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Words from a 20 year old about being adopted; Jay-Dee Muller age 20 from Namibia, Africa wrote to me and asked me to share their story. 

"I was 3 years old when my father and his wife adopted me , after they told my mother to sign away her parental rights. They gave her a choice that if she doesn't sign the documents she may never see me again and if she did sign the documents she will have more visitation rights and so on. Soon after that My father and his wife got divorced and since she was my adoptive parent , I had to go live with her. My foster mother allowed me to see my mother only when it suited her. I was always told that my mother never wanted me and I should build a bridge and get over the fact that I'm not living with my mother. I suffered emotional and physical abuse while living under her roof. - Jay-Dee Muller, 20

The Loss around adoption needs to be grieved. This loss is real and needs validation, expression and acknowledgement or every member of the family will suffer.

"I was given up for adoption when I was 3 weeks old and now that I am 18, I really want to know why I was given up and what my parents are like and it's really hard to talk to people about it cause no one understands."  High School Senior

"The loss for the adoptee is unlike other losses we have come to expect in a lifetime, such as death and divorce. Adoption is more pervasive, less socially recognized, and more profound." - Dr. David M. Brodzinsky and Dr. Marshall D. Schechter in Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self.

Often adopted children appear to be just "fine" however research has shown that many adoptees have built walls around themselves to keep others from getting too close. They may hide behind perfectionism, achievement and even self-sufficiency. They often resist what they need and want most of all. Many adoptees deny their feelings or thoughts about their birth parents out of fear that they adoptive parents will feel rejected or unappreciated. Maybe on the child's birthday the child may be very quiet and if asked what he/she is thinking about the child may say nothing at all, when in fact he was thinking about his birth parents. Many adoptees act out their grief through their behavior which at times can be quite challenging for the family. Some adoptive parents, after years of struggle may even conclude that they are not cut out to be parents after all leaving the adoptee to once again feel rejected and to be too much to handle. 

Why don't adoptees talk about their grief? They are petrified of rejection. They worry that if someone knew how needy or hurting they were inside they may be rejected all over again. This is true even in the best adoptive homes and families. Add the fear of rejection with the fear of hurting their adoptive parents' feelings and often this grief goes underground. Adopted children, teens and adults can learn how to emotionally connect with others and form intimate and trusting relationships. However it helps to understand the obstacles and challenges that the adoptee has to navigate through. 

These are some hurdles for the adopted adolescent:

Reason for the Adoption: Children need to know their adoption story. They need to learn that they were not in any way the cause or the reason for their parents' relinquishing them. Some questions that teens wonder: Why did they give me away?  Was there something wrong with me? Did they give me away because they did drugs or abused me? What does that say about me?  Why couldn't they work things out and taken care of me?   Even with shows today like Teen Moms and Secret Life of the American Teenager, they are reminded that many young and struggling parents figure out a way to make it work to keep their baby, so why couldn't their parents do the same as they see on TV? This may lead to further issues of feeling rejected and unlovable.

Missing or Difficult Information:

It is important as adoptees learn about and deal with their stories, that adults help them with the difficult information. Sometimes a parent was abusive or neglectful or addicted or even died. Sometimes  a parent had a mental illness or was in prison. Sometimes adopted children don't or can't find out the information because it is unobtainable. Many children want to know what their birth parents looked like. Many want to know if their birth mother and birth father cared about one another or were they an accident? It is vital that adoptive parents share this important information with their adopted teens or else they risk having the teen find out anyway and feeling angry, betrayed and imagining even worse scenarios than the truth. By the time a child is an adolescent they should know all of the pieces around their adoption that can be shared.  This may be a time to seek the guidance of a therapist or counselor familiar with adoption issues and grief. 

Many Adopted Teens Struggle with Feeling Different:

The worst thing that an adolescent can experience is feeling different from their peers. At no other time in life do people want to fit in, be part of a group as they do in the adolescent years. Being adopted creates many feelings of being different. Often an adopted child may look differently than their adopted parents as they may be a different race or culture.  The feelings that arise around these differences need to be addressed or it can affect a child's sense of self worth and security within the adoptive family in a negative way. 

The Special Needs of Adopted Children:

  • Need to be assured often that the child is welcome and worthy. 
  • Need to be validated for having a dual heritage, both biological and adoptive. 
  • The need to be taught that adoption is wonderful and also painful, and can present lifelong challenges for everyone involved.  The need to know their adoption story first and then the birth story and about the birth family next.  Children need to be prepared for some hurtful things that other children may say about adoption and about the child being an adoptee. 
  • Children need to be validated that adoption involves loss and grief. Children need to be assured that the birth parent's decision to let them go was not about the child but about the parents. Children need permission to express all of their feelings around the adoption.  Children need to deal with their feelings of rejection and to learn that absence doesn't mean abandonment.  
  • Adopted children need parents who are able to meet their own emotional needs so that the children can grow up with healthy role models. They also need parents who are able to face the special needs that adopted children and teens have. Children need to hear their parents openly discuss their own feelings around the adoption. 
  • It is crucial for adoptees to be able to grieve their losses so that they can learn to receive and give love to others which often begins with their adopted parents.

