Common Traits of Adoptees

Have you ever wondered what makes adoptees tick?  Well, wonder no longer!  I hope to answer some of your curiosities today.  In an effort to reach both adoptees who may think they are alone in addition to my other aspiration to educate those of you who are still ascribing to traditional myths about adopted people, today is the day you can learn the inside scoop!

"Traditionally, American culture has communicated
to adopted children that aside from the fact that they
are “chosen children,” their lives and experiences are
just like that of those who are raised by their birth
parents (Silverstein & Kaplan, 1998;Wegar, 1997). In
more recent years, however, theorists, activists, and
adoptees themselves have contested this perspective
and argued that the experience of being an adopted
person is unique and worthy of attention
(Brodzinsky, Smith & Brodzinsky, 1998; Rosenberg,
1992; Wegar, 1997). -- Unique Issues of Adult Adoptees
by Jennifer Carizey

I don't personally identify with every item on this list; however, enough adopted people I know have brought particular items to my attention, so I believe each trait below should be considered.  I may comment under the ones I personally identify with and sometimes quote other adoptees or experts.

Misunderstood -- I put this item at the top of the list because it is the one I most identify with. Even as someone perfectly comfortable talking about adoption, being adopted, being an adoptive parent and having a full community of support, being misunderstood is at the top of the list for these reasons:

1.  People assume if you have anything negative to say about adoption, you are anti-adoption. Many people are also still mystified even in the age of open adoption, why we feel any need to search for our roots.

2.  People assume you are an "angry adoptee" or "had a bad experience" if you are involved in the adoptee rights community and are not happy-happy-joy-joy about adoption or do not feel the need to actively advocate for increasing adoptions.

3.  People assume that your life is open to their judgment and examination simply because they are curious about you and why you are adopted.

4.  People associate being adopted with "orphans", "unwanted children" and "almost aborted".  I have lost count of the times I have been mind-blasted with odd assumptions about my personal life by someone who barely knows me, but knows my adoption status.

It's no surprise that adoptees as a class are misunderstood, with the media hype, religion/politics/society waxing and waning on where they stand on adoption, abortion being unfairly mixed into adoption, and the expectation that we remain loyal to adoptive parents' wishes and wants, even as adults.

Delayed Grief -- In this interview at Lost Daughters, Corie Skolnick, therapist/author, describes what she learned from adoptees about their delayed grief, in addition to her observations that adoptees are very resilient and creative.

Incohesive sense of self/identity - I find that this lack of knowing and missing narrative of my life is what has affected me the most negatively as I became an adult.  It still negatively affects me to this day.

"Early adulthood is regarded
as the life cycle stage in which people evaluate the
characteristics and values they have inherited from
their families of origin and decide which aspects to
maintain and which to discard (Urdang, 2002).
This can be a unique struggle for an adoptee.
One issue that is thought to interfere with an
adoptee’s development of a coherent sense of self is
the lack of others with similar physical characteristics."
(Lifton, 1979). 

Hyper-Independence - Many adoptees I know (myself included) are a party of one.  They are the only ones they know they can count on to do it, say it, fix it and/or deal with it.  We don't like to be vulnerable to ask for help from others and/or we don't want to feel let down when others don't follow through/leave/disappoint us.

Co-Dependent - putting others feelings before  oneself (and not taking care of oneself properly) is a full time job for many adoptees.  This can show up as people-pleasing.

My first therapist identified co-dependence in me during my very first therapy appointment.  I had never heard of it and read the book, "Co-Dependent No More" by Melody Beattie -- a life-changing book for me.  My theory on why many adoptees are co-dependent is this:

Many of us were placed in our families to make our adoptive parents' dreams of having a family come true.  If our parents did not fully accept us for the people we were (and not the people they wished us to be), it resulted in co-dependence.  Obviously, if our parents had substance abuse issues or other addictions, these dynamics could also lead to co-dependence; however, I believe the simple act of being adopted, can put one at risk for co-dependence.

