Essay, Research Paper: Adoption And Identity Formation


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There has been an enormous amount of research conducted about adoptees and their
problems with identity formation. Many of the researchers agree on some of the
causes of identity formation problems in adolescent adoptees, while other
researchers conclude that there is no significant difference in identity
formation in adoptees and birth children. This paper will discuss some of the
research which has been conducted and will attempt to answer the following
questions: Do adoptees have identity formation difficulties during adolescence?
If so, what are some of the causes of these vicissitudes? Is there a significant
difference between identity formation of adoptees and nonadoptees? The National
Adoption Center reports that fifty-two percent of adoptable children have
attachment disorder symptoms. It was also found that the older the child when
adopted, the higher the risk of social maladjustment (Benson et al., 1998). This
is to say that a child who is adopted at one-week of age will have a better
chance of normal adjustment than a child who is adopted at the age of ten. This
may be due in part to the probability that an infant will learn how to trust,
where as a ten-year-old may have more difficulty with this task, depending on
his history. Eric Erickson, a developmental theorist, discusses trust issues in
his theory of development. The first of Erickson`s stages of development is
Trust v. Mistrust. A child who experiences neglect or abuse can have this stage
of development severely damaged. An adopted infant may have the opportunity to
fully learn trust, where as an older child may have been shuffled from foster
home to group home as an infant, thereby never learning trust. Even though Trust
v. Mistrust is a major stage of development, the greatest psychological risk for
adopted children occurs during the middle childhood and adolescent years (McRoy
et al., 1990). As children grow and change into adolescents, they begin to
search for an identity by finding anchoring points with which to relate.
Unfortunately, adopted children do not have a biological example to which to
turn (Horner & Rosenberg, 1991), unless they had an open adoption in which
they were able to form a relationship with their biological families as well as
their adoptive ones. Also key to the development of trust is the ability to bond
with adoptive parents. The absence of a biological bond between the adoptee and
adoptive parents may cause trust issues in the adoptee (Wegar, 1995). Baran
(1975) stated, Late adolescence . . . is the period of intensified identity
concerns and is a time when the feelings about adoption become more intense and
questions about the past increase. Unless the adopted child has the answers to
these arising questions, identity formation can be altered and somewhat halted.
McRoy et al. (1990) agree with this point: Adolescence is a period when young
people seek an integrated and stable ego identity. This occurs as they seek to
link their current self-perceptions with their self perceptions from earlier
periods and with their cultural and biological heritage (Brodzindky, 1987, p.
37). Adopted children sometimes have difficulty with this task because they
often do not have the necessary information from the past to begin to develop a
stable sense of who they are. They often have incomplete knowledge about why
they were relinquished and what their birth parents were like, and they may
grieve not only for the loss of their birth parents but for the loss of part of
themselves. In essence, it seems that the adolescent`s identity formation is
impaired because he holds the knowledge that his roots or his essence have been
severed and remain on the unknown side of the adoption barrier. The identity
struggles of the adolescent are ⌠part of a human need to connect with
their natural clan and failure to do so may precipitate psychopathology (Wegar,
1995). Also in agreement with Wegar, McRoy, and Baran is Frisk. Baran et al.
(1975) wrote, ⌠Frisk conceptualized that the lack of family background
knowledge in the adoptee prevents the development of a healthy genetic ego . .
. In most of the studies surveyed, the researchers are in agreement about
one fact. Vital to the adopted adolescent`s identity development is the
knowledge of the birth family and the circumstances surrounding the adoption.
Without this information, the adolescent has difficulty deciding which family
(birth or adopted) he resembles. During the search for an identity in
adolescence, the child may face an array of problems including hostility toward
the adoptive parents, rejection of anger toward the birth parents, self-hatred,
transracial adoption concerns, feeling of rootlessness . . . . (McRoy et al.,
1990). While searching for an identity, adolescent adoptees sometimes are
involved in a behavior which psychologists term family romance. This is not a
romance in a sexual manner, but rather a romance in the sense of fantasizing
about birth parents and their personal qualities. Horner and Rosenberg (1991)
stated that ⌠the adopted child may develop a family romance in order to
defend against painful facts. Often times, adoptees wonder why they were
adopted, and because closed-adoptions are common, the adoptee is left with many
unanswered questions about the circumstances of the adoption. The adoptee may
have a tendency to harbor negative feelings about himself, feeling like he was
unwanted, bad, or rejected by the birth parent. These feelings can be quite
powerful, so the adoptee will engage in this family romancing behavior in order
to offset the negative feelings and try to reconcile his identity crisis. This
point is stressed by Horner and Rosenberg (1991) when they write, The painful
reality to be confronted by adoptees is that their biological parents did not
want, or were unable, to find a way of keeping and rearing their own child. The
children feel that they were either not meant to be or intolerable . . . .