The grief for these children include feelings of sorrow, ache, sadness, anguish, despair, and yearning.  Often adoptive parents avoid thinking about the adopted child's grief as the pain is too great to bear to think that these children may feel these overwhelming feelings. However the only way to healing is through he pain of grief. Once the grief is explored the child can then, and only then learn to look at the adoption differently and to see that through the adoption he or she learned many of the most important things in life including love,appreciation and acceptance.

Grief is a normal and natural response to a loss. Adoption involves a lot of loss. There is loss for the birth parents, of their biological offspring, the dream of what could have been and a real part of themselves. The adoptive parents may experience the loss of not giving birth to a biological child or to this child, the child whose face will never really resemble their own. The loss for the adopted child is the the loss of the birth parents, the earliest experience of belonging and acceptance. To pretend that adoption isn't about loss is to deny the true grief that affects everyone involved. 

The Adopted Adolescent:

  • One third of adolescents referred for psychotherapy are adopted.
  • Yet, only 2% of the population is adopted.
  • Adolescence is the peak period for psychiatric referrals in the life of the adopted person.
  • Adopted younger children and adults enter psychotherapy at a rate much more similar to the general population. (Brodzinsky, Smith and Brodzinsky, 1998).

School problems and runaway behavior, common reasons for adolescent referral, are more common in the adopted population than in any other part of the youth population. This is true even if adoptees are compared with high-risk populations, such as single-parent families.  (Howard and Smith, 2003). However the overall adjustment of adopted adolescents is good. The emotional health of the adopted adolescents was found to be statistically better than a comparison group of adolescents from single parent families and comparable to the adjustment pattern of adolescents born into intact families (Brodzinsky, Smith, Brodzinsky, 1998). 

There were only 3 exceptions:

  1. Adopted adolescents ran away from home more frequently than the control group adolescents.
  2. Adopted adolescents had a greater incidence of academic and school problems
  3. Adopted adolescents were less likely to attend college. 

There are 3 types of adopted families according to many professionals who work in with adoptive families:

  1. Blind: These parents communicate that adoption has been simply wonderful for their family. "I can't imagine that any of the problems we are having have anything to do with adoption." "There are no differences", "We are so much alike that most people have no idea that Sarah is adopted. In fact her relatives often comment how much she looks like her dad."  These families often avoid discussion about adoption or birth parents or may even be angry if the adolescent brings up the topic.
  2. Balanced: The adoptive parents acknowledge the differences adoption brings and can openly discuss and honestly the compatibility issues inherent in adoption. "We know that John struggles with his racial identity. We try so hard to support him and strive to be a multiracial family. We know that there are times that he can't talk about this with us." In these families, open discussion of fantasies about birth parents, wishes to search for these parents and even the limitations of the perceived compatibility between child and parents can be openly explored without any sense of danger to the basic bond between family members.
  3. Blaming: These parents have a narrow range of perceived compatibility. They often exaggerate the importance of the adtoptive status of their child, especially when problems arise or the teen doesn't live up to their wishes and expectations. Any shortcomings are explained on the basis of the adoption, rarely their own mistakes or flaws as parents. If the teen does things in sync with their expectations they say," he is my husband's son, made the honor roll again." In contrast, if he doesn't please them, "Your father was an incredible athlete. I don't understand why you are not interested in sports. You keep wanting to be in those ridiculous plays at school." or even " He must have inherited his laziness from his birth father." 

The Center for Adoption Support and Education, Inc. (C.A.S.E.) is an independent, non-profit adoptive family support center. Since 1998, C.A.S.E. has strengthened the well-being of children and families from all adoptive backgrounds by:
  • Providing a safe place for adoptees of all ages to share their thoughts and feelings
  • Promoting the mental health of adoptive and foster families through specialized pre- and post adoption counseling and support services.
  •  Educating families, professionals and communities about the unique joys and challenges of adoption.
  • Establishing collaborations and partnerships within the public and private sectors.
  • Participating in the national and international field of adoption study, research and program development.
  • S.A.F.E. at School: A Manual for Teachers and Educators (Support for Adopted Families by Educators)
  • Beneath the Mask: Understanding Adopted Teens
  • Adoption-sensitive newsletters and fact sheets for parents
  • The Kids Adoption Network Carnival and Conference
  • Individual and group therapy, workshops and trainings for adopted children, teens and adults, their extended and birth families, child welfare professionals and educators.
  • Training opportunities for those who would like to become C.A.S.E. -approved W.I.S.E. Up! facilitators in their communities.
  • Adoption Centered Therapeutic Approach
  • Lifelines for Kids: Preparing Families for Adoption; Educated Choices for Teens
  • Second Step to Permanency, and much more.
  • Contact C.A.S.E. at:  www.adoptionsupport.org         or call:    301-476-8525           Located in Burtonsville, Maryland

