Adoptive Identity: How Contexts within and beyond the Family Shape Developmental Pathways

Harold Grotevant, Nora Dunbar, Julie Kohler, Amy Lash Esau. Handbook of Adoption: Implications for Researchers, Practitioners, and Families. Editor: Rafael A Javier, Amanda L Baden, Frank A Biafora, Alina Camacho-Gingerich. Sage Publication. 2007.

Portions of this chapter are reproduced from the following paper: Grotevant, H. D., Dunbar, N., Kohler, J. K., & Esau, A. M. L. (2000). Adoptive identity: How contexts within and beyond the family shape developmental pathways. Family Relations, 49, 379-387. Copyrighted 2000 by the National Council on Family Relations, 3989 Central Ave, NE, Suite 550, Minneapolis, MN 55421. Reprinted with permission.

When I was a child, probably the thing that consumed my childhood the most, I guess, like what I thought about a lot was, was being adopted. I think that, like at some point, the child needs like, even to find out that they’re bad or they died, or whatever—they need to know that just to have that sense of closure. (female, age 18)

I guess like the big thing is similarities, because I guess growing up in a family it’s hard when everybody’s like—like my mom’s family looks a lot alike and I don’t look like any of them. And, you know, they’ll say, “So and so looks like so and so” and it’s really hard. But you know when you see the pictures then you can say, “Well, who do you think I look more like?” Or, this is when my birthfather would write me a letter and something would sound like me and I’d say that and I’d say, “Well, oh, this is where I get this from.” That’s, I think, the part that interests me the most about it. It’s just discovering why I am the way I am.” (female, age 18)

I seem to have a compelling need to know my own story. It is a story that I should not be excluded from since it is at least partly mine, and it seems vaguely tragic and somehow unjust that it remains unknown to me. (Andersen, 1988, p. 18)

The three statements above illustrate adopted persons’ attempts to probe their adoptive identities—the answer to the question, “Who am I as an adopted person?” The question of identity has been of great interest in the social sciences for several decades (see Bosma, Graafsma, Grotevant, & deLevita, 1994; Erikson, 1950, 1968). For persons who were adopted, this question adds layers of complexity because they have different parents of birth and rearing and because the knowledge of their biological heritage may be incomplete.

In this chapter, we begin by discussing how identity has been shaped by recent social changes and then explore the meaning of adoptive identity and its developmental course. We focus on three contexts of development: intrapsychic, the family environment, and contexts beyond the family, including relationships with friends, connection to community, and culture. We conclude with implications for practice with adoptive families.

Defining and Contextualizing Adoptive Identity

Interest in the identity of adopted persons has arisen from several directions. First, because of the growing popular American interest in “roots” and genealogy and the emphasis on blood ties in families, adoptees themselves have expressed the need and desire to know their biological origins. These needs are articulately expressed in the three quotes that began this chapter. Second, advances in medicine and genetics have made the general public increasingly aware of inherited conditions and have stimulated adopted persons to learn more about medical or genetic risks they might carry. Finally, reports of higher levels of behavioral problems among adopted adolescents compared with nonadopted adolescents (for reviews, see Haugaard, 1998; Ingersoll, 1997) caused clinicians and social scientists to wonder whether such problems might be due to underlying confusion about identity, given the complexities mentioned above. Several studies compared identity in adopted and non-adopted adolescents (e.g., Benson, Sharma, & Roehlkepartain, 1994; Hoopes, Sherman, Lawder, Andrews, & Lower, 1970; Stein & Hoopes, 1985) and found little or no difference between the groups. However, these studies looked at identity in a global way rather than one’s sense of identity as an adopted person, which we call adoptive identity.

Adoptive identity cannot be understood without placing it in the context of societal attitudes toward kinship. Social scientists such as Schneider (1980), Bernardes (1985), and Wegar (1997) have argued that dominant Western society bases kinship ties primarily, if not exclusively, on blood relations. This puts adopted persons in an awkward position, since their familial ties are grounded in social relations rather than biology. “Adoptees are marginalized compared to the dominating kinship narrative. In this narrative the rootmetaphor ‘common blood’ is given special meaning and attention and adoptees discuss their own identity along lines informed by the rootmetaphor” (Cristensen, 1999, p. 153).

Adoptive identity development concerns how the individual constructs meaning about his or her adoption. From Erikson’s (1959, 1968) extensive writings about identity and our own synthesis of this area of scholarship (e.g., Graafsma, Bosma, Grotevant, & deLevita, 1994), we have identified three aspects of identity that are particularly important: self-definition, coherence of personality, and sense of continuity over time (Grotevant, 1997). First, identity refers to self-definition, the set of characteristics by which one identifies oneself and by which individuals are recognized by others within a particular social and historical context. Second, it refers to the person’s subjective sense of coherence of personality or how the various aspects of one’s identity fit together. Third, identity refers to one’s sense of continuity over time, linking past, present, and future, and, across place, linking multiple contexts and relationships (e.g., Cooper, 1999). Identity connects personality, subjective awareness, relationships, and external context. Thus, the essence of identity is self-in-context.

