Adopted Child Status - In a Nutshell 9.17

By Emerson Dickman 

Adopted Child Status - In a Nutshell; Nature, Nurture, or Neither

The road signs of the past often clearly mark the route to the child’s current status (e.g., behavior issues preceded by an insufficiently recognized or addressed learning disability, social communications deficiencies, weaknesses in conceptualizing gestalt, deficits in processing theory-of-mind).[1]  However, without the existence of any road signs, parents describe their adolescent son as “hostile,” “manipulative,” having “a low frustration level,” “antisocial,” a “pathological liar” and a “thief,” but bright and, in many ways, “charming;” and a mother describes her daughter as having been “her best friend,” “very social” with “a lot of wonderful friends,” who was “pretty,” “bright,” got “good grades,” and was “a cheerleader” who, all of a sudden, “gave up all of her friends to hang out with kids who were always in trouble,” was “hostile,” “manipulative,” had “a low frustration level,” became “antisocial,” a “pathological liar” a “thief,” and “overtly promiscuous.”  The most interesting fact was that there were no road signs in either child’s past that would have predicted such a description.  These are not isolated incidences.  The no road sign group displays a pattern of behavior that is meaningfully consistent and similar, though slightly different for boys and girls.  Boys tended to be more directly self-destructive often including drugs and risky behaviors where there was a likelihood of being caught; whereas, girls were promiscuous or claimed to be promiscuous.

Those that did exhibit early road signs were different in that they did not have a history of accomplishment and good social skills and did not suddenly develop self-destructive tendencies and the ability to lie and steal with apparent impunity.  The behavior observed in both groups (i.e., those that had a history of road signs and those that did not) was clearly a threat to the development of the child’s innate potential.  However, a close look uncovers differences that were unique to each group.

Those in the no road sign group were all children who were adopted and knew little or nothing of their biological antecedents.  It got to the point when I was interviewing parents and they would describe such a child, I would ask. “When was he/she adopted?”  The response was always, “How did you know?”  Sometimes the parent would volunteer that they didn’t tell anyone outside of the family and that the school didn’t know; of course, the child was aware.  The reasonable conclusion is that the sole fact that a child was adopted had something to do with the behavior change experienced in adolescence.

The common assumption is that behavior is a response to nature or nurture.  Recently, a respected researcher described such behavior change in adolescence among the no road sign group as an emergence of a genetic predisposition.  I guess that is a nice way of saying that the child’s biological parent was a self-destructive, lying, stealing, manipulative, and promiscuous lowlife.  Certainly genetics plays a role in the neurobiological profile of us all.  However, if behavior in adolescence is the result of a neurobiological profile the road signs predicting such a destination would exist.  Familial traits such as learning disabilities, height, eye color, and talent are recognized long before adolescence; the road signs exist when genetics is a factor.  The conclusion, in the absence of neurobiological road signs, that the behavior change in the adolescence of many children who have been adopted is the emergence of a genetic predisposition is as dangerous as it is preposterous.

However, this situation begs the question, is there something besides nature or nurture that may influence behavior?  The paper upon which this summary is based is 90 pages and contains 72 references.  It makes the point that there is an option that is neither nature nor nurture.

The word dioristic, rarely used in modern discourse, means “distinguishing, distinctive, and defining.”  The simple fact is that a lack of knowledge concerning ones biological heritage is sufficiently “distinguishing, distinctive, and defining” to cause a child to respond differently to influences that would otherwise be considered normal.  Therefore, I use the term Dioristic Vulnerability to describe the potential cause for the problems many adoptees face in adolescence.  It is that which distinguishes adoptees from children brought up by biological parents (i.e., the simple fact that they have no genetic expectancy[2]) is the key to understanding the negative behaviors that often emerge in adolescence.

Those who are aware of their biological antecedents have a genetic expectancy.  I am athletic like my father, funny like my uncle, frugal like my grandfather, etc.  Genetic expectancy is a theory of who we are based on knowledge of our biological ancestors and relatives.  A child who is adopted is an “acorn” without a “tree,” a “chip” without a “block,” a “son” without a “father.”  Why is this a problem for the adolescent?

