What the Quacks say about Adoptees

Above all, there simply must be a label!

Adopted child syndrome is a controversial term that has been used to explain behaviors in adopted children that are claimed to be related to their adoptive status. Specifically, these include problems in bonding, attachment disorders, lying, stealing, defiance of authority, and acts of violence.

In The Psychology of Adoption (The Psychology of Adoption, David M. Brodzinsky, 1990), Brodzinsky tries to understand adopted child syndrome. He focuses on the idea of stress and loss to all parties of the adoption triad – birth mother, adoptive parents, and adopted child. He argues that stress and loss are experienced by the adopted child, even in the ideal adoption scenario, that is, prior to 3 months. Each in the triad has to adapt, but none more vulnerable to psychological maladjustment than the child. The coping mechanisms can swing right across the spectrum from psychopathological to healthy.

A Stress and Coping Model of Adoption Adjustment

The clinically admitted adopted are more likely than the non-adopted to display acting-out problems (oppositional behaviour, lying, stealing, running away, hyperactivity, aggression), low self-esteem, and a host of learning difficulties (p. 3). Even the non-clinically admitted, community-based adoptee samples suggest a greater psychological vulnerability compared to the non-adopted (p. 3). This increased vulnerability generally doesn’t emerge until their elementary years.

So, why?

Attention has been focused on psychodynamic aspects of the adoption experience including object loss, the resolution of the oedipal conflict, and the devpt of a mature and stable ego identity (p. 4).

There are cognitive-developmental factors as part of the adoption-adjustment process, particularly as they relate to a child’s growing awareness of the meaning of adoption.

Ethological [had to look up the meaning of that word!] theory has emphasized the importance of the attachment-separation-loss process as fundamental to the problem of many adoptees.

While many different perspectives have been offered of the adjustment problems of adoptees, “a common thread can be found running through most of them – namely, that adoption is experienced as stressful by many children and parents and, consequently, results in a variety of coping efforts, some of which is successful in handling the stress and others which is not.

Adoption and the Experience of Stress

The idea that adoption is a stressful experience runs counter to many prevailing myths and stereotypes about this family life situation. Typically, adoption has been viewed as a societal solution for the stress confronting all three parties of the adoption triangle – that is, stress associated with unwanted pregnancy, infertility, and a state of homelessness and sense of insecurity on the part of the prospective adopted children. (p. 4) with the placement of the child with the adoptive family it has often been assumed that the various parties of the adoption triangle simply go on their way to live ‘happily ever after’. Many do; but we know “… a sizable percentage of them continue to have a stressful time in dealing with adoption issues …” pp. 4-5)

I see this in conspiratorial terms, with so many dependent mouths being fed by the adoption machine, this propaganda has been consistent and pervasive. It is only now with the rise of the internet that adoptees are finding their voices, leaving behind the shame we’ve been forced to make our own, and fighting back.

Loss as a source of Stress in Adoption

Lazarus’ model sees the sense of loss affecting not only those placed later, but also those placed within the first 3 months (‘traditional adoption’), prior to the time they have developed primary attachments.

That’s exactly the problem, there is no bond, there is a loss that is never replaced in most adoptees either sensitive to it, or needing it.

It’s often been assumed that one cannot feel loss for individuals (biological parents) they have never known. Loss associated with children placed in the foster system and losing attachment figures, possibly multiple times, is an ‘overt’ provoking agent, considerably more traumatic, leading to the development of psychopathology. Whereas, loss associated with early adoption placement is move ‘covert’, emerging “slowly with time in conjunction with the child’s growing awareness of the meaning and implications of having been adopted” (p. 7)

Moreover, this form of loss, being less traumatic, is not likely to lead to psychopathology, by itself, but increases the child’s vulnerability to other pathogenic experiences. (p.7)

What is this loss? Once adopted children realize the implications of being adopted, they not only experience a loss of the biological parents and origins, but also a loss of stability in the relationship to their adoptive parents. Additionally, there’s a loss of self and genealogical continuity. Adopted children also experience ‘status loss’ associated with being different. These various losses leave the adoptee feeling incomplete, alienated, abandoned and unwanted. This commonly leads to a characteristic pattern of emotional and behavioural reactions commonly associated with grieving.

Comparing Loss in Adoption, Parental Divorce, and Parental Death

This is what I refer to as ‘the triple whammy’ – I had all three. During my adolescence when I should have been getting past my loss and developing an identity, I was turtling into myself due to the increasing domestic tensions, hanging onto my differentness for protection as a survival coping skill, increasing my isolation, freezing myself in time, starting to act-out, starting to dive headlong into various fantasy worlds, then the divorce happened, then his death, and I’m there still hanging out in the adolescent/teen psychological development stage.

Loss is not exclusive to adoption; it is a fundamental concept in a child’s adjustment to many forms of family disruption and life transitions. These are not all the same reactions. As a stressor, loss associated with family disruption and life transitions varies along a number of dimensions, including the degree of acuteness, pervasiveness, permanence, universality, public recognition of loss, etc. (pp. 7-8)

Comparison of these losses differs on at least six dimensions.


Death is a universal experience – we all die. By contrast, adoption and divorce are not universal, though the increasing prevalence of separation and divorce make it seem ubiquitous. Adoption is neither. Relatively few children are adopted, increasing the likelihood that the adoptee may well foster feelings of differentness that can undermine self-esteem and psychological well-being.


