How does being adopted impact your child?

I’m going to warn you right up front … this blog post is going to be heavy. If you’re not up for it right now, put it away, but please come back to it when you are able. What I’m going to talk about today is why I do what I do. And one thing is clear, in order to understand our children, we have to understand how being adopted impacts them.

Researching the issues related to adoption hadn’t really occurred to me as an adoptive parent until I took my daughter to China in 2011. Prior to that trip, of course, I had considered adoption-related issues but they were not at the forefront of my thoughts. I had taken the classes during the adoption process. I went to heritage camp. But I was living life – which included not being overly worried about the potential outcomes of decisions I made – especially with regard to birth country travel.

We were happy. My kids were doing well in school. They had friends. I had friends. I loved my job. I was a super mom – juggling a career in the travel industry with being a room parent, raising two kiddos and being the wife of the president of a company. I was blissfully inattentive to the issues my daughter was facing. And life was grand, right?


Coming home from China was a huge wake-up call. I came to realize that my daughter had personal experiences (issues) with being adopted that I had not even considered. I realized, after the fact, that I had not planned our trip to China in a way that would help alleviate any angst my daughter might be experiencing with regard to being adopted. I was not prepared for the outcomes related to our trip to China to the extent I could or should have been. Bottom line, I didn’t think it through, I just joined a group.

That wake-up call led to years of research. Once I began researching the issues related to adoptive families I found striking similarities amongst adopted children. Research indicates that most adopted children experience pain or trauma related to one or more (frankly, MOST) of the following:

Issues most adopted children experience:

  • Loss
  • Self-esteem, self-image, self-confidence
  • Identity development
  • Guilt and shame
  • Fear
  • Attachment and bonding
  • Intimacy and relationships

Below is a brief synopsis about how each of these issues impacts our children and in the coming weeks, I’ll go into detail on how we, as adoptive parents, can help our children deal with them.

Loss – Why was I given away?
As a society, we often make the assumption that adoption is happy. A child without a parent now has a parent. Parents without children now have a child/children. Ta da, everyone is happily sharing their lives with each other, enough said. Sadly, it’s not that simple. Even as adoptive parents that understand this loss, we still sometimes assume that a child will now be complete in our care. That is certainly the delusion that I had convinced myself of. I was super mom!

But one thing is very clear — no matter the age, a child experiences loss: their birthparents; their caregivers; their clothes; their bedding; familiar smells, tastes and, sounds; the way they do things; their ability to feel comfortable with their lives, language and, routines. Loss and the grief related to that loss is pervasive in adoption.

Theresa Anderson, a family counselor specializing in issues of adoption, attachment and grief says, “Grief is THE core issue that adopted children deal with . . . grief and terror. Think about international adoption …  You can’t take a child from home, put them into an airplane, cross the world, surround them with 1000’s of people at the airport, have them met by strange people, smells, textures, foods, and voices, and not expect them to be traumatized.”

We watch our children grieve in so many ways: anger, sadness, hyperactivity, changes in appetite, food hoarding, inappropriate emotional response, headaches, difficulty making decisions, regressive behaviors, and even clinginess. But we don’t see it as grief. We often see it simply as misbehavior.

When children feel overwhelmed, they often distance themselves emotionally or physically. They hide their sadness by being perfect, controlling or mad. Just because a child has been through counseling, has great parental support, family and, friends that love him or her, a stable environment, etc., does not mean that the grief brought about by loss and trauma is over. It will be revisited time and time again.

Self-Esteem, Self-Image, Self-Confidence – Am I good enough?
Self-image is how we see ourselves. Self-esteem is how we value ourselves. Self-confidence is the ability to trust our own judgment, qualities, and abilities. A person with a healthy self-image recognizes the boundaries of their autonomy, accepts responsibility for their actions, and knows their boundaries are not fixed. A person with good self-esteem is satisfied with who they are at the moment. A person with self-confidence believes they can become whatever they choose.

Gaining self-esteem is a developmental process that begins in infancy. As a child’s basic needs are met, their sense of worth develops. Long before a child has the ability to process their experiences, if they are well cared for, loved, needs metby primary caretakers, they develop a sense of value, of worth. If not, they develop a sense of fear, knowing there are things in life that can hurt them. Adopted children are particularly susceptible to low self-esteem because of early childhood experiences that may or may not have anything to do with we adoptive parents but it does lead to consistently lower measures of self-esteem.

Many believe adopted children are more susceptible to low self-esteem, poor self-image and low self-confidence because they consistently interpret their circumstance as “being given away”. That primal rejection sets the tone for how they feel about themselves and how they see themselves through the eyes of others. Rejection and loss become a central theme at critical times when self-esteem is developing. “Why did she not want me?” “What is wrong with me?” This deep sense of rejection pervades their developing self-image. Adopted children often view their placement for adoption as a personal rejection regardless of the circumstances of the placement.

Identity Development – Why do I have to be different?
Adoption complicates identity development in children and adolescents. Adoption creates so many questions that the child tends to focus on who he/she is in relation to their journey rather than just who he or she is, “Who were my birthparents?” “What did they look like?” “Do I have siblings?” “How do I fit in with my family, my friends?’ “Why do I have to be different?” Adopted children (particularly internationally adopted children, transracial, biracial or any child that “looks” different than his or her adoptive parents) often see themselves as different, out of place, unwelcome, rejected. If adopted children have difficulty establishing a positive self-image and trusting those that are closest to them, emotional and behavioral problems may develop. It has been consistently noted that adoptees are over-represented in clinical populations.