Much of what we now accept regarding identity development in children comes from the work of Erik Erikson (1902-1994), a developmental psychologist and social scientist.  Interestingly, Erikson’s biological father was not his mother’s husband.  Although, he was not told of his biological origins; he was tall, blond and blue eyed while immersed in a Jewish family and culture.  Some speculate that his intense interest in the study of personality, ego, and identity formation arose out of his somewhat uncertain understanding of his own origins.  Erikson’s (1968) theory of identity formation centers on the resolution of certain crises that arise in each stage of development.  In childhood “He is, of course, deeply and exclusively ‘identified’ with his parents” (Erikson, 1968, p. 115).  By school age the child finds out that often it is “the background of his parents rather than his wish and will to learn that are the factors that decide his worth as a pupil” (Erikson, 1968, p. 124).  At this stage “nothing less is at stake than the development and maintenance in children of a positive identification with those who know things and know how to do things.”  (Erikson, 1968, p. 125).  Children see themselves as a reflection of the positive characteristics they see in their parents.  “Dad is an athlete, I am interested in athletics;” “Mom likes to read, I love reading.”  “Dad can pick up a feather with a backhoe, I want to build things.”

In adolescence children move from seeing themselves as a reflection of who their parents are to seeing themselves as a reflection of what others think, they attribute to themselves those characteristics that others appear to attribute to them.  From wanting to be like someone (a parent or uncle) they now see themselves as the person whom others seem to think they are.  “I make people laugh, I am the class clown.”  “They think I am smart; I had better study to ensure the grade they expect.”  “Because I am big other kids are afraid of me, maybe I should see if Jimmy fits in his locker.”  Adolescents “are sometimes morbidly, often curiously, preoccupied with what they appear to be in the eyes of others” (Erikson, 1968, p. 128).  “Adolescence is the last stage of childhood. The adolescent process, however, is conclusively complete only when the individual has subordinated his childhood identifications” (Erikson, 1968, p. 155).  When children stop trying to be like their parents and stop trying to be the person that they appear to be in the eyes of others, only then can they begin developing their adult identity.  Unfortunately, the child who is adopted cannot easily subordinate the genetic expectancies (i.e., identifications) that are derived from biological antecedents.

The relationship of identification (i.e., how the individual perceives himself to be connected to others in his environment) and the development of related expectations is the dynamic in identity formation that appears to be the Rosetta stone to understanding the difficulties faced by the adolescent who is adopted.  In order to separate, one has to have made a connection from that which one wishes to separate.  I am not like my father, he likes pro-football and I like art; my mother is very religious, I am more of a humanist.  One has to know the traits of those from whom they seek to be distinguished.  Unfortunately, for the adolescent who has been adopted, the absence of such knowledge makes it difficult to separate.  The actions of the child (e.g., “hanging out with kids who were always in trouble,” behaving “hostile” and “manipulative,” “lying,” “stealing,” “becoming overtly promiscuous”) appear to be for the purpose of getting to know those to whom they are genetically linked.  This drive to connect, when separation is the norm, can be incredibly powerful.  Sara lied in the face of contrary video footage; Amanda cut her hair, used colored contact lenses, and dressed to reflect her imagined ethnic origin; Sally claimed mental illness and insisted on being treated for schizophrenia; and Ben admitted in therapy to having molested his younger sister.  Ben never molested his sister and Sally had no mental illness, but, like the others, their actions were consistent with their unique adoption fantasies.

Identifications, expectations, and individuation - the path to a mature identity is clearly marked.  If we adjust for neurobiological deficits and dysfunctional parenting; the lack of a genetic expectancy alone appears to negatively influence the success of an individual’s attempt to develop a mature identity.  In a really bad movie that I recently saw, a character commented, “If we don’t know where we came from, how will we know where we are going.”[3]  Other theories that also help to explain the identity formation challenges of the adolescent that are influenced by a lack of genetic expectancy include, among others:

a.    Self Theory: Society and culture is a powerful influence on perception.  In modern cultures genetics is considered a powerful influence on potential.

b.    Self-differentiation: An awareness of attributes that the person identifies as his own and as distinct from those of others.  The child who is adopted cannot differentiate from unknown biological antecedents.

c.    Causal Attribution Theory: Attribution of cause is confused if the forces with possible influence on behavior (e.g., genetic) cannot be identified.

d.    Self-serving Bias: Self-serving bias, promotes the belief that an individual has effective control over his or her environment.  Self-serving bias is not readily available to a child who cannot distinguish whether his decisions and abilities are his own or those of some unknown biological relative.

