Seeking Identity in Adoption

Traditionally, adoption has been associated with seven common issues, one of which is identity formation. The development of personal identity is often not consciously considered when a person adopts an infant who shares their own race or ethnicity. The child grows into adulthood while embracing the adoptive family’s routines, values, and rituals to which they are exposed from the beginning. Some questions about birth family traits naturally arise as children age. However, things can be quite different for a family that adopts an older child who is already familiar with their birth family, especially when the child does not share their adoptive parents’ racial or ethnic heritage. For parents who adopt older children, identity formation will need to be more intentional.

What can adoptive parents do to navigate this identity formation for their adopted child? Initially, it will be necessary for a parent to reflect on how their own identity was formed by asking some questions. What did I learn from my mother and father regarding my identity? How do my ethnicity, age, experience, education, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, or spiritual beliefs define me today? How has this changed over the years? What biases or assumptions do I make about others who don’t share my background? Do I need to challenge my value system as the norm? What pieces would I like to pass on to my adopted child?

For parents who have adopted transracially (i.e., white parents adopting a black child), they will need to acknowledge that racism and discrimination are still prevalent in the United States and will impact their child as they navigate the world. Parents need to be prepared to have difficult conversations with their child and to address microaggressions when they encounter them. They will need to provide their child with the tools to cope with and respond to discrimination, as well as ample opportunities to interact daily with people who look like them.

White, heterosexual, and male individuals in the United States often do not have to question their access to certain social privileges. If your child falls outside of these categories, parents will need to understand that their child’s experience of the world will be vastly different. Click here for additional reading on the iconic article by college professor Peggy McIntosh about the invisible knapsack.

Helping children develop an appreciation for the resiliency and beauty of their birth culture is crucial. Adoptive parents need to promote their child’s racial and ethnic pride by embracing the child’s racial history within the context of slavery or oppression in the United States and how that legacy continues to impact them today. Reading books or watching movies that feature important historical figures or provide confident role models is another way to support your child in developing a positive identity. Challenging the current state of society and reinforcing your child’s interests in social justice demonstrate to your child that you support them.

Another area closely aligned with identity, especially for youth coming of age in the era of social media, is the discussion of sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression, known by the acronym SOGIE. This potentially divisive topic can be a source of stress for adoptive parents and their children. While youth who identify with the LGBTQ+ community face the same developmental tasks as all adolescents, they also have the additional challenges of being comfortable with their identity, orientation, and presentation in the community. They are at higher risk of bullying, victimization, and rejection. As an adoptive parent, you will need to be committed to listening and learning from your child. Be curious, keep language open and accepting. A parent’s ability to embrace their adoptive child’s whole identity can make all the difference in how your child navigates their teen years into adulthood.

Parenting is a challenging job. Parenting an adopted child who has additional layers to uncover in their search for self-identity can be daunting, but equally gratifying when you remain a constant presence on their journey to defining themselves and their place in the world.

November is National Adoption Month, we wish to honor all individuals who have been impacted by the transformative power of adoption.