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Think. Discuss. Act. Adoption

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Review: Growing Up Adopted

Matchan, L. (1989, October 8). Growing up Adopted. The Boston Globe Magazine.


(Download Growing up Adopted overview as a PDF)

When she was 3 years old, Joyce Pavao was told by her mother and father that she’d been adopted. She doesn’t remember much about that day, except that they sat down and used a word she’d never heard before.

Delighted, she ran outside and bragged to her neighbors. But something strange happened after that day. Whenever Pavao asked her parents about the adoption, they changed the subject. It wasn’t mentioned again until she was 20, when her father spoke of it as he lay dying. ‘It was the first time anyone had really looked me in the eye and talked about adoption,’ says the 41 year-old Harvard research fellow and adoption therapist.

‘My whole neighborhood knew I was adopted. All my relatives knew. But there was no discussion of it, even though I was constantly questioning my family about who I looked like and where I came from.’

Pavao believes her adopted parents’ behavior was typical of the older, secret style of dealing with abortion in the 1940s and 1950s. Adoption often carried the stigma of unwanted pregnancies and moral lapses.

Today, there is a new openness in the way society handles adoption. The new style of adoption often brings children and birth parents together and includes interracial, international, and single parent adoptions.

Richard Casey is a social worker in Newton, Massachusetts. Managing a support group for adopted adolescents, Casey notes, “It’s most important to emphasize that most adopted kids do fine. But it must be recognized that adopted children have a particular set of issues to confront.”

The nature and developmental tasks of adolescence produce major physical and emotional changes-and a new self-awareness with the capacity for abstract thought. Joyce Pavao understands these factors and explains, “Adolescents spend a lot of time looking in mirrors. They become very conscious of who they look like and they become very aware if they look different…It can be a VERY lonely feeling.”

Pavao has seen depression emerge from a teenage girl in a diminutive, adoptive family, because she grew into a size 10 shoe. And she has listened to a 20-year old black girl adopted by a white family, confused because no one could show her how to fix her hair. Says Pavao, “It’s like the story of the ugly duckling. These are things other people take for granted, but it can cause a lot of stress.”

Adolescence is also a time of thinking in new, personal and futuristic manner. Rutgers University psychologist, David Brodzinsky specializes in research and therapy of adopted children. He offers, “The whole developmental task of adolescence is to put together an identity that isn’t your parents’. But if you don’t know who your parents are…you just don’t have the pieces of the puzzle.”

According to Matchan

Differentiating from one’s family of origin is necessary for anyone to become a mature and functioning individual. But adopted adolescents have the added burden of separating from-not just their adopted family-but from their biological family, about which they know nothing. They can get stuck in a quagmire of fantasy, of misperceptions, of distorted information, with no one to fill in the gaps.

They can either push it (their biological background) away, saying it’s not important, or get stuck in it in a preoccupied way that they have trouble feeling independent. They really can be trapped by ghosts of the past.

Joyce Pavao remembers imagining herself as a Native American, “As a child I was convinced I was native American. I identified with Indians and as an adult did work for the Boston Indian Council.” She also remembers her adoptive father threatening to “give you back to the Indians.” She considers this the origin of her imaginations.

In support groups, teenagers speak of their sense of loss and hurt. One teenager notes, “Kids have mocked me because I don’t know who my ‘real’ parents are. It really hurts you. I try to keep away from telling them I’m adopted.” Another adds, “Being adopted is like being a minority. People don’t understand you and treat you as if you are different.”

Dr. Steven Nickman of Massachusetts General Hospital Psychiatry Department explains the trauma adopted children may feel:

It is definitely a major trauma to grow up knowing you weren’t kept by the woman who gave birth to you or the parents who made you. It’s a funny kind of loss because it’s a retrospective loss. But society should recognize that growing up as an adopted child has certain differences which are not severe, not earth-shaking, and can be pretty subtle, and that sometimes families have to cope with particular kinds of issues that other families don’t have to cope with. We must be alert to them.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Who do you know that is adopted? How does that person feel about being adopted?
  2. If you are an adopted child yourself, with whom have you had the most significant or encouraging discussion? What advice do you have for those who have friends who are adopted?
  3. What touched you deepest in the article above?
  4. Was there anything in the article with which you disagreed or did not understand? What question(s) would you like to ask the author of those quoted?
  5. What insight was most helpful to you from this article? How do you hope to deal with it further or put it into practice?


  1. We can become overwhelmed and numb with the plethora of issues surrounding us in our increasingly complicated world. The answer is not to treat people as problems or types, but as individuals. And to each individual we must be open and sensitive regarding issues of special significance. We need resources for information to the issues that present themselves.
  2. The article above provides insights into the nature of adoption and into adolescence itself. Freeing oneself from parents-whether they have been particularly negative or positive influences-is a difficult task of adolescence.
  3. The issue of adoption is related to abortion. There are many biological, psychological, cultural, legal, economic, and moral issues to be worked through concerning both of these social areas.

Dean Borgman
© 2018 CYS

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