How Children Process Adoption Throughout Their Development

Children, though malleable and resilient, need to process changes in their life. Even good changes take time to process, and there can be grief mixed in with joy. This response to change is most true in cases of adoption. Adoption is a big deal, and it is a joyous celebration for both parent and child when the family gets to unite. Mentally and emotionally processing adoption can happen at any stage in a child’s life and can have different effects depending on the child and the situation. 

Processing Adoption

According to Pediatrics and Child Health, children grow up constantly developing their self-concept (what they see in themselves) and their self-esteem (if they like what they see in themselves). When it comes to adoption, children may feel a loss or a missing piece in their self-concept and self-esteem when they compare what their biological life was or could have been to what their adopted life is and their emotions surrounding that. They may feel a sense of loss, a sense of joy, a wonder of what could have been, an appreciation for what was, or a mix of these things. As children grow, no matter their age at the time of adoption, they’ll process adoption differently through each stage of development. 

If a child experiences abuse or neglect before adoption, their ability to cope with stressors and process their adoption and their life afterward will be affected, as will their self-concept and self-esteem as they grow and process at each stage. Transracial, transcultural, and special needs concerns can also influence how a child processes adoption and how they feel about themselves. No matter their age or circumstance, all adopted children will likely grieve the loss of their biological family, culture, heritage, and whatever else they’ve left behind. Adoptive parents can be there to help the child grieve and process their emotions in a safe, supportive way. 

Adoption and Attachment in Infancy

Pediatrics and Child Health states that babies will form an attachment to their primary adult caretaker. It may be their birth parent or adoptive parent, but a bond remains with the child to some extent. It’s normal and natural for a child to grieve that bond or suffer ill effects from leaving it. These ill effects can present themselves as reactive attachment disorder or social/cognitive health concerns. Babies adopted at birth and have explained at appropriate stages about their adoption generally have better success bonding with their adoptive parents than children in other situations. Still, it is not impossible with a different set of circumstances. 

Parents who are open to explaining adoption to their children also do better as the children get older. Somewhere between two years of age to preschool age, it’s important for the child to understand they had a different birth story, which could be all they’ll comprehend. At the age of four or five, the child will better understand what their birth story was and how that affects them. 

Adoption in School-Age Children

School-age children can better understand that they were born to a different family and grasp their adoption story. This understanding means they’re exploring more of the story and may feel some grief or sadness over their birth family. Often the child will wonder why their birth family couldn’t or didn’t keep them, and they may want to know more details. This sadness can affect their self-concept and self-esteem, especially if they realize this makes them different from other kids at school. Adoptive parents should talk them through this stage and help them understand that, though their birth story looks different, they’re still loved, still thriving, and that the choice their birth family made to put them up for adoption was a choice for a better future for the child. 

Adoption in Adolescents

Adoption in adolescents is tricky to process as the teen works through difficult hormonal, life, and physical changes while still processing their adoption. Teens will find that they need extra support to make sense of their situation and compare their adoptive family to their biological one. All teens must wrestle with who they are and want to become, and adoption presents a unique aspect to this journey. They may have lots of questions, particularly when it comes to genetics. As the child tries to figure out where they came from, they may want to know who they will be and what they might look like as they grow older. There will likely come a time when they want to know more about their adoption story and why their biological family chose adoption for them. It’s natural for a teen to want to know more about their biological family. The adoptive family should embrace that spirit and love them through their journey to self-discovery. 

Understanding adoption is a difficult process that can have a lot of mental and emotional effects on children. It’s natural for kids to be curious about their adoption, and parents should be honest about adoption. Some parents struggle with the needs of their adoptive children, particularly children who’ve suffered abuse or neglect prior to adoption. Though adoptive parents keep them safe, their mental health, trust, self-concept, and self-esteem need extra attention. If this is something you or your child struggles with, call us at Havenwood Academy. At Havenwood Academy, we understand that the needs of an adopted child can differ, especially when that child is grieving the loss of a biological family and suffering negative feelings. Our professional and experienced staff can help your child grow and learn to have patience with themselves and practice mindfulness when faced with the unique stressors adoption poses. Call Havenwood Academy today at (435) 586-2500


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