Adoption Issues

by Marlou Russell,Ph.D.

In the old days, adoption was considered an unspeakable family secret that was shrouded in shame. Today prospective parents advertise with 800 numbers, pregnant women use the internet to place their babies up for adoption, and adoptees have a support group called Bastard Nation. Despite this apparent openness in adoption, there is still a great need for adoption issues to be addressed.

Emotional Issues

The adoption triad consists of the adoptee, the birth parents, and the adoptive parent or parents. All three are necessary and forever connected, whether or not they ever meet. The emotional issues that occur at the time of an adoption will continue to resurface and weave their way through a triad member’s life. Seemingly simple questions can trigger the adoption-related feelings. A birth mother is asked how many kids she has…A physician asks an adoptee if cancer runs in the family…a parent is asked why the two children look so different.

Adoption has lifelong impact for each triad member. In therapy the most common issues are feelings of lack of control, shame and embarrassment, rejection and abandonment, identity and roles, secrecy and honesty. Loss is an inevitable part of adoption. The structure of adoption is such that to create an adoptive family, a birth family must be separated and adoptees lose their biological ties.


The emotional task for adoptees is to connect.  Therapists must be alert and notice feelings of abandonment, separation, attachment, and rejection. Adoptees need to talk about their adoption, what they were told about it, and their reaction to the information. Adoptees can have a strong loyalty to their adoptive parents and may deny an interest in their birth family.

Birth Parents

Being unable to parent your child, no matter what the circumstances, is traumatic for all concerned. Clients who are birth parents may not readily want to reveal this fact to their therapists. The emotional task for birth parents is forgiveness. To accomplish this means resolving feelings of shame, guilt, sadness, anger, blame, regret, depression, and low self-esteem.

Adoptive Parents

People become adoptive parents for various reasons. The emotional task for adoptive parents is acceptance. To accomplish this means resolving feelings of anger, helplessness, frustration, disappointment, envy, shame, entitlement, and sadness. Adoption does not cure infertility. Adoptive parents may be surprised that they can still feel the pangs of not being biological parents.

Adoptive parents usually struggle with finding the words to answer their child’s question, “why was I adopted?” A good response is, “Your birth parents chose adoption because they didn’t feel able to parent you at that time.”  This statement provides the truth, allows room for birth parents to parent other children, and does not include love or money as reasons for the adoption. Saying a child was adopted because the birth parents loved them sets up love to mean leaving. Saying a child was adopted because the birth parents were poor sets up money and abandonment issues.


Source: Marlou Russell,Ph.D

Published by

Dr. Gnap

Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago.  Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance.  He started the Inner Control program because so many patients asked, “what more can be done along with traditional treatment methods?”

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