Guilt and Shame – I must have been a bad child.
Adopted children often feel that they deserve the loss and rejection they have internalized, which in turn, often leads to the feelings of guilt and shame. Adopted children often believe that there is something wrong with them or that their actions caused the losses to occur. Guilt, the feeling of having done something wrong, refers to actions or behaviors. Shame is the painful emotion resulting from an awareness of personal inadequacy or deficiency.

Adopted children feel guilty for what they did (or didn’t do) that caused the adoption. Adopted children internalize these feelings to such an extent that they create scenarios where they are the perpetrators of wrong doing in order to justify being given up for adoption – “I behaved badly.” “I was not a good child.” Because of their egocentric thinking, it is often very difficult to dissuade a child from these beliefs.

Another common practice that contributes to these feelings of guilt or shame is when we the birthparents assume a “story” that we tell our children. “Your birthparents loved you but could not take care of you.” Your child might make the assumption that his or her birth family was very poor and that’s what kept them from keeping him or her. “Your birthmother might have been sick.” Your child might wonder if she was too poor to get well and if she died without proper care. Sadly, and inadvertently, adoptive parents create a story whereby the adopted child feels ashamed of their origins. They equate poor with being “bad” and, therefore, they are bad too. They are embarrassed by their adoptive status, often concealing it from peers.

Fear – Will they leave me?
Adopted children can be in a constant state of fear. They fear findingtheir birthparent and what this will look like. Will their birthparent love them? Will finding their birthparent hurt their adoptive parent(s)? They fear not fitting in socially, not being liked by their peers because they are different. Adopted children fear that they will never be good enough. Adopted children fear abandonment or lack of permanence. “Will they give me back if I am not good?” “Will they leave me?” Sleep issues often stem from lack of trust or issues with abandonment and are thus, more prevalent in adopted children, especially internationally adopted children. It is not uncommon for adopted children to even fear sleep. But the most pervasive fear, “Do they love (want) me?” or “Am I loveable?” “Do I deserve love?”

Attachment and Bonding – Do I belong here?
Although we use the terms loosely, there is an identifiable difference in attachment and bonding.

Strictly speaking, bonding is a one-way process that begins with the baby while in-utero and continues through the first few days/weeks of life. Bonding refers to the relationship a child forms with the mother or primary caregiver. Attachment is a reciprocal process between parents and their children but is affected by all early caregiver/child interactions.

Attachmentmust be achieved in order for the child to flourish. Time and interaction are necessary components of attachment. There are countless reasons why a child does not attach to his or her primary caregiver and the adoption process lends itself to attachment problems. Without trust and security, there is no attachment. Without steady, consistent care and a nurturing environment, attachmentwill not occur. The adopted child who does not experience early nurturing with a loving and trusted caregiver,can have great difficulty attaching to his or her adoptive parents.

Intimacy and Relationships– Am I loveable?  
Multiple and ongoing losses in adoption, along with feelings of rejection, shame, grief, and confusion about their identity, most likely affect the development of strong relationships and intimacy for adopted children. At a minimum, those feelings may impact the quality of relationships and intimacy an adopted child will have in their lifetime. Adoptees often report that they are aware of holding back part of themselves in relationships. Some even admit that they have never truly felt close to anyone. Many report a lifetime of emptiness, which they relate to a longing for the birthparent they may have never seen.

Wow, that was so heavy.

I know you expect me to talk about travel but I’ll be honest, after my trip to China with my daughter in 2011 when I had that “wake up call”, I knew I needed to understand this stuff. More than understanding it frankly, I knew I needed to live it and breathe it if I wanted my children to have the potential for a happy, healthy, fulfilling life.

After several years of research, I eventually got my license as a family coach because I really wanted to help adoptive families understand the reasons for and the ways our children experience pain surrounding their adoption. I also began focusing on trips for families returning to their child’s birth country because I knew we’d all do that someday and I learned that a Heritage Journey can be one of the most healing experiences for our children if it is done right.

As I said earlier, the next several weekly newsletters/blog posts (all of my newsletters become blog posts so if you ever want to find one go here) will deal with each of these “issues” related to being adopted. I’ll do my best to give you advice and coaching, as it were, on best practices.

My personal goal is always to do the best I can bymy kids. As an adoptive parent I know one thing above all else, this was my choice, not my child’s, and it’s incumbent on me to do everything in my power to make my children’s’ lives the best they can be.

If you have questions, concerns, want to chat, feel free to comment in the comment section of this blog post. Or sign up for a 30-minute Discovery Session with me at I’d LOVE to help!

Sending loving and healing thoughts to each of you,

Bambi Wineland is the mother of two internationally adopted children, a traveler, a Certified Professional Coach, and the Founder and CEO of Motherland Travel. Motherland Travel began by designing Heritage Journeys for families with internationally adopted children. The emphasis of those Heritage Journeys has always been on deepening family connections, building self-esteem and cultivating pride in a family’s multi-cultural heritage. Motherland Travel also uses the philosophies of transformative Travel for designing family trips with purpose – building rich connections, with each other and the world! Read more about her here >>

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