Please Click here to visit the C.A.S.E. website

Books about Adoption:
Moore-Mallinos, J. 2007.  We Are Adopted.  (This is a story about a very excited little girl who is about to have a new brother, an adopted baby brother!. A few years ago she too had been adopted. Young adopted children will learn that their adoptive parents wanted them very much, and love them very dearly). Includes guidelines for parents about talking to their children about adoption.
Schoettle, M, 2000 (C.A.S.E.)  W.I.S.E. UP Powerbook (This is a wonderful resource for children about adoption. It discusses such issues as how to answer other's questions about being adopted, feelings about adoption, how to teach other kids about adoption and more). 
Livingston,C. (1990) Why Was I Adopted? (ages 7-12)
Krementz,J. (1982)  How it Feels to Be Adopted  (nineteen boys and girls share what it is like to be adopted, from  8-16 years old and from every social background, confide their feelings about this crucial fact of their lives.  A moving and sensitive book that allows adoptive children and teens to speak for themselves about their hopes, dreams and fears  and especially about their sense of belonging. 
Eldridge, S, 1999.  Twenty Things ADOPTED Kids Wish Their ADOPTIVE Parents Knew (A wonderful resource that explains many issues that adoptees and adoptive families face. This information is enormously beneficial to parents as well as educators).
Riley, D, 2006. (C.A.S.E.)  Beneath the MASK: Understanding Adopted Teens: Case Studies and Treatment Considerations for Therapists and Parents. Parents will learn the 6 most common adoption stuck-spots, the complexities of adoption, the adopted teens quest for identity and how therapy may help the adoptive family learn and grow together. Therapist and clinicians will discover: a broad knowledge base on adoption, a step by step assessment process, many case studies, clinical intervention strategies, treatment resources and therapy tools and writing and art therapy samples.
Brodzinsky,D., Schechter, M., Marantz Henig, R., Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self  (1992). This book provides a unique understanding of the adoption experience. 
Other Resources:
  • Center for Family Connections  (CFC)  1-800-KINNECT       www.kinnect.org
  • North America Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC)    1-651-644-9848        www.nacac.org

W.I.S.E. UP!
One of the most difficult challenges and painful aspects of being adopted is how often adoptees are asked intrusive and hurtful questions. Sometimes the questions are related to the adopter's personal adoption story. Sometimes they are asked to be the in-house adoption expert, to comment on the news, events, movies and TV shows related to adoption. Children and teens often share how difficult and uncomfortable this makes them feel. They don't know what to say. Later they may regret what they did say. Often the questions are ones that they have not thought through yet and so the questions take them into a place that feels unknown. A person who was not adopted can't imagine or understand how difficult these questions can be or the feelings that they bring up in the adoptee. Such questions as:
  • Where is your real mom? How come she gave up up?
  • Don't you want to find your real parents?
  • I heard you were left in an orphanage. What was wrong with you?
  • Do you have a dad? Where is he? How come he didn't marry your mother?
  • What does it feel like to be adopted?
  • Do you have any siblings?
  • I hear that many kids in foster care are abused. Were you?
  • How can that be your mom when your skin doesn't look like hers?
  • How often do you think about adoption?
  • Do you know anyone else who was adopted? 
These questions can be quite painful and rude. Imagine a 7 year old being asked these questions. 
 W.I.S.E. UP! is  a program created by Marilyn Schoettle, at C.A.S.E (Center for Adoption Support and Education) that teaches effective techniques for helping kids with the painful and often disturbing encounters with others who are uneducated about adoption. C.A.S.E. has published the W.I.S.E. Up Powerbook and the W.I.S.E. Up Facilitator Kit for Parent Groups to provide children and teens with practical guidelines as to how to handle any question or comment about adoption. The kids are taught that they have 4 choices:
  • W: Walk away or choose not to pay attention
  • I: It's private: I can choose not to share information
  • S: Share some information about adoption or my story
  • E: Educate others about adoption in general, by telling them correct information and helping them to understand it
The program information is on the web site: http://www.adoptionsupport.org  

(973) 985-4503