Identity

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identity

Developing a clear sense of one's individuality, including one's distinct personality, talents, abilities and flaws, is difficult for the average person, and many people seriously question their values, beliefs and identity during adolescence.

For 25 years researchers Janet Hoopes and Leslie Stein studied adoptive families that had adopted young children. Concluded the authors in their 1985 report: "Evidence suggesting that the adoptee has greater or more sustained difficulty with the tasks of adolescence was not found, indicating that adoptive status in and of itself, is not predictive of heightened stress among adolescents .?.?. as a group, the adolescent adoptees were doing quite well."

This finding was backed up by a large study of adopted adolescents done by the Search Institute. In this four-year study of 881 adopted adolescents, released in 1994, researchers found that the majority of adolescents were strongly attached to their adoptive parents and were emotionally healthy. In a few cases, the adopted adolescents scored higher than their nonadopted counterparts: for example, in "optimism" and the expectation that they would be happy in 10 years and "connectedness," or having three or more friends. They also placed a higher value on helping other people.

Most children with SPECIAL NEEDS who were adopted were separated from their parents because of abuse, neglect or abandonment and may have internalized a negative sense of self. In addition, as foster children, they have experienced at least one foster home and probably several more.

Each move requires an adjustment to a new family, new school and different values and requirements. The child may never have realized what his or her innate talents and strengths are, and consequently the adopting parents' task is help the child identify his or her best points and build self-esteem and self-knowledge.

The parent of the same sex as the child serves as a role model. Single parents who parent an opposite-sex child need to find appropriate role models among their families or friends. The child may also identify with a much loved teacher, neighbor or other person in his or her life.

In a study of 49 adopted and 49 nonadopted college students, reported in 1998, researcher Margaret Kelly found that "adjustment and identity formation" were very similar, and said, "the results of this study support a generally encouraging view of adoptees who are at the point of being launched from their adoptive families and seeking to establish their autonomy as adults. On all measures of developmental tasks, the adoptees' functioning was indistinguishable from that of the nonadopted controls. In addition, on most discrete aspects of identity formation . .?. adoptees were comparable to nonadoptees."

She did find that on two scales of identity measures, moral self-approval and self-control, many of the adopted young adults judged themselves more harshly than the nonadopted adults. The exception to this finding was the adopted individuals from very organized and structured, and yet open and expressive, families. These young people had more positive self-perceptions than the other adopted adults in the sample. They found that adopted adults whose parents had taken the lead in decision making had higher levels of self-approval and self-control. The speculation was that some adoptive parents tend to be child-dominated rather than adult-led, which could be problematic for some adopted children and adults. However, the overall findings were very positive.

Of course, studies that concentrate on children adopted as infants by two-parent married couples working through licensed agencies, as the Search Institute's was, may have different findings from studies that concentrate on children who were adopted under different circumstances or who were older children with special needs. However, in any case, it is a good idea to compare the adopted children with similar children who have remained in the biological family. In that case, the adopted children nearly always have higher levels of functioning than their nonadopted peers.


Peter L. Benson, Ph.D., and Anu R. Sharma, Ph.D., L.P., and Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Growing Up Adopted A Portrait of Adolescents and Their Families (Minneapolis, Minn.: The Search Institute, 1994).

Mary Margaret Kelly, Ph.D., et al., "Adjustment and Identity Formation in Adopted and Nonadopted Young Adults: Contributions of Family Environment," American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 68, no. 3 (July 1998): 497-500.

Leslie M. Stein and Janet L. Hoopes, Identity Formation in the Adopted Adolescent: The Delaware Family Study (Washington, D.C.: Child Welfare League of America, 1985).

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