There has been an enormous amount of research conducted about adoptees and theirproblems with identity formation. Many of the researchers agree on some of thecauses of identity formation problems in adolescent adoptees, while otherresearchers conclude that there is no significant difference in identityformation in adoptees and birth children. This paper will discuss some of theresearch which has been conducted and will attempt to answer the followingquestions: Do adoptees have identity formation difficulties during adolescence?If so, what are some of the causes of these vicissitudes? Is there a significantdifference between identity formation of adoptees and nonadoptees? The NationalAdoption Center reports that fifty-two percent of adoptable children haveattachment disorder symptoms. It was also found that the older the child whenadopted, the higher the risk of social maladjustment (Benson et al.
, 1998). Thisis to say that a child who is adopted at one-week of age will have a betterchance of normal adjustment than a child who is adopted at the age of ten. Thismay 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 onhis history. Eric Erickson, a developmental theorist, discusses trust issues inhis theory of development. The first of Erickson’s stages of development isTrust v. Mistrust. A child who experiences neglect or abuse can have this stageof development severely damaged.
An adopted infant may have the opportunity tofully learn trust, where as an older child may have been shuffled from fosterhome to group home as an infant, thereby never learning trust. Even though Trustv. Mistrust is a major stage of development, the greatest psychological risk foradopted children occurs during the middle childhood and adolescent years (McRoyet al., 1990).
As children grow and change into adolescents, they begin tosearch for an identity by finding anchoring points with which to relate.Unfortunately, adopted children do not have a biological example to which toturn (Horner ; Rosenberg, 1991), unless they had an open adoption in whichthey were able to form a relationship with their biological families as well astheir adoptive ones. Also key to the development of trust is the ability to bondwith adoptive parents. The absence of a biological bond between the adoptee andadoptive parents may cause trust issues in the adoptee (Wegar, 1995). Baran(1975) stated, Late adolescence . .
. is the period of intensified identityconcerns and is a time when the feelings about adoption become more intense andquestions about the past increase. Unless the adopted child has the answers tothese arising questions, identity formation can be altered and somewhat halted.McRoy et al. (1990) agree with this point: Adolescence is a period when youngpeople seek an integrated and stable ego identity. This occurs as they seek tolink their current self-perceptions with their self perceptions from earlierperiods and with their cultural and biological heritage (Brodzindky, 1987, p.37).
Adopted children sometimes have difficulty with this task because theyoften do not have the necessary information from the past to begin to develop astable sense of who they are. They often have incomplete knowledge about whythey were relinquished and what their birth parents were like, and they maygrieve not only for the loss of their birth parents but for the loss of part ofthemselves. In essence, it seems that the adolescent’s identity formation isimpaired because he holds the knowledge that his roots or his essence have beensevered and remain on the unknown side of the adoption barrier.
The identitystruggles of the adolescent are ?part of a human need to connect withtheir 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 backgroundknowledge in the adoptee prevents the development of a healthy genetic ego …
In most of the studies surveyed, the researchers are in agreement aboutone fact. Vital to the adopted adolescent’s identity development is theknowledge 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 inadolescence, the child may face an array of problems including hostility towardthe 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 areinvolved in a behavior which psychologists term family romance. This is not aromance in a sexual manner, but rather a romance in the sense of fantasizingabout birth parents and their personal qualities.
Horner and Rosenberg (1991)stated that ?the adopted child may develop a family romance in order todefend against painful facts. Often times, adoptees wonder why they wereadopted, and because closed-adoptions are common, the adoptee is left with manyunanswered questions about the circumstances of the adoption. The adoptee mayhave a tendency to harbor negative feelings about himself, feeling like he wasunwanted, bad, or rejected by the birth parent. These feelings can be quitepowerful, so the adoptee will engage in this family romancing behavior in orderto offset the negative feelings and try to reconcile his identity crisis. Thispoint is stressed by Horner and Rosenberg (1991) when they write, The painfulreality to be confronted by adoptees is that their biological parents did notwant, or were unable, to find a way of keeping and rearing their own child. Thechildren feel that they were either not meant to be or intolerable .
