Identity and Adoption 11.17

By Emerson Dickman



Identity and Adoption

Adoptees are overrepresented two to five times as frequently as their non-adopted peers among children referred for psychological services.



            Jill had a picture of her biological mother who was standing next to a chair with a guitar lying across the seat.  Jill asked for a guitar at age 13 and kept it by her side as her constant companion for years – she never learned to play.  Amanda changed her hair, the name by which she wanted to be known, and the manner in which she dressed in order to appear more like what would reflect her biological Latino heritage.  John admitted to using multiple drugs over an extended period of time in significant quantities – all John’s drug tests came back negative.  Jimmy had many loyal friends, was a wonderful athlete, and a terrific student.  At about 16 he started cutting classes, stopped seeing his friends, and quit playing sports.  He started spending all of his time with kids who had no aspirations for the future, didn’t care about school, and were often in trouble with the police for using drugs and loitering.  Ann was pretty, did well in school, had great friends, and volunteered her time to work with underprivileged children through her church.  By age 17 she was cutting herself, was sexually promiscuous, and in a residential treatment facility.  These children stand out in my mind.  However, it is the dozens of neurotypical children that happen to have been adopted who liked school, had friends, and enjoyed a good relationship with parents that suddenly, unexpectedly, and dramatically flew off the proverbial rails sometime between the ages of 13 and 16 that caused me to become obsessed with WHY?.  What they all have in common was that their early childhood showed no hint of things to come; no learning disabilities, no emotional vulnerability, and no social marginalization or isolation.  Of course they were all also adopted and had little or no knowledge of their biological heritage.  In 40 years of representing children with disabilities, I have experienced no other identifiable population with this particular profile.  Only children who have been adopted and have limited knowledge of their biological heritage appear to “fly off the rails” in such an unexpected manner.  There is no escaping the conclusion that the correlation between adoption and the experiences of these children is causative and not a coincidence.  WHY?


            Entering adolescence as a child who is adopted is like a ballplayer going to the plate already behind in the count.  There is still a possibility of getting on base or even hitting a home run; however, your chances of striking out are significantly enhanced.  Not all children who are adopted suffer significant problems; however, adoptees have long been recognized as being overrepresented among children experiencing problems with social and emotional development.  Children who are adopted have been described in various research as significantly more likely than other children to display acting-out problems; low self-confidence; feelings of alienation and rootlessness; to evidence social-emotional maladjustment; to be hostile, dependent, tense, and fearful; to have conduct disorders, personality problems, delinquency, low frustration tolerance, manipulativeness, deceptive charm, shallowness of attachment, pathological lying, stealing; and promiscuous, impulsive, provocative, aggressive, and antisocial behavior.


Genetic Expectancy

A child who is adopted is an “acorn” without a “tree,” a “chip” without a “block,” a “son” without a “father.”


          A theory of who we are as a unique individual is, to a large extent, based on knowledge of our biological ancestors and relatives.  Children develop theories about who they are based on the characteristics of others with whom they relate.  In the culture that has developed in the United States, genetics (i.e., the characteristics one shares with biological relatives) is given a great deal of weight in determining who a child is and what a child might become.  Genetic Expectancy, therefore, is a theory of who we are or what we are capable of achieving based on our knowledge of the traits exhibited by our biological ancestors and relatives.  Genetic Expectancy is a portrait of self that is filled with colors drawn from a palate made up of our knowledge of our biological fathers, mothers, grandparents, and other blood relatives.  By the time children reach adolescence their self-portrait is almost complete and they begin the search to find if they possess colors not provided to them on the palate of genetic expectancy.  In adolescence we add the colors that allow us to distinguish our portrait of self from the picture we have of our father and mother.


            One thing upon which all authorities in the field of identity formation in general seem to agree is that knowledge of heredity is involved in the development of knowledge of self.  Therefore, the field of developmental psychology would seem to support the fact that the adoptee is at a disadvantage in the search for identity as a child who Lifton (1990) observes has been “stripped naked of his heritage” (p. 88).


