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Family Composition and Circumstance


In the 1990s an average of 120,000 children were adopted yearly in the United States. Adoption involves the legal transfer of parental rights and responsibilities from birth parents to adoptive parents. The adopted child, adoptive parents, and birth parents form what is known as the adoptive triad–three entities profoundly affected by this process. According to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 60 percent of Americans are touched by adoption–either as a relative, friend, or member of the adoption triad.

Most children are placed with their adoptive families through public child-welfare agencies or licensed private adoption agencies. These agencies typically place children after obtaining legal custody of children due to the voluntary or involuntary termination of birth parents' rights. Children are also placed with adoptive parents directly by birth parents; attorneys typically facilitate this process of independent adoptions.

Although the legal exchange of rights and responsibilities of parenthood is common to all adoptions, there are different types of adoption. Infant adoptions involve the placement of infants; older-child adoptions typically involve the placement of children over age three. In transracial adoptions children of one race are placed with a family of a different race, while in international adoptions children from one country are placed with a family in another country.

Adoptions vary in how much contact or information is shared between adoptive parent and birth parent. Harold Grotevant and Ruth McRoy offer the following definitions: confidential adoptions involveno contact at all; mediated adoptions involve the exchange of nonidentifying information through a third party; and fully disclosed adoptions involve the exchange of at least some identifying information and often include face-to-face meetings.

Adoption and Children's Development

Two questions typically get asked about adopted children. First, are they better off in adoptive families than they would have been in foster care, institutions, or with their birth families? Coping with the loss of the birth parent is often an important theme for adopted children. However, research on their adjustment clearly shows that they have more positive emotional and behavioral adjustment than children who are raised in foster care, in institutions, or with birth families who continue to have serious problems that impair parenting. Furthermore, Richard Barth and his colleagues have shown that adoption in infancy can greatly minimize the vast problems in learning, social relationships, and emotional development among children who were prenatally exposed to drugs. So, adoption can be an appropriate solution for children whose birth parents cannot, or will not, provide adequate safety and nurturance.

Second, how do adopted children fare in comparison with children in families that more closely resemble their adoptive families? Adopted children tend to receive more mental health services–which some professionals view as a sign that adopted children have many more problems than do their peers. However, adoptive parents also are more likely to seek professional help–for various reasons–than are biological parents. In general, many studies suggest that most adopted children tend to have more adjustment problems than nonadopted children. These problems include school adjustment and learning problems; impulsive, hyperactive, or rule-breaking behavior; and drug use. However, it is important to note that for most adopted children, these problems fall within what is considered a normal range.

Given the slightly higher risk for adopted children to have adjustment difficulties, what are important issues that adoptive families face as children develop? In infancy and toddlerhood, the critical challenge is for adoptive parents to form healthy relationships with the child. Known as a secure attachment, this relationship can enable the child to have success in later years forming friendships, learning in school, and learning about the world.

In the preschool years the important step for parents is to begin the process of telling about adoption. David Brodzinsky's work indicates that teaching children about adoption is an ongoing process throughout childhood that should start with words that the child can understand. He and his colleagues have shown that children's understanding of adoption evolves over years–from an ability in the pre-school years to make a simple distinction between adoption and birth as paths into a family, to an ability in adolescence to understand the abstract themes associated with termination of parental rights and adoption.

During the elementary years, as adopted children become able to understand that in order to be adopted someone had to give them up, they become vulnerable to having difficulties with their sense of self. During these years, it is especially important for parents and adopted children to talk openly about adoption.

In the adolescent years, when youth rework their identity, the meaning of being adopted may have little or great significance, depending on how adoption has been handled by family, peers, and the larger community. As adopted adolescents work on their identity, they may explore questions of searching for information about one's birth parents. Marshall Schechter and Doris Bertocci note that although young people vary in their need for information about, or contact with, birth parents, their curiosity about their origins is quite normal. Although little is known about the outcome of searching during adolescence, adults who have searched for birth families have generally been satisfied with the outcome.

Unique Issues with Different Types of Adoption

Placements of children from foster care are somewhat risky: 10 to 15 percent disrupt or fail, sending children back to foster care. Children who are older, or have severe behavior problems (e.g., fire setting, sexual acting-out, suicidal behavior) are most likely to experience disruption. The adopted child comes with his or her own experiences with previous families and expectations for how families function, and these do not always fit with the expectations that adoptive families have. Flexible parenting styles, maintaining realistic expectations about the adoptee and the placement, and a clear commitment to the placement are important qualities that can enable families to be successful.

In international adoptions challenges for families include medical problems and cultural differences. Children who come from countries lacking in adequate medical care often have physical problems, including infectious disease, growth delay, and neurological diagnoses as a result of their preadoptive experiences. In addition, language and other cultural differences between the adopted child's home country and the adoptive family's country may further complicate adoptive family life.

Transracial adoptions have been very controversial, largely because they often involve European-American parents and adopted children of color. Research generally shows that transracially adopted children can adjust as well as children adopted by families of the same race. The success of such placements are determined, at least in part, by how well adoptive parents promote a sense of ethnic pride, how well they raise their children to be prepared for the discrimination they face, and how well they function as a family of color in the world.


Adoption provides children and families with an alternate path to family life that can be both similar to and different from biological family life. Usually, the differences pose unique challenges and complications for family life and children's development; however most adopted children tend to adjust as normally as do nonadopted children. An understanding of the complications and similarities by all–not just the 60 percent of persons touched by adoption–can facilitate more appropriate support for adoptive families and adopted children.


BARTH, RICHARD P.; FREUNDLICH, MADELYN; and BRODZINSKY, DAVID M. 2000. Adoption and Prenatal Alcohol and Drug Exposure: Research, Policy and Practice. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.

BRODZINSKY, DAVID M., and PINDERHUGHES, ELLEN E. 2002. "Parenting and Child Development in Adoptive Families." In Handbook of Parenting, 2nd edition, ed. Marc H. Bornstein. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

BRODZINSKY, DAVID M. ; SINGER, LESLIE M.; and BRAFF, ANNE M. 1984. "Children's Understanding of Adoption." Child Development 55:869–878.

EVAN B. DONALDSON ADOPTION INSTITUTE. 1997. Benchmark Adoption Survey: Report on the Findings. New York: Evan B. Donaldson Institute.

GROTEVANT, HAROLD D., and MCROY, RUTH G. 1998. Openness in Adoption: Exploring Family Connections. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

GROZA, VICTOR, and ROSENBERG, KAREN F. 2001. Clinical and Practice Issues in Adoption: Bridging the Gap Between Adoptees Placed as Infants and as Older Children. Westport, CT: Bergen and Garvey.

SCHECTER, MARSHALL D., and BERTOCCI, DORIS. 1990. "The Meaning of the Search." In The Psychology of Adoption, ed. David M. Brodzinsky and Marshall D. Schechter. New York: Oxford University Press.


EVAN B. DONALDSON ADOPTION INSTITUTE 2002. "Overview of Adoption in the Unites States." <www.adoptioninstitute.org/FactOverview.html#head>.

NATIONAL ADOPTION INFORMATION CLEARING-HOUSE. 2000. "Adoption: Numbers and Trends." <www.calib.com/naic/pubs/s_number.htm>.


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