Adoptees in Psychotherapy
Randi Fredricks, Ph.D.
Being adopted is a lifelong issue. Even if it doesn’t haunt you, even if you have a job and a family and a good self-image, the fact that the family that you grew up in is not the family whose genetics you share never goes away. In order to cope with the feelings associated with being adopted, many adoptees seek support in psychotherapy or support groups.
Support groups help validate your feelings. Hearing about how others have coped with their feelings fear of abandonment, rejection, and loss can inspire troubled adult adoptees to work through their own issues. They might decide to talk to a counselor about these issues, possibly going to one that someone in the support group found helpful, or they might decide to search for their birth family.
Some adult adoptees find individual counseling with a counselor who is knowledgeable about adoption issues to be very helpful. An experienced therapist can help adult adoptees untangle which of their concerns are adoption-related and which are adjustment issues that many people in their stage of life go through.
Searching for Birth Relatives
Therapy can assist adoptees in a number of different ways. It can help them with their interpersonal relationships; the integration of their adoption experiences; their struggles around adoption issues; and with their healing process. Therapy can also assist adoptees in sorting through the decision about whether or not to search for birth relatives.
If a search is undertaken, the counselor can assist in preparing an adoptee for a possible reunion, and in understanding and integrating the new information and newly found family of origin as well as the upheaval of emotions that often accompanies a search and its aftermath.
For instance, some adoptees’ reunions go very well. They find their birth family and they like them very much, and everyone is happy to have been found. For those adoptees, the issues in therapy may be the grief and loss they feel at not having been able to grow up with that family.
For those who were adopted at an older age from the foster care system, therapy may help them deal with the consequences of the abuse or neglect they endured when they were younger. Even if they are happy with their place in their adoptive family, they may still be dealing with the effects of their early life experiences. Therapy is a resource that adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents can use to help them handle whatever emotions they are feeling.
Occasionally, therapists who are knowledgeable about adoption issues offer therapy groups in which all of the participants are adopted adults, or are touched by adoption in some way. Participants could be adoptive parents, birth parents, or perhaps a sibling of an adoptee. These groups go into more depth than the type of support group described above. They actually combine the best elements of a support group and individual counseling: members of the group all have the adoption experience in common and the group is facilitated by a skilled mental health professional.
New Insights in Adoptees
In the past, it was assumed that a healthy, well-adjusted adopted person would have no desire to delve into his or her birth history. Those who insisted that they needed this information and access to their birth records were considered to be ungrateful at the least, and seriously disturbed at the worst. It was startling, therefore, when a major pediatrics journal announced that there was ample evidence that the adopted child retains the need for seeking his ancestry for a long time.
Later in the 1970s, a research group in California led by Arthur D. Sorosky, M.D., a clinical professor of child psychiatry at UCLA, and social workers Annette Baran and Reuben Pannor revealed that by late adolescence and young adulthood, just about all adoptees in their study felt a sense of “genealogical bewilderment,” defined as “psychological confusion about their genetic origins.” The researchers found that adoptees search for their birth family because of both a sociological and a biological need. Dr. Sorosky and his research team found that almost all adoptees in their study wanted to know about their genetic past. Indeed, recent research indicates that it is normal and healthy for adopted persons to want to know more about their genetic background.
Jones, A. (1997). Issues relevant to therapy with adoptees. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 34(1), 64–68.
Sorosky, A.D., Baran, A. & Pannor, R. (1974). The reunion of adoptees and birth relatives. J Youth Adolescence 3,195–206.
Bakan, P. (1971). Birth order and handedness. Journal of Pediatrics, 36, 385–391.
About the Author
Randi Fredricks, Ph.D. is a practicing therapist, researcher and author specializing in the treatment of anxiety, depression, addiction, eating disorders, and related disorders. Dr. Fredricks is a best-selling author of several books on complementary and alternative treatments for mental health. For more information on Dr. Fredricks work, visit her practice website DrRandiFredricks.com.