The term genetic expectancy (a theory of expectations based on a knowledge of one’s heredity) identifies an important building block for normal identity formation that is unavailable to most adoptees and is available to children with a known biological heritage.  Genetic expectancy is a complex network of beliefs about personal skills and abilities based on knowledge of the skills and abilities possessed by biological ancestors.  Genetic expectancies need not be grounded in reality.  The truth or validity of the belief or theory is of little consequence.  For instance, children who are unaware of the fact that they are adopted would be expected to develop a genetic expectancy and a theory of self in the same manner and to the same extent as a child raised by biological parents.  Inconsistencies in theories of identity built on genetic expectancies are easily explained by invoking a biological antecedent, no matter how remote or even imagined (e.g., “I am short and my parents are both tall, I think my great grandmother’s brother on my father’s side was short.)  Having a theory of genetic expectancy is a critical foundation upon which a sense of self can be constructed.  If the fair and just father and the courageous uncle who I emulate turn out to be somewhat prejudiced and less than courageous in reality, my sense of self is not at risk.  Self-serving bias[1] is a powerful force in allowing the acceptance of the positive and rejection of the negative (e.g., I share his strengths but not his weaknesses.)  This theory of self is then partly based on what makes us the same and partly based on what makes us different from those who have provided the building blocks of our existence.  If I find that my father was not my father and my uncle not my uncle, I lose the scaffold, matrix, rubric, foundation, or canvas (whatever you wish to call it) upon which I am painting a portrait of who I am and my sense of self evaporates and is obscured within a fog of possible genetic predispositions.


            In most modern cultures characteristics are attributed to a child, by everybody around the child, as a reflection of those that are displayed by the child’s biological ancestors.  The resultant labeling of the child can be either a positive or a negative influence on development.  When expectations are reasonable, they motivate achievement related to potential; if expectations are too high or too low, they have the potential of being destructive to optimal development (Price, Glickstein, Horton, & Bailey, 1982).  Attributing characteristics to children by comparing them to an ancestor can also trigger a self-fulfilling prophecy.  For example, the comment “You would make a good doctor, like your father.” may motivate a child to consider a medical career.  If genetic expectancy has an impact on children who are not adopted, it is reasonable to conclude that a lack of genetic expectancy has an impact on children who are adopted.  An idea similar to genetic expectancy, which Sants (1964) refers to as “genealogical bewilderment,” involves the adolescent adoptee’s confusion regarding origins.  Genetic expectancy, like money, might not guarantee happiness, but the lack of it guarantees added stress and increases the likelihood of hardship.

Egg Metaphor


As children approach maturity they, metaphorically, peck from the inside of a shell made up of identifications that the child has made with adoptive parents, caregivers, and their biological relatives.  Adolescence is not fun.  It is heart breaking for that parent who has bonded with his beautiful little girl that is now standoffish, doesn’t want to talk, and snaps back at the slightest provocation.  She tells neighbors and strangers her innermost secrets and won’t tell dad if she had a nice day at school.  She cries over boys and is lead around by the nose by peer supported fads.  And this is NORMAL!  Hiam Ginott (1969), in his characteristically understated common sense style, says:

Adolescence is a period of curative madness, in which every teenager has to remake his personality.  He has to free himself from childhood ties with parents, establish new identifications with peers, and find his own identity. (p. 25)  He is afraid of being a nobody … a "chip off the old block” (p. 27). His behavior is “not so much to defy his parents but in order to experience his identity and autonomy” (p. 27).


            Up until adolescence children are interested in finding out what makes them the same as those with whom they feel connected.  This shell of sameness has been gradually constructed during childhood.  Childhood identifications form the shell that protects and nurtures the developing child.  In adolescence, behavior is focused on breaking this shell and stepping out into the world as a discrete individuated self.  If childhood identifications are ill defined due to a lack of knowledge of the traits exhibited by biological relatives this shell has an elastic quality.  The increased stress experienced in adolescence by children who are adopted, in a society that imparts significant value to genetics, is due to their inability to quantify the impact of heredity on their behavior and to, thereby, determine the extent of their individuality.  Children with known genetic ancestors break out of their shell of quantifiable identifications and expectancies to discover their individuality - to find themselves.  Adoptees fight against an elastic shell made up of unquantifiable identifications, as if inside a balloon that moves outward, as they attempt to separate and experience life as an individual.  They cannot evaluate whether the experiences they are originating through experimental behaviors are teaching them about themselves, their autonomy and identity, or about some inherited genetic predisposition.  As the elastic shell yields to encompass each effort at separation, frustration grows and actions can become ever more violent and bizarre in the effort to break its hold.