Sensitivity - Sensitive to rejection, sensitive to other people's feelings because we know how it feels to be on the outside.  We may be the first to befriend the picked-on or left out person, because we understand how it feels to be on the outside. Reunion sometimes increases these feelings as many adoptees recognize we weren't wholly part of the adoptive family and now we are also on the outside of the birth family as well.  Of course, some adoptees fit in famously with one or both of their families; however, it's unusual to hear an adoptee say they feel fully complete in both families.

Constant Expectation of Rejection - One family left already -- what is stopping another one from leaving?

"I think we Adoptees have trouble making
and sustaining relationships. We share a
vulnerability to the stresses and strains of
everyday interactions, have real difficulty
forming ties and connections. We need
security and dependency, but try to escape
from it. We seem to need freedom. We
don’t trust people." (Lifton, 1979, p. 65)

Hyper-vigilance - Wondering when the other shoe is going to drop
. Is the sky falling because something good is happening in my life?  Hyper-vigilance is common in survivors of trauma and make no mistake, when your mother relinquishes you, it is a trauma, plain and simple. Another way it was described by one adoptee is this:  "unfounded sense of impending doom.".  For more on trauma go here.
Over-achieving - I need to work harder, be smarter, more successful, more (fill in the blank) in order to be loved.
Question Everything
Separation Anxiety - Fear that when someone leaves, they are never coming back.

Distrust of authorities - I have always distrusted authorities despite being raised by a mother who believed anything an authority said.  When government/religious/social/family groups conspire to keep your entire existence a secret or your true identity is always the elephant in the room, it does something to your faith and trust in anyone who has control over your life.

And others that were shared with me:

*  Not feeling like we fit in with our families or friends

"The confusion that results from an adoptee’s feeling
of “differentness” has been coined “genealogical
bewilderment” and refers not only to a physical dissimilarity
but also to a sense of not being with “one’s
own kind”" (Lifton, 1979, p. 47). 

*  Lack of physical connection to family

*  Hypersensitive to conflict

*  Running away when things get hard

*  Heightened anxiety (but being unaware of anxiety)

*  Feeling never good enough

*  inability to handle big changes in life

*  Feeling as though we have to be grateful for being saved

*  Feeling you could be easily replaced

*  Fear of abandonment

*  It's better to leave than be left

*  Not sure what to do with their lives

*  Difficulty making decisions

*  feeling flawed, lacking in self-confidence and trust

"The quality of the attachment that develops
between the adoptee and the adoptive parents is a
critical factor in the repair of the primary loss."
(Brodzinsky, et. al, 1998; Rosenberg, 1992)

And now for the positive traits of adopted people.  I posed the question, "tell me about the positive things you received from adoption" to the authors of The Adoptee Survival Guide.  Here are some of their responses:

* empathetic, compassionate, will see things through

* sensitive to others' feelings and will play peacemaker

* dislike injustices in the world; protective of others and possessions; competive -- Daryn Watson

* "I know that love is thicker than blood. Blood doesn't make you family.  Therefore, I can love people like family." -- Kara Albano

* very adaptable

* highly creative

* we don't take relatives or genealogy for granted

* embracing possibilities of self-invention and embracing that we can self-determine without being influenced by family history

* independent, self-reliant and happy to be alone

* resilient

* take nothing for granted; photo-junkie (documentation!), drive to connect

* finding others like us on this journey who love to write about adoption

* "Ultimately, it helped me to seek and find God in the most profound way and see how He was seeking me. And it helped me to see God's grace in the midst of a lot of evil and to know how much I am loved by him." -- Julie G.

Paige Adams Strickland wrote a really great blog post called The Benefits of Being an Adoptee.  I urge you to read it and to also buy her memoir for more insight into life as an adoptee.

