Identity Development – Why do I have to be different?

For the past several weeks we’ve been discussing how adoption impacts our children. As I said in week one, 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, I had considered adoption-related issues but they certainly were not at the forefront of my concerns. After our trip to China, I had a big wake-up call.

You will often hear counselors, therapists, coaches, and others, talk about identity development. This is one of the key elements for your adopted child to become a healthy, happy human being. Having a positive identity is huge, especially in the middle school years when all our kids just want to fit in.

As I said in my initial correspondence on this topic, “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 are 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.”

My goal is to give you some tools that will help you help your children. But first, one of the most important things to remember is that although all adopted children have feelings about their adoption, and they may struggle with those feelings from time to time, we shouldn’t define them by the fact they are adopted. Some days their feelings have NOTHING to do with adoption. Sometimes kids are just kids and we have to let them be kids!

That being said, struggles with issues surrounding adoption can pop up anytime and we need to know they WILL come. Sometimes these struggles are triggered by specific circumstances – new school, divorce, social issues, birthdays or other holidays, etc. Bottom line, we all struggle in life from time to time so the best thing we can do as parents is validate our child’s feelings. Let them know that they are not alone! Let them know that you too struggle with feelings related to all aspects of life, including issues surrounding your child’s adoption. Tell them you’d love to hear what they are feeling and assure them that you will always try to find an explanation for what is troubling them. The more open and honest you are, the more likely it is that communication will continue no matter how intense or complex the subject becomes. These conversations build trust, and trust allows for positive identity development.

International adoptees also benefit from cross-cultural, age-appropriate experiences. When your child feels “similar to” rather than “different than” others, it goes far in developing a positive sense of self. Attending heritage camps for adoptive families or programs that cultivate a cultural connection is a great way to expose our children to other families that are “like” ours. Birth country travel that focuses on positive cultural experiences can also be a fabulous way to foster a strong sense of identity. The important thing to remember is that our adopted children need to know they are not alone. There are other families and individuals that are experiencing feelings similar to theirs. When we validate those feelings, again, we build trust and show our children that we are there to help them no matter what. Exposure to positive cultural experiences is an essential component of positive identity as is embracing the fact that our families are not the same as every other family!

Learning about and exploring issues related to adoption will be a source of many conversations and will ebb and flow with life. It’s all an ongoing adventure that we will always share with our children. But remember to let your child know, especially as they get older, that you understand that he or she might prefer to explore some of these issues alone or with friends or other adults in his or her life. It’s important to let our children know that is ok!

Our roles as parents change throughout our child’s life from being the guide, the teacher, setting limits, to becoming a manager. At some point, if we are lucky, we become a trusted confidant. The goal should always be to allow our to children to make decisions about the direction their life takes consistent with their level of maturity, growth and, development. Trust and open, honest communication are the cornerstones of developing a positive sense of self which will allow our children to explore the boundaries of their independence. Yep, that’s the real goal, right? We’re here to teach our children to be good adults. Some of that is allowing them the freedom to explore on their own.

Again, if you want to refer to the original post in this series or send the link to others in your circle, you can find it here: How Does Adoption Impact Our Children

As always, I do this because I am the mother of two adopted children myself. I have all the same thoughts, concerns, issues, and needs that most of you have. Thankfully we have each other! And I’d love nothing more than to hear about your experiences so feel free to leave a comment on the post or shoot me an email.

If you need support, feel free to set up an appointment to chat with me at

All my best 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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