Loss due to death is irreversible, but by the time children reach their early adolescent years, they’ve mastered the concept. Most children recognize that loss due to adoption and divorce is at least potentially reversible – if the surrendering and divorcing parents are alive. In fact, hope of reunion with the lost person is a theme of much of the fantasy life of children who experience divorce and adoption. In divorce, hope of reunion is fostered by the ongoing contact between custodial and noncustodial parents – awkward at first, but leads to a healthier adjustment.

I didn’t have this

Adopted children also fantasize about undoing their loss. Fantasies about reunions with birth parents and birth siblings are extremely common growing up. These fantasies can come true as is well-publicized may well serve to impede the resolution of loss.

I didn’t focus too much on reunion, but once I knew what my real name was, I began engaging in fantasies about my origins.

Relationship with the lost person or persons – the ghosts

Children who have experience with parental death have usually had a history of interaction with these individuals, so have shared memories and experiences of their life and death. In divorce too, there are shared experiences, which may or may not include traumatic experiences. Because the original relinquishment likely occurred in infancy, adoptees seldom have memories of their birthparents or the circumstances surrounding it.

I have found this to be a great source of defiance against ‘the system’. From a very early age, it created an opposition to the establishment, against the accepted norms of society. But, as a child trying not to be given back, outward defiance was very low on my wish list. Just the opposite, it tried to be all things to all people; to play the role of the perfect child, all the while knowing I was bad inside.

This lack of knowledge tends to foster misperceptions and distortions of the birthparents and circumstances of the relinquishment so that those losses linger like ghosts in the mental and emotional life of adopted persons, preventing them from achieving a satisfactory resolution to the loss.

Voluntary or Involuntary

This issue adds a dimension that differentiates the various forms of family disruption. Adoption and divorce are presumed to be voluntary; death is presumed to be involuntary.

Based on what I do know of the times and pressures on girls, I don’t fully believe it was voluntary, However, based on the facts I was supplied by the system, it seemed likely – she was 20, he was 18, they weren’t going to marry. On my father’s death, something lingers and stings – he drank himself to death. Was it voluntary? Having been through my own personal wringer, I’m not sure. All I know is that I want to believe he had a choice and chose not to stick around for me. How’s that for unresolved hypocrisy?

Extent of the Loss

Although adoption, divorce and death all involve loss, the extent is greater in adoption. Death and divorce involves the loss of a single parent, and is accompanied by a sense of family loss. In adoption, the loss is more pervasive, although less obvious. There’s a loss of birthparents, and grandparents, along with the loss of cultural and genealogical heritage, and for many, an associated loss of connectedness to the adoptive family, which brings with it a loss of self and social status.

This is why I refer to it as the triple whammy.

Societal and community acknowledgement of the loss and the associated support of bereavement

Death is a universally recognized loss complete with rituals and supports. There are no readily acceptable or available such rituals and supports systems in place for children to deal with loss due to divorce or adoption.

Both become a source of shame, differentness, sorrow, and loneliness, only serving to fuel the need for secrecy and isolation.

Adoption and Identity Formation

Identity Formation in Adoptees (pp. 149-153)

Psychological Difficulties in the Identity Process | “adoptees are more vulnerable that the population at large because of the greater likelihood of encountering difficulties in the working through of the psychosexual, psychosocial and psychohistorical aspects of personality development.” (p. 150)

Early Object Relations

Oedipal or Sexual Complications

The Family Romance | The continued prolongation and reinforcement of the family romance (nuclear family) fantasy delays acceptance of the adoptive family in the adopted child. There’s a brief state in normal child development in which children experiences doubt about their natural-born status, often believing they were adopted.

Genealogical Problems | Genealogical bewilderment

Psychopathology in the Adoptee | In this residential treatment setting, adoptees often receive a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, conduct disorder, dysthymic disorder, or substance abuse. Attention deficit disorder is also common … (p. 254)

Dysthymia (/dɪsˈθaɪmiə/ dis-THY-mee-ə, from Ancient Greek δυσθυμία, “bad state of mind”), sometimes also called neurotic depression, dysthymic disorder, or chronic depression, is a mood disorder consisting of the same cognitive and physical problems as in depression, with less severe but longer-lasting symptoms.

Persistent depressive disorder (this phrase best describes it), is a continuous long-term (chronic) form of depression. Loss of interest in normal daily activities, feelings of hopeless, lack productivity, low self-esteem and an overall feeling of inadequacy. These feelings last for years and significantly interfere with relationships, school, work and daily activities. I’ve always found it hard to be upbeat even on happy occasions — been described as having a gloomy personality, constantly complaining or incapable of having fun.¹

It appears that our adopted patients have come to see a position of vigilant opposition to authority as tantamount to adaptation and personal survival. … adoptees tend to trust their own pseudomature judgements and aspirations and to feel entitled to challenge the adult world. (p. 255)

The adoptee’s sense of having been ‘an outsider’ in the family or adoptee’s fantasies [led to conflicts] these conflicts tend to increase the disturbed adoptee’s self-doubt, identity confusion, depression, and anxiety, which in turn tend to be defended against by denial, rageful rebellion, or by an attitude of stubborn entitlement. (p. 255)

I had this … in spades!


¹ http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/persistent-depressive-disorder/home/ovc-20166590


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