“The first of three needs that are most motivating to a child is “the need to feel that you belong and are connected.” (Edward Decy)


            As children who are adopted grow older, their life-experience and developing analytical skills cause them to narrow the scope of the fantasy expectations available to them.  Their fantasies become theories increasingly grounded on a more practical view of possible reality.  They eventually imagine their biological parents as lacking in education, wealth, wisdom, intelligence, courage, strength of character, morality, religion, and family support.  Their fantasies result in the attribution of such negative traits to themselves.  It is, therefore, not surprising that they often seek to identify with a peer group that reflects an emerging negative theory of their genetic self.


The visibly striking tendency of this group of adoptees to take on the dress, mannerisms, and habits of a lower economic class is also a clear attempt to express their identification with the fantasized birth parents.  In some cases, this identification is unconscious; in others, it is consciously rationalized as a belief in the genetic basis of the parents’ “badness.” (Kirschner and Nagel, 1988, p. 310)


            Part of identity formation is linked to how children interpret how others see them.  In referring to the story of “The Ugly Duckling,” Sants (1964) states, as to other animals interacting with the duckling, that: “They did not know his genealogy.  Consequently, they could not understand the significance of his skills or envisage his potentials” (p. 136).  The inference is of course, that neither the duckling nor those who knew him had any sense of what he was or what he could become.


            Every time a child is born in my family they are dissected and categorized within hours of birth.  He has Alex’s eyes, David’s mouth, Ya Ya’s nose, Grandpa’s ears, and Papu’s personality.  All six of my grandchildren are the spitting image of my wife, at their age (at least according to her and who am I to disagree).  A baby is like a puzzle that is delivered all put together; it is our job to deconstruct the puzzle in an attempt to “understand the significance of his skills or envisage his potentials.”


            By adolescence genetic expectancy is a significant part of the childhood identifications from which the developing sense of self needs to separate.  The adolescent is in active revolt against those identifications that now simply provide a plinth upon which can be sculpted a unique individual.  The lack of genetic expectancy makes it difficult or impossible for the adolescent to identify those symbols that define the rebellion.  Without a genetic expectancy the shell of childhood identifications is incomplete and the rebellion is ill defined.  The behavior of the adoptee is ineffective in terms of breaking the shell and unfocused in terms of fostering the rebellion.


Adoptive families “are not the same as families formed biologically” (Fishman, 1992, p. 39)


            In order to understand what may be different or unusual it is necessary to understand is usual: what is normal.  As it turns out normal is an incredibly complex concept.  Fishman’s simple comment is filled with layers of meaning and insight.  First we must know what is normal for a family “formed biologically” before we can distinguish that which causes an adoptive family to be “not the same.”


Children who feel empowered wear their self-confidence like a shining suit of armor that attracts others to them because of its beauty and shields them from harm because of its strength.


It was many years ago now that I put a question to an audience of about 110 regular and special education teachers.  Their answers have helped to mold my ideas and beliefs ever since.  “In a word or phrase describe what makes a successful person?”  The answers I received (I didn’t leave anything out.) were “happy,” “self-confident,” “cooperative,” “motivated,” “organized,” “popular,” “creative,” “resourceful,” “self-directed,” “caring,” “good self-image,” “not afraid to accept a challenge,” and “competitive.”  Clearly, this exercise had no scientific merit; however, it does make one wonder when, among 110 teachers, no one mentioned academic performance or intelligence as a criterion for success.  No one said “smart.”  Why not?  Could it be that we all know smart people with good educations that are not “happy,” “motivated,” or “self-confident.”  Apparently, to the average person success is not determined by whether one is a neurosurgeon, fireman, or bus driver.  Success is a person who has a “good self-image,” cares about and works well with others, and is “resourceful.”  I would boil these comments down to a sense of independence and empowerment, a feeling of connectedness and belonging, and ability to problem solve.  There are some assumptions that don’t require research to prove; water is wet, fire is hot.  Children cannot develop a sense of empowerment if they are not given power, an ability to solve problems if they have never had a problem to solve, nor achieve independence if they have always been dependent.  All good parents protect their children from harm.  There is a fine, but important, line between being reasonably protective and overprotective.  Like a tulip bulb buried too deep to grow to the surface, overprotection stifles exactly that which we hope to achieve.



