Adopted children ranging in age from the onset of puberty through about age 17 or 18.
Adolescence is a tumultuous period for many children, and nonadopted children as well as adopted children may face many conflicts during this time of physical and emotional changes. Research on adopted adolescents offers very mixed findings on the level of adjustment or lack of adjustment within this group. Some researchers have identified numerous problem areas while others insist that much research is biased because the researchers find what they are looking for: problems. One very large study of adopted adolescents was performed by the Search Institute in 1994. Adopted adolescents were compared to their nonadopted siblings and to peers. In the broad majority of cases, the adopted adolescents were well adjusted compared to the other groups.
Whether researchers believe adolescence is more difficult for adopted teenagers than nonadopted adolescents, one finding seems consistent: many researchers report that even among adopted adolescents who are troubled, the wide majority of them find stability in adulthood.
Some reseachers who have studied populations of psychiatric patients have reported a disproportionate number of adopted teenagers. Other researchers insist such samples are biased and contend that studies of adopted adolescents should he drawn from the general population and compared with nonadopted adolescents who are also drawn from the population at large.
Some reseachers agree that the teen years can be stressful for any child but contend they may be particularly stressful for an adopted child because of the identity issues that must be faced during this period. Many adolescents are tempted to believe that they must be adopted, otherwise how could they have come from such "hopeless" parents? When children know they were adopted, they argue, this information may intensify fantasies about birthparents.
However, researchers Janet Hoopes and Leslie Stein found no evidence indicating that adopted adolescents have a more difficult adolescence than do nonadopted adolescents. (See IDENTITY.)
Sexual Identity Issues
Dr. William Easson authored an influential paper on the "Special Sexual Problems of the Adopted Adolescent" in the July 1973 issue of Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality. According to Easson, "Most adopted children develop to be mature, comfortable adults, a source of continued pleasure and pride to their parents, but these adopted youngsters must reach appropriate sexual independence with greater effort than children in the natural, blood-related family."
According to Easson, most children fantasize that they were actually adopted and their "real" parents were rich and famous. The problem is the adopted adolescent knows he was adopted and thus this knowledge may lead to exaggerating the normal fantasies of teenagers. In addition, adoptive parents may sometimes tend to identify negative traits as genetic defects inherited from the birthparents.
Sometimes it is very difficult for a teenager to admit that he or she was adopted because peers feel it is heartless to "give away" a baby and some express the opinion that abortion is more humane than adoption if the subject of a pregnant peer is brought up.
As a result, the child may be ashamed or embarrassed about the fact of having been adopted. Sometimes the family's attendance in an adoptive parent support group can help, particularly if the adolescent can meet other adopted teenagers.
A child's age at the time of adoption should be considered. In the past, nearly all adopted persons were adopted as infants; however, increasing numbers of children with SPECIAL NEEDS today are adopted over the age of eight.
The overwhelming majority of older adopted children were abused or neglected by their birthparents or stepparents and subsequently placed in FOSTER CARE for at least a year. As a result, they bring to the adoptive home many emotional and psychological problems they must resolve.
Studies by Barth, Festinger and others have also revealed that the older the child was at the time of adoption, the greater the probability the adoption will be at least initially troubled or even disrupted; however, children adopted as adolescents may also develop a strong rapport with their adoptive parents and resolve the earlier conflicts life placed on their young shoulders. (See DISRUPTION.)
As a result, when considering adopted adolescents, it is critically important to determine both the age of the adopted child at the time of adoption and the quality of nurturing care prior to the placement. It would be unreasonable to include adolescents adopted at birth in a study with adolescents adopted at age 14 and to then presume any valid conclusions could be drawn.
Unrealistic Societal Attitudes
Adopted adolescents must also contend with a variety of unrealistic, negative and often erroneous ideas that society at large holds about adoption, for example, that the child should be grateful about the adoption, particularly if he or she was adopted from outside the United States.
It is usually presumed by society that the child's birthparents were poverty-stricken and of a lower socioeconomic status than the adoptive parents and, consequently, the adopted person should be thankful he or she was "saved" from a less positive situation. This idea can cause conflict in the adopted adolescent, because few teenagers feel a constant gratitude for their parents-adoptive or biological.
Transracially Adopted Adolescents
Adolescents whose appearance is greatly different from the adoptive parents may experience a crisis during adolescence; for example, black children adopted by white parents may experience particular questions of identity. However, studies to date indicate that transracial adoption generally works very well.
A study by Ruth G. McRoy and Louis Zurcher on transracially and "inracially" adopted teenagers was described in their book, Transracial and Inracial Adoptees: The Adolescent Years.
According to the authors, it was primarily the "quality of parenting" that was critical to the child's adjustment rather than whether the adoption was transracial or inracial. Most of the adoptive parents studied by the researchers were able to successfully handle the challenges of transracial adoption; however, they conceded that some parents do not succeed as well.
They also noted that adopted adolescents in transracial adoptions who were raised in integrated neighborhoods had a more flexible racial perception than those who were raised in all-white neighborhoods.
Said the authors, "Adoptees in those contexts seemed to acknowledge their black background not only on a cognitive level but also on an affective level. Their parents instilled in these adoptees positive feelings about their racial background. They tended to desire contact with other black children and their families."
It is also clear from studies of children adopted transracially, most of whom are of different racial or ethnic backgrounds from their parents, that these adoptions have good results.
William Feigelman and Arnold Silverman, Chosen Children: New Patterns in Adoptive Relationships (New York: Praeger, 1983).
Jill Krementz, How It Feels To Be Adopted (New York: Knopf, 1988).
Ruth G. McRoy and Louis Z. Zurcher Jr., Transracial and Inracial Adoptees: The Adolescent Years (Springfield, Ill.: Thomas, 1983)
Anu R. Sharma, Matthew McGue and Peter L. Benson, "The Emotional and Behavioral Adjustment of United States Adopted Adolescents: Part II Age at Adoption," Children and Youth Services Review 18 (January 1996): 101-114.
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©2000 by Christine Adamec and William Pierce, Ph.D. Reprinted from The Encyclopedia of Adoption, 2nd Edition (2nd Edition) with permission of Facts On File, Inc.