Lower self esteem and confidence

  • Substance use and abuse

  • Higher rates of mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc.

The task of separation/individuation involves loss and grief. This experience for the adopted child brings up the experience of the “primal loss” which remains present as an intrinsic memory throughout the child’s life. Researchers tell us that bonding with the birth mother begins in the womb. A newborn is familiar with the mother’s voice, her smell, her energy. The newborn is not the unaware, psychologically simple beings we once thought they were. Instead, they are capable of feeling a wide range of emotions, remembering, learning, and using their senses to explore the world outside the womb. Bonding doesn’t begin at birth, but is a continuum of physiological, psychological, and spiritual events which begin in utero and continue throughout the postnatal bonding period. This loss is experienced as abandonment in the newborn. The adoptive mother can and does provide all of the nurturing the child needs and may even do what the birthmother is not able to do. In most cases, she does it well. However, she cannot erase the scars left behind of the original abandonment. The abandonment issue has to be acknowledged before it can be resolved.

Despite the continuity of relationship that adoption provides, the adopted child may experience themselves as unwanted and have difficulty trusting that the adoptive relationship is permanent. This fear of abandonment may interfere with secure attachment to the birth family and impact many of their relationships-with peers and in romantic relationships. Fear of rejection remains part of the experience of the adoptee. They may experience shame around this sense of rejection and face loss of self-esteem.

The adopted child struggles with his/her own sense of self – identity due to a lack of known history and a shared sense of family with their adoptive families. The adoptee experiences him/herself as different from other members of the family and often yearns to know more about who he/she is. With the adoptee not having a role model who resembles her physically or psychologically, it is more difficult to define where his/her life shall lead. They look different from other members of their family and may have different talents and personalities. This may lead to them feeling out of the family circle despite the adoptive family’s efforts.

For the adoptive family, the key is to educate themselves about the experience of the adopted child. Many adoptive families will say that the child was like their “own child” from the beginning or that they were “chosen”. While this is a lovely sentiment and so important for the developing child, ignoring that the child has experienced a trauma at birth only gives the message that not talking about it will be the correct solution. It will not be long until the adoptee figures out he/she was abandoned by the first set of parents. They may wonder why their birth mother “gave them up” and may experience shame and rejection no matter what the circumstances of the adopted home are. They may also feel expectations to be what the adoptive family wants them to be because of being the “chosen one”. Similarly, many adoptive mothers feel afraid of the potential loss of love and attachment with their adopted child as their mother and either consciously or unconsciously delivers the message to the child that these topics are taboo-inadvertently silencing the child and leaving them to struggle with these issues on their own. Many adopt fantasies in the place of little information about their birth mother. Many adopted children keep their feelings and questions to themselves in an attempt to protect the adoptive mother in particular and through loyalty to her –the person who has given them a home and love. This lack of attunement to the child’s experience may lead to disconnection from self and others.

Of course, not every adopted person experiences all of these issues to the same degree. Every individual person and their experiences are unique, yet it remains to understand and be open to the impact of adoption from all angles. To the adopted young adult who is experiencing more turmoil within the world and within themselves than they ever have, this may be one of the most important avenues to explore.

Beginning June 28th, 2023, Emily will be facilitating an 8 week-long group for adopted young adults. Please reach out to learn more or reserve your spot as spaces are limited.

To learn more, ask questions, or to get started on looking at your experience through this lens, email

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