. ..Finding an identity, while considering both sets of parents is a difficult taskfor the adolescent. The adoptee does not want to hurt or offend his adoptiveparents, and he also does not want to ignore what is known about his biologicalroots. Horner and Rosenberg (1991) write: Adoptive status may represent adevelopmental interference for children during adolescence. Instead of the usualstruggles over separation and the establishment of a cohesive sense of self andidentity, the adopted child must struggle with the competing and conflictualissues of good and bad parents, good and bad self, and separation from bothadoptive 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. Hewould have an easier task of forming an identity for himself, rather thanstruggling with the issues of to whom he can relate. If the adolescent has someinformation 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 elaborateexplanations of their adoptions. At the same time, they begin to explainthemselves, and they struggle to develop a cohesive and realistic sense of whothey are and who they can become. It appears that if the adoptee has even aminimal amount of information about his birth parents and adoption, he will havean easier time with identity formation than an adoptee who has no informationabout his adoption. The adoptive parents can also play a key role in aiding inidentity formation of the adopted adolescent. Much of the research I surveyed atleast touched upon the role of the adoptive parents.
Kornitzer stated that themore mysterious the adoptive parents make things for the child the more he willresort to fantasy (Baran et al., 1975). This is yet another argument for openadoptions.
Again, if the child knows the circumstances of his adoption and otherpertinent information about his biological roots, he will have an easier timeforming an identity in adolescence. It is also noted that, . . . youngadoptees are vulnerable to feeling different or bad due to the comments andactions of others (Wegar, 1995).
This is to say that the child will feel moreaccepted, and that his adoption is not a stigma if his adoptive parents have theconviction that being adopted does not make the family bad, and it does not meanthat the adoptive parents are failures because they could not have biologicalchildren. Sometimes the negativity of adoptive parents about the circumstancesof the adoption can be sensed by the adoptee, thus causing the adoptee tobelieve that there is something wrong with being adopted. Once again, this cancause identity formation problems, especially if the adolescent believes that heis inferior or bad because he is adopted and not raised in his biologicalfamily. The literature on adopted children has long documented particular andsometimes intense struggles around identity formation, and suggests that in manyways adopted children follow a different developmental course from children whoare raised by their biological parents (Horner and Rosenberg, 1991). Whilemost of the studies I read found that adoptees have difficulty in identityformation during adolescence, I did find an article which refutes this point.Kelly et al. (1998) write: Developing a separate, autonomous, mature sense ofself is widely recognized as a particularly complex task for adoptees.
Whilemany scholars have concluded that identity formation is inherently moredifficult for adoptees some recent comparisons of adopted and nonadopted youthhave found no differences in adequacy of identity formation, and a study byStein and Hoopes (1985) revealed higher ego identity scores for adoptees. Goebeland Lott (1986) found that such factors as subjects’ age, sex, personalityvariables, family characteristics, and motivation to search for birth parentsaccounted more for quality of identity formation than did adoptive status. Inconclusion, it is difficult to say who is right in their beliefs about adopteesand identity formation.
The research I have reviewed has mostly shown thatadoptees do have quite a bit a difficulty forming an identity duringadolescence, and that this difficulty can be due to a number of factors.Negative parental attitudes about adoption can have a negative affect on theadoptee. The issue of open versus closed adoptions will forever be a debate, butthe research does show that the more an adoptee knows about his birth family andthe circumstances surrounding his adoption, the easier it will be for him toform an identity during adolescence. Most of the researchers who wrote about thefamily romance seemed to do so in a negative manner, when in fact I believe thatthe ability to fantasize about the birth family may be a healthy option for theadolescent who is the victim of a closed adoption. It allows him to construct aview of what his birth family is like, and it also allows him to relieve himselfof some of the internal pain which is caused by closed adoptions. Overall, mostof the literature supported the notion that adoptees do indeed have identityformation problems.
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