Finding an identity, while considering both sets of parents is a difficult task
for the adolescent. The adoptee does not want to hurt or offend his adoptive
parents, and he also does not want to ignore what is known about his biological
roots. Horner and Rosenberg (1991) write: Adoptive status may represent a
developmental interference for children during adolescence. Instead of the usual
struggles over separation and the establishment of a cohesive sense of self and
identity, the adopted child must struggle with the competing and conflictual
issues of good and bad parents, good and bad self, and separation from both
adoptive parents and images of biological parents. If all adoptions were open,
the adoptee would have the ability to know about the traits of each family. He
would have an easier task of forming an identity for himself, rather than
struggling with the issues of to whom he can relate. If the adolescent has some
information about his birth parents, such as ethnicity, socioeconomic status,
and religion, Horner and Rosenberg (1991) believe that the following can happen:
From the bits of fact that they possess, adopted children develop and elaborate
explanations of their adoptions. At the same time, they begin to explain
themselves, and they struggle to develop a cohesive and realistic sense of who
they are and who they can become. It appears that if the adoptee has even a
minimal amount of information about his birth parents and adoption, he will have
an easier time with identity formation than an adoptee who has no information
about his adoption. The adoptive parents can also play a key role in aiding in
identity formation of the adopted adolescent. Much of the research I surveyed at
least touched upon the role of the adoptive parents. Kornitzer stated that the
more mysterious the adoptive parents make things for the child the more he will
resort to fantasy (Baran et al., 1975). This is yet another argument for open
adoptions. Again, if the child knows the circumstances of his adoption and other
pertinent information about his biological roots, he will have an easier time
forming an identity in adolescence. It is also noted that, . . . young
adoptees are vulnerable to feeling different or bad due to the comments and
actions of others (Wegar, 1995). This is to say that the child will feel more
accepted, and that his adoption is not a stigma if his adoptive parents have the
conviction that being adopted does not make the family bad, and it does not mean
that the adoptive parents are failures because they could not have biological
children. Sometimes the negativity of adoptive parents about the circumstances
of the adoption can be sensed by the adoptee, thus causing the adoptee to
believe that there is something wrong with being adopted. Once again, this can
cause identity formation problems, especially if the adolescent believes that he
is inferior or bad because he is adopted and not raised in his biological
family. The literature on adopted children has long documented particular and
sometimes intense struggles around identity formation, and suggests that in many
ways adopted children follow a different developmental course from children who
are raised by their biological parents (Horner and Rosenberg, 1991). While
most of the studies I read found that adoptees have difficulty in identity
formation during adolescence, I did find an article which refutes this point.
Kelly et al. (1998) write: Developing a separate, autonomous, mature sense of
self is widely recognized as a particularly complex task for adoptees. While
many scholars have concluded that identity formation is inherently more
difficult for adoptees some recent comparisons of adopted and nonadopted youth
have found no differences in adequacy of identity formation, and a study by
Stein and Hoopes (1985) revealed higher ego identity scores for adoptees. Goebel
and Lott (1986) found that such factors as subjects` age, sex, personality
variables, family characteristics, and motivation to search for birth parents
accounted more for quality of identity formation than did adoptive status. In
conclusion, it is difficult to say who is right in their beliefs about adoptees
and identity formation. The research I have reviewed has mostly shown that
adoptees do have quite a bit a difficulty forming an identity during
adolescence, and that this difficulty can be due to a number of factors.
Negative parental attitudes about adoption can have a negative affect on the
adoptee. The issue of open versus closed adoptions will forever be a debate, but
the research does show that the more an adoptee knows about his birth family and
the circumstances surrounding his adoption, the easier it will be for him to
form an identity during adolescence. Most of the researchers who wrote about the
family romance seemed to do so in a negative manner, when in fact I believe that
the ability to fantasize about the birth family may be a healthy option for the
adolescent who is the victim of a closed adoption. It allows him to construct a
view of what his birth family is like, and it also allows him to relieve himself
of some of the internal pain which is caused by closed adoptions. Overall, most
of the literature supported the notion that adoptees do indeed have identity
formation problems.

BibliographyBaran, A., Pannor, R., & Sorosky, A. (1975). Identity Conflicts in
Adoptees. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 45(1), 18-26. Benson, P., McGue,
M., & Sharma, A. (1998). The Psychological Adjustment of United States
Adopted Adolescents and Their Nonadopted Siblings. Child Development, 69(3),
791-802. Benson, P., McGue, M., & Sharma, A. (1996). The Effect of Common
Rearing on Adolescent Adjustment: Evidence from a U.S. Adoption Cohort.
Developmental Psychology, 32(4), 604-613. Brinch, P. & Brinch, E. (1982).
Adoption and Adaptation. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 170, 489-493.
Cote, A., Joseph, K., Kotsopoulos, S., Oke, L., Pentland, N., Sheahan, P., &
Stavrakaki, C. (1988). Psychiatric Disorders in Adopted Children: A Controlled
Study. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 58(4), 608-611. Hajal, F., &
Rosenberg, E. (1991). The Family Life Cycle in Adoptive Families. American
Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 61(1), 78-85. Horner, T., & Rosenberg, E.
(1991). Birthparent Romances and Identity Formation in Adopted Children.
American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 61(1), 70-77. Kelly, M., Martin, B., Rigby,
A., & Towner-Thyrum, E. (1998). Adjustment and Identity Formation in Adopted
and Nonadopted Young Adults: Contributions of a Family Enviornment. American
Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 68(3), 497-500. McRoy, R., Grotevant, H., Furuta,
A., & Lopez, S. (1990). Adoption Revelation and Communication Issues:
Implications for Practice. Families in Society, 71, 550-557. Wegar, K. (1995).
Adoption and Mental Health: A Theoretical Critique of the Psychopathological
Model. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 65(4), 540-548.
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