            Unfortunately, adoptive parents are often motivated to not only protect their children from the dangers around them, but also from the dangers within them.  The desire of adoptive parents is often to protect their children from making the same mistakes as their biological parents.  The invariable result is the development of a weak sense of empowerment and independence and an inability to even see when a problem arises much less bring to bear the tools necessary to respond to long term risk and overcome the allure of short term gains.  Adoptees need the freedom to risk, enough control to feel empowered, and permission to make mistakes.  Like hothouse flowers that wither when they are put out in the real world, children who are adopted are often made even more vulnerable by being overprotected.  They need to be prepared for, not protected from, the real world.


            It is worth repeating that “children who feel empowered wear their self-confidence like a shining suit of armor that attracts others to them because of its beauty and shields them from harm because of its strength.”  When Superman didn’t want to be recognized, the only disguise he needed was to step out of his shining suit of self-confidence and assume the posture of the disempowered Clark Kent.  As parents our goal is to bring up our children to be empowered, caring, and connected.  By connected I mean that they feel a sense of belonging to their community and a sense of responsibility to others.  To be truly happy one must find satisfaction and joy in the happiness and success of others.


            There are many great resources available that address parenting skills; anything by Haim Ginott and Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) by Thomas Gordon come to mind.  I do not presume to be an expert.  However, among the advice that is often given to parents I personally feel that active listening is of particular importance.  Ginott, Gordon, and others address this topic in detail.  Children, especially adolescents, often express their feeling in words that are loaded to trigger in others the feelings that they are experiencing.  _!@#$%^_ damn you _@#$%^&*_.  A dialogue that proceeds on the feelings level will have the potential of bringing the parent and child closer while a dialogue that responds to the words misses the point and drives the parent and child apart.  Subtext, “Now you have some idea how I feel.  How do you like it”?  The parent has a choice, either respond to the words, “We don’t talk like that in this house, go to your room.” or respond to the feelings conveyed by the words, “You sound angry.”  Subtext, “You probably have a good reason.”  It is not easy being a parent and it is exponentially more difficult to be an adoptive parent.


            Empowerment and independence are developed in an environment where choice making is common place.  It is hard to blossom in the shadow of a parent who knows all of the answers and establishes all of the goals.  Parents should not only allow, but make every effort to create opportunities for their children to make choices, whenever acceptable options are available.  Problem solving requires that facts are evaluated and outcomes assessed.  Parents make hundreds of decisions a day, silently in their own head.  Try to express what you are thinking and offer a rationalization for the decisions you are making whether it involves the purchase of a second pound of butter or getting a new job and moving to another state.


            Every day we put clues together and automatically form conclusions.  The process is so automatic we rarely notice it.  That pile of bricks on the neighbor’s front lawn, taken together with other clues, allows us conclude that the bricks are for a wall, a driveway, or a new barbeque.  Let children in on the secret of interpreting their environment.  Tell them what you see and tell them what you conclude based on what you see.  Using logic to interpret the meaning of interrelated facts also helps to anticipate the future, predict consequences related to actions, and avoid mistakes.


[1] The self-serving bias (Bradley, 1978) that causes people to attribute successes to personal factors and failures to external factors is the most heavily researched of all attributional biases (Abramson, 1988).  .”  The attribution process, including self-serving bias, promotes the belief that an individual has effective control over his or her environment.  A quantifiable theory of genetic expectancy is one of the keys to interpreting behavior with the self-serving bias necessary to internalize a sense of effective control.