Think. Discuss. Act.

Review: Being Adopted

Brodzinsky, D.M., Marshall D.S., & Henig, R.M. (1992). Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self. New York: Anchor Books Doubleday.

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(Download Being Adopted overview as a PDF)

The Prologue of this book begins:

Being adopted means different things to different people. To Ruth, fifty-five, it is the sense of always feeling unsettled, of there being an unfinished chapter to her life. To Stuart, twenty-seven, it is gratitude at having been raised by loving and generous parents instead of by a birth mother he knows could never have given him what he needed. And to Kelli, twenty-six, it is the continuous pain of feeling different, out of place, never fully human. (p. 1)

The aim of these authors (a clinical and developmental psychologist, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, and a medical writer) is “to map out what it is like to be adopted.” It traces such themes as human development, identity, and self perception through the entire life span. (p. 1) This article highlights some of the difficulties encountered, particularly among teenagers, in the search for self among adopted teenagers.

The authors of this book find, from their experience and the research that, overall, adoption benefits the adoptive parents, the natural birth parent(s), and the adoptee. While they choose not to get into the adoption vs. non-adoption debate, “adoption is probably a better solution to an unplanned pregnancy than…keeping the child in a birth family that doesn’t want her.” Research indicates that adopted infants do not exhibit behavior problems before the age of five or six, but problems do emerge in the elementary grades and adolescent years. (pp.7-9)

Even though Sarah was a happy and well-adjusted seventeen year old (adopted as an infant), who felt “comfortable and loved in her adopted family,” she experienced a vague sense of loss:

Sometimes I feel incomplete. I need to know more: Why did it happen? What is she like? Who is my birth father? What is he like? The older I get, the more important it is to know. It’s pretty frustrating being an adoptee sometimes. (p. 11)

Carl is fifteen and he tells the authors about the confusion and embarrassment he feels around the celebration of his fifteenth birthday:

It’s pretty weird for me then, being the center of attention. I feel like a fake. Everyone is around celebrating the day I was born, making a big deal about it, and they weren’t even there for it. (p. 14)

These statements may reflect the new stage of cognitive development in teenagers. With the capacity of asking hypothetical and universal questions, and a new need to formulate issues of morality and meaning, they wonder why they are different.

They are much more bodily conscious at this age as well, and the adopted teenager may feel that he doesn’t “fit in physically with the rest of the family.” As Russ says, “It’s important to look like your parents. Most people take it for granted, they never even think about it. But I’ve had to think about it. (p. 98) And it bothers 15-year-old Elliot when family and well-meaning friends comment that he looks so much like his dad. He doesn’t deny that there is some resemblance, but he knows that his looking like his dad as he’s supposed to just is not true. In fact, these statements tend to make him feel ‘more’ different from the rest of his family than less so” (p. 97).

The vague need for physical connection is expressed by Victoria, age fifteen:

I’d like to see my birth mother so I’ll know what I’ll look like when I grow old. Jessica (her younger sister and biological child of their parents) can tell what she’s going to look like by looking at old pictures of Mom. I would like to have that kind of feeling too. (p. 99)

“When we walk down the street, everyone knows I’m adopted,” is how Josh, a fourteen-year-old Korean boy describes one important aspect of being raised in a white, American family. (p. 99) Besides there is the matter of religion. Josh’s family is Jewish and his is the only Oriental face in the synagogue. Josh told his parents how difficult his bar mitzvah was for him: “I’m not really Jewish. It’s like a lie for me to be up there reciting from the Torah” (p. 100).

Belonging and conforming to a peer group can be very important to a teenager. In the new intimacy of teenager friendships, it is very important to be in step with everyone else. “This desperate need to conform can also present special problems for an adopted teenager, who may feel different from other people because she doesn’t know as much about her past.” As Jason, age thirteen, puts it:

It feels funny being different, not like everyone else. It’s not like you’re some star athlete or rock star or something-that’s the good kind of being different. When you’re adopted, it’s like someone didn’t want you. (p. 96)

Two racially mixed children (of Euro-American and Afro-American parents) were adopted by the Whittiers and both looked black. Samantha associates mostly with black kids even though she has grown up in a white home and neighborhood. But her adopted brother Daniel has much more difficult working out his racial identity. “It’s easy for Samantha to fit in, but not for me. She has plenty of people to hangout with, but not me.” Daniel has tried to work out his social life by making friends with Asian boys and dating Asian girls: “They’re the other odd balls at school” (p. 101).

