The Brains of Adopted Children

The Brains of Adopted Children

Adoption is a wonderful step forward for families, but children can bring their trauma with them, especially if they were adopted later in their childhood. This could alter family dynamics, as adopting children at different stages of their lives can feel different than imagined. There are cases where adoption at any age can feel seamless, like in the case of long-term foster placements and adoption from birth. No adoption story is the same, but parents need to understand the elements of the brain that make up their adopted child at different stages. Pediatrics and Child Health give a comprehensive view of a child’s brain during different stages of life for adopted children.

Infancy and Early Childhood

Babies will attach to and bond with their main caretaker in infancy. They will see their caretaker as their source of comfort, love, communication, and parenting. Adopted babies should be met with love, patience, tender care, and the understanding that they may face issues from the womb, like fetal alcohol syndrome or complications from premature birth. 

When these small children reach preschool age, they can often tell their adoption story, but this is without full understanding or clarity about the difference between their being adopted and other children living with their biological parents. Most do not understand reproduction and what a “biological” parent versus an “adoptive” parent is. When they reach kindergarten to first-grade age, they may form a more appropriate sense of space and time and begin to understand the events that happened to them in the past, even if they don’t remember them. 

At this stage, it’s important to give children their birth or adoption story early so that, as they form these world-altering thoughts and grow, they can process their adoption appropriately. 

School-Age Children

At school age, children begin to further understand the world around them and how that can shape their experiences. They’ll begin to develop better operational thinking, logical planning, and a sense of how to grasp the world in which they live. They’ll know and understand that most other children live with at least one biological relative. They’ll begin to realize that their birth story, timeline, and family structure are unique. Children that are adopted by individuals of different ethnic backgrounds than their parents may see or realize this already and need to come to terms with the fact that they are different.

When children are adopted at this stage, they may need a longer adjustment period than children who are adopted much younger. They’ll also need help to establish comfort, routine, trust, and a mastery of their new space to feel safe. 

Adoptive children with prior trauma may need extra support at this stage, and lots of reassurance that they are loved and wanted despite their difference in upbringing from their peers. Parents should emphasize the positives and strengths the child has. Similarly, parents should give them tools to talk through the things they are feeling, or a healthy coping mechanism if they aren’t quite old enough to have the words to express what they are feeling. 

It also may be helpful to teach the child their birth story in a positive light, promoting bravery and love over fear or abandonment. Telling children at this stage that their biological parents did love them, but gave them up because they could not properly care for them is appropriate at this time, as is answering general questions from the child about their birth parents.

Teens and Adolescents

In teenagedom and adolescence, children are learning how to garner their independence, and they are learning about what that means as they are or were independent of their adoptive family at one time. They may feel a strong sense of wonder around their past and how that lead up to who they are today. They’re more able to think of different outcomes, and where they would be if they weren’t adopted. They may be wondering what they would be like or what experiences they would have lived with. They may also be mature enough to grieve their past and to fully comprehend their feelings of love, gratitude, hurt, and even pain for what could have been. Some teens experience significant trauma and attachment issues both before and after adoption that needs to be worked through.

At this time parents should allow their adopted child freedom to discover their independence while confirming for them as often as possible that they are loved and wanted. Some teens may test their adoptive parents, not because they have any ill feelings toward them, but to ensure they won’t be abandoned again. They may not consciously know they are doing this, but it’s a natural response to abandonment or trauma.

Adoptive families and children face many hurdles. This doesn’t mean that biological families don’t also face hardship, but there are some specific questions adoptive families will have to address with children when it comes to their birth story and the differences in the child’s biological and adoptive identity. Sometimes the trauma of adoption or experiences surrounding it can be overwhelming and lead to attachment issues, abandonment issues, and behaviors that make life at home difficult. When these behaviors become too much for adoptive families, call Havenwood Academy. At Havenwood Academy, our professional and experienced staff are here to help teen girls work through their trauma, attachment issues, and mental health issues to develop coping mechanisms and heal from the pain that might come with being adopted. For adopted teens, they may be processing the past, present, and wondering what their future identity will be. Call us at (435) 586-2500 for more information on our inpatient facility.


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