"It has made me a sympathetic, empathetic pragmatist with overtones of possible optimism. It has made me acutely aware of the fragility and in some senses nonsense of human constructs and the power they exert over people because our need to belong, to fit in, to know our place in context is, an overriding drive no matter our race, colour, creed, sex or religion." -- Lucy Sheen



  1. I have learned so much from readung the blogs online. Only wush that i had discovered them sooner. Just the last yr or so have I found them..signed a lonely adoptee

  2. Just found your blog. Will continue to read it. For me, one thing I find very frustrating when sharing things I think are part of who I am because of my origins, folk will say "well there are plenty of people who have that issue/struggle/aspect who are not adopted, so you can't say it's because of that. I hate having something that I believe to be true, that I can't "prove" even though these things are common to other adoptee's as well. I have been writing about adoption as an adoptee and a birth mother for decades but have not shared my writings anywhere as yet. I think at the end of the day, I find a fair amount of dismissiveness about my/our experiences and that really gets my goat because I'm a person who values being accurate and speaking the truth. I suppose anyone who tries to say "I've had these difficulties because of xyz" may encounter the same level of incredulity. People who know me well, who "stay with me" as it were on this topic, do eventually come to challenge their own thinking on adoption, but I feel like it takes an extraordinary toll on me, to get them there. Anyway, I am glad you are writing!

  3. I don't "LOVE" writing about adoption, in fact I loathe adoption. I write about my miserable childhood to validate my memory of how, what, when, where and try to comprehend "why" my adoptive mother could intentionally subject an innocent child to daily torment. I write to try to understand the actions, reactions and consequences that ruined my chances for a normal human existence. The inability to find peace in my old age from my "forever family" adoption. I write so others that lived like an animals in white adoptive palaces can not feel so alone in their despair as their are too many of us casualties left over from other people's disappointed American Dream.

    1. Well truth be told I wouldn’t be writing about adoption had I never had this experience. I find it therapeutic to write out the layers of grief. Before I wrote this blog, I polled many adoptee authors I knew for feedback. All writers need material. Would I choose this as mine? No I’d prefer to not be adopted at all but it is what it is :/

  4. My first search on potential psychology disorders that I might/ might have brought me here. My search began recently to hopefully improve or understand things I feel, have felt, do or have done in my life. Overall my life has been very blessed in most aspects. Any of the negative parts had always seemed "that's just life for everyone" deal with it. In the far reaches of my mind there was always something else tugging away. As I read this many things quickly jumped out at me. The one that stood out the most "the cloud of impending doom". Since as early as I can remember, no matter how good anything in my life has been, that cloud is there. The overall lists of positive and negative aspects of adoption I checked off one by one. Yep, yep yep. Definitely gives me a new way to look at my life and work on ways to improve it. Also by a blessed life I only meant i have safty and security, I have family, I have friends, I have a career, I have dogs :) Compared to the struggles I've seen around the world, the true pain people deal with, any I feel seem grossly insignificant. That's why I feel I have a blessed life. I've been molested, emotionally used and abused, death of loved ones, suffered addictions and been sad, scared and felt alone. I still feel sad scared and alone some days. Again I always just deal with it, tighten the boot straps and move on. The one conflict I've always dealt with in my mind was my ability to be super sensitive to suffering, sadness and pain of all life. Yet easily walk away from it in my own. Like most I could probably go on for days. Thank you for creating such an amazing educational tool. A base to understand why we think and act in certain ways. Hopefully with these understandings we all can better deal with our struggles and pain. I've had God in my life for a very long time. Can't say I've always used the relationship well but it has helped me more times than I can count. Could just be an imagination therapist that's helping me work things out too ;) I understand to some that faith is ridiculous and it's a fairy tail and that's truly ok. I've always accepted you believe want you want to in this regard. Whatever your source may be it's out there to help. I'm glad I found this one today.

  5. I know this topic can't possibly be easy to write about, so thank you for sharing this. I know this must have been extremely therapeutic for you, as well.

    I have someone in my life who was adopted from birth. Since meeting him a couple of years ago, it feels like we've been ships constantly passing in the night. Like, the desire to connect is there, but...something always "comes up" or "gets in the way." I have my own issues, so those certainly haven't helped. I've wondered countless times if maintaining the friendship is even worth it, if he even cares that much about me (he has a lot of admirers, from what I've seen). But now I'm reassessing his attempts to reach out to me...and I'm wondering if he's been trying harder and more than I originally thought. I'm going to try harder, too. Thank you again, and be well.


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