Although self identity development in adopted children can be an overwhelming concern, equipping yourself with the knowledge and skills necessary to help foster your adopted child's identity development is one of the most important steps that you can take toward creating a good life for your child.
Self-Identity Development Is a Fact of Life
First, it is helpful to keep in mind that identity development is not applicable solely to adopted children. Social scientists have studied identity development for many years. One of the most noted theories of identity development is attributed to psychiatrist Erik Erikson. His experience providing psychotherapy to children and adolescents from a wide range of backgrounds led him to suggest in his works Childhood and Society and Identity and the Life Cycle that there are eight chronological stages of development that individuals must successfully pass through to become socially and emotionally healthy adults. Among these stages is identity development, (arising during the preteen years and often extending into adolescence), when children and adolescents are often the most curious about who they are and what their place is in their relationships and the world at large.
Although identity development is not unique to adopted children, the complexity of adoption can, and often does, pose some additional challenges for adopted children and their families. The awareness of having been given up for adoption by one's birthparents, for instance, may cause a child to struggle with feelings of rejection and inferiority. Also, the child may experience a great deal of frustration if little information is available on the birthparents, such as how they look or details about their background, according to the Austin Travis County Mental Health Mental Retardation Center.
Self Identity Issues in Transracial Families
Children who have been adopted by parents of a different race can face obstacles to healthy identity development that children with adoptive parents of the same race do not. This is particularly the case in the adoption of minority children into white families. It is not uncommon for parents in such situations to suddenly find that they are grappling with cultural stereotypes and societal injustices that negatively impact their adopted children, according to the Los Angeles Times article, "Trans-Racial Families Face Unique Challenges of Prejudice and Identity." Even the most loving family cannot be shielded from the harsh realities of prejudice and racism that still exist in American society today.
Not discussing race at all can also become problematic. It has been argued that a major challenge to identity development in minority children who are adopted into white families is the tendency during the adoption process to de-emphasize the magnitude of race in a society that is still race-conscious, according to The New York Times article, "De-emphasis on Race in Adoption is Criticized." This does little to prepare adoptive parents psychologically for the identity issues that are likely to emerge as their children struggle with feelings of being "different" from their family members, and who are also forced to deal with racial identity on a societal level.
The good news is that a number of adoptive parents do take proactive measures to help their children with identity development by consciously choosing neighborhoods and schools that offer their children a sense of community and belonging, according to the Los Angeles Times. They work hard to surround their children with positive people of the same racial and ethnic background, as well as to expose them to settings where diversity is highly valued. And more often than not, these children adjust well to their environment and are able to develop a healthy sense of identity.
Identity Development in Internationally Adopted Children
According to the US Department of State, as many as 17,438 children were adopted from other countries by American families from Oct. 1, 2007, to Sept. 30, 2008. While international adoptions appear to be on a slow decline from previous years, the fact that they are still prevalent has garnered the attention of researchers who are curious about the identity development of internationally adopted children. There is some evidence to support the fact that, as these children move into their teen years, ethnic identity becomes much more of a concern for them than their adoptive status. according to the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.
Since it is highly common for internationally adopted children to have no direct ties to their country of origin or birthparents, this can become a huge source of frustration, particularly if they feel ostracized by immigrants who share a similar heritage. This problem is further compounded when race enters the equation.
One such example is that of a child from Ethiopia who is adopted by a white family yet categorized as "black" in American society, even though she does not share the same culture as children with a similar skin color. Such a child runs the risk of experiencing identity confusion and a sense of isolation as a result of not having a specific reference group.
Parental Love is No Cure-All
You can love your adopted child unconditionally and create a home life that is warm and nurturing, yet your child may still face identity development challenges at some point. Rather than try to figure out on your own what steps should be taken to handle this, you should turn to a professional for help. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, timing is everything when it comes to preventing these problems from growing more serious. Seeking the assistance of a therapist with substantial knowledge of adoption and the challenges it often brings can be one of the wisest decisions you'll ever make.
Although there's a disturbing trend toward premature puberty among children born in America, this trend is even more pronounced in children who are adopted from foreign countries.
With the number of adopted children rising, especially in international adoptions, many parents are in more need than ever for guidance on when and how to tell their children that they are adopted.