e.    The False Uniqueness Effect: Children who are adopted often see themselves as unique and disconnected from the norm and, as such, feel justified in exhibiting behaviors inconsistent with the norm.

f.     Locus of Control: To the developing individual, hereditary factors are viewed as external influences that are responsible for behavior considered inappropriate.  Children with an external locus of control appear to refuse to accept responsibility for the consequences of their own acts; the fault lies external.  Unless genetic expectancy is quantifiable, the person subject to its potential influence is unable to judge whether a particular behavior was entirely of their own making.

g.    Identity Diffusion: Adoptees are at a distinct disadvantage due to their lack of genetic expectancy to attribute free will, as compared to genetic predisposition, to their decision-making.

h.    Deindividuation: When part of a group one tends to subordinate self-awareness and personal identity to the interests and actions of the group (e.g., mob mentality).  Children, who lack a genetic expectancy, are unable to distinguish themselves from their genetic ancestors.  Although the interests and actions of this group are fantasized, they are no less real to the individual doing the fantasizing.

i.      Dissonance: It is difficult to imagine the confusion and psychological pain resulting from the simultaneous influence of the drive to identify and connect in the face of the natural drive to separate that occurs during adolescence.

David Kirschner, PhD., Author of Adoption: Uncharted Waters, A Psychologist’s Case Studies … Clinical and Forensic Issues made the following point about my work:

“During recent decades, there have been scores of books written on adoption, virtually all of them focusing on loss, pain, grief and trauma, as the core issues – the Loss has become THE mantra, in the adoption world.  Dickman however, believes that it is a Lack, not a loss – a lack of genetic expectancy (being without knowledge of origins), and how this affects identity formation, that is key to understanding, diagnosing, treating, and preventing problem behavior in adopted children.”

Dr. Kirschner’s comment sums up my thesis better than I could.  Others have also commented including Louisa C. Moats, Ed.D.[4] “… a fascinating, supportable, and important thesis … .” and Richard D Lavoie, M.A., M.Ed.[5], “Emerson … makes a convincing argument that the widely held beliefs related to adoptive grieving and abandonment are simply unfounded.  He presents a far more intuitive and insightful theory that difficulties in identity are caused by a multi-facetted combination of family dynamics, adolescent insecurities, sense of loss, and puzzlement about ‘the unknown.’”  Although I introduced the term and concept of genetic expectation about 25 years ago, the significance of the concept is currently amply supported by the success of enterprises such as,, and many popular television shows that trace ancestry.  Hype is not science; however, it does indicate where our mind would like to take us, science or not.

It is this Dioristic Vulnerability that is based on neither nature nor nurture that makes that which is normal to others, toxic to those who have been adopted and have little or no knowledge of their genetic expectancies.  As an adolescent the adoption fantasy is no longer based on a romantic liaison of two star-crossed lovers, but the more realistic imagining that one’s biological parents were “self-destructive, lying, stealing, manipulative, and promiscuous lowlifes.”

Whatever conclusion can be drawn from my work, I hope it is that the adolescent struggle of the child who is adopted is more related to well-known psychological influences and only nominally related to either nature or nurture.  Prospective adoptive parents, therapists, and educators should be aware of the challenges that such children face and promote a sense of empowerment necessary to successfully navigate the rocky shores of adolescence.  Children who feel empowered wear their self-confidence like a suit of armor that attracts others to them because of its beauty and shields them from harm because of its strength.

[1] Dickman, G. E. (1996). The Link Between Learning Disabilities and Behavior. In Cramer, S. C. and Ellis, W. (Eds.), Learning Disabilities: Lifelong Issues (pp.215-228). Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Co.

[2] The term was first introduced in Dickman, G. E. (1992). Adoptees among students with disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 25(8), 529-531, 543.

[3] Garm Wars: The Last Druid (2014)

[4] Directed the NICHD Early Reading Interventions Project in Washington, DC. From 1997 to 2001, author of Spelling: Development, Disability, and Instruction (York Press); Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers (Brookes); Parenting a Struggling Reader (Broadway Books); and LETRS: Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (Sopris West)

[5] Creator:  “How Difficult Can This Be?  The F.A.T. City Workshop.”  Author:  “It’s So Much Work to Be Your Friend: Helping the Child with Learning Disabilities Find Social Success,”  “The Motivation Breakthrough: 6 Secrets to Turning On the Tuned-Out Child.”