During the teenage identity crisis, being adopted can take on an added pain: a sense of having lost not only your birth parents but also a part of yourself (the writers explain). Adoption experts have called it ‘genealogical bewilderment,’ this feeling of being cut off from your heritage, your religious background, your culture, your race. (pp. 107-108)

Resolving one’s identity is a complex issue. There is no single identity; rather, we have physical, sexual, social, ethnic, and religious identities. Working out one’s sexual identity has received much attention for all teenagers; again, there may be special issues in the case of adoption.

Sex can be a loaded topic for any teenager, but especially for one who’s adopted. Adopted teenagers who were born to teenage mothers may feel the cycle repeating itself in their own sexual behavior. Adoptive mothers who agonize over their own infertility may feel jealous and resentful of their daughter’s developing fecundity. Adoptive fathers who feel stirrings of attraction for their daughters may be confused…An adoptee’s emerging sexuality can be a complication for the whole family. (p. 110)…Jill was fifteen, she deliberately became pregnant. That was the same age her birth mother was when she had Jill. “I want to do for my baby what my birth mother wouldn’t do for me,” Jill explained. (pp. 110, 112)

I was a virgin when I got married (Susanna recalls). There was no way…I was going to be faced with the possibility of having to give a child up for adoption. I was going to prove to my mother that I was no slut like my birth mother was supposed to have been. (p. 112)

Kelli was a senior in college when she accidentally got pregnant. Lacking the courage to do what she considered the right thing-bringing the baby to full term and putting it up for adoption-she had an abortion. She kept it a secret from her strict Catholic parents.

I ended up marrying the father a couple of years later. (Now after two children and another on the way) I think if I had had the baby, we would have ended up keeping it together. I will always feel an empty space in our family. (p. 112)

Although this book presents a long catalogue of problems adopted children and their parents can confront, the authors are by no means anti-adoption. Using Erikson’s seven stage model of the life cycle and James Marcia’s four ways for resolving the identity crisis, the authors describe how many adopted children have worked out their problems throughout their lives. They offer opinions as to future trends in adoption and close with a brief discussion of open versus closed disclosure of birth records. In all of this, the writers are frank about variations in personality, in families, and in situations that allow for no one approach and call for individualistic approaches. The central focus of this book is the feelings of those adopted:

Adopted youngsters are not different from others in their patterns of identity formation. But when adopted teenagers ask themselves, ‘Who am I?’ they are really asking themselves a two-part question. They must ask themselves not only who they are, but who they are in relation to adoption. (p. 103)

Acting out behavior that disrupts family life may be an adopted teenager’s disguised search for identity. This book’s purpose is to give a better understanding of that search. It may take what the authors describe as a redefinition of family to bring new understanding and relative harmony to the adoptive family.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. What is your interest in, and what has been your experience with, adoption? Does this article begin to speak to your interests? Why or why not? Does it agree with your experience? If not, how do you see it as an unbalanced picture of teenage years especially?
  2. To what extent should adoption be a solution to the abortion crisis?
  3. How do you see adoption helping the problem of orphans in poverty and neglect around the world?
  4. What most impressed you from this book?
  5. How might this book be used, and how would you like to see it discussed?
  6. How might the understanding from this book be used in public schools and youth work-as well as in families?


  1. In addition to the normal needs of adolescents seeking identity and belonging, adoptees have special needs and issues that may make this time more troublesome.
  2. Adoptees may mask their feelings about being adopted in ways that appear disobedient or disruptive. In fact, they may experience a confusion about integrating their adoption into their sense of self.
  3. Families, teachers, and youth leaders need greater understanding of and skill in dealing with adopted children and especially adolescents.
  4. Religious faith may also be more difficult for adopted adolescents, but an integrated faith may bring a more secure sense of self and deeper appreciation of religious values.

Dean Borgman and Robert Jackson
© 2018 CYS

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