Identity development, a lifelong process, involves a dynamic tension between something considered core and something considered context to that core (Graafsma et al., 1994). “Attunement between these two guarantees the sameness or continuity over time that we think of as identity” (p. 163). We can think of adoptive identity as involving three levels: an intrapsychic component, a component involving relationships within the family, and a component involving the social world beyond the family. The negotiation between core and context can be seen at the intersection of each of these three levels. At the intersection of the intrapsychic and family levels, adolescents strive to make meaning of their situation while negotiating their differences from and similarities to members of their family, including adoptive and birth-family members. The physical and psychological presence or absence of the relevant network members determines the nature of social interactions the adolescent will have (Fravel, 1995). Identity work occurs when the fit between core (intrapsychic sense of self) and family context is explored, evaluated, or challenged (Graafsma et al., 1994; Grotevant, 1987).

The component of identity development involving family relationships is embedded within broader social contexts that include the adolescent’s friends, school, community, and culture. What was context at a lower level (family relationships) becomes core at the next higher level, which in turn interacts with the next level of context—social relations and institutions outside the family. For example, the numerous ways in which changes in societal attitudes toward families, secrecy, and sexuality have changed the context in which adoptive relationships are played out illustrate a link between core and context in which identity development is experienced.

Yngveson (1999) commented that “adoption transgresses our notions about identity,” implying that the journey of identity development is complex and potentially problematic for adopted persons. In the sections that follow, we examine how the intrapsychic component, family relationships, and social worlds outside the family influence adoptive identity development. As a heuristic, it is useful to discuss each core/context component and related processes separately. However, this is admittedly artificial as all parts and processes are interrelated and work together to contribute to the process of identity development.

Intrapsychic Component of Adoptive Identity

I think that I am who I am because, not just because of, you know, my family who raised me, or, you know, because of the two people that made me, you know. I think it’s a combination of all that. Being able to know all of them has really helped me to just, you know, become who I am. (female, age 18)

The intrapsychic component refers to the cognitive and affective processes involved in constructing one’s adoptive identity; an outcome of this process is shown in the quote above from a young woman of 18. The intrapsychic component of adoptive identity is grounded in the theoretical work of Erikson (1968) and the identity status research of Marcia and others (for a review, see Marcia, Waterman, Matteson, Archer, & Orlofsky, 1993). In this literature, the developmental processes involving exploration and consideration of possible futures in a given identity domain, and commitment to a specific future, are highlighted. For example, a young adult who considered numerous occupational futures before settling into a career in public service would be considered identity achieved, in contrast to a person who chose such a career pathway by default (i.e., a foreclosed identity).

Whether the identity statuses form a developmental sequence from less mature to more mature has been hotly debated (see van Hoof, 1999; Waterman, 1999). The literature may be equivocal because the “maturity” of a particular identity status must be judged with respect to the person’s context. For example, a foreclosed identity might be very adaptive for a person whose living circumstances dictated that putting bread on the table was more important than self-actualization (Grotevant & Cooper, 1988). Our view of identity development is that it is an iterative and integrative process rather than a linear one (Grotevant, 1987; Marcia, 1993).

The identity domains studied by Marcia and colleagues well into the 1990s typically concerned aspects of identity over which one has some degree of choice, such as occupation, religion, political values, and ideas about relationships (for reviews, see Marcia, 1980; Marcia et al., 1993). Since that time, there has been interest in understanding identity development concerning issues about which one has no choice or which are assigned to an individual—for example, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and adoptive status (Grotevant, 1992). Because most aspects of adoption do not concern things that the person has chosen, the task of identity involves “coming to terms” with oneself in the context of the family and culture into which one has been adopted (Grotevant, 1997). Although most children are not involved in the choice to be adopted, children do nevertheless influence the extent of disclosure of information shared and the contact with their birth families through communicative interchanges with their adoptive parents (e.g., Wrobel, Kohler, Grotevant, & McRoy, 1998). Although the identity task may be more complex for adopted than nonadopted persons, this does not imply that there is anything pathological about it.

The importance or prominence of adoptive identity differs across individuals. While some individuals engage in a great deal of intense reflective thinking about their status as adopted persons and the meaning that identity holds for them, others devote relatively little thought to the identity and its meaning. This range in behavior falls along a continuum of salience of adoption. At one end of the continuum, adolescents show little or no interest in exploring aspects of adoptive identity. At the other end of the continuum lies preoccupation, in which adoptive identity is the organizing theme of the person’s identity and consumes considerable psychological and emotional energy. Toward the middle of this continuum, we find adoptees for whom adoptive identity is meaningful, yet balanced with other aspects of their identity (Grotevant, Dunbar, & Kohler, 1999).

The concept of preoccupation parallels early research on searching, in that it assesses the intense curiosity some adopted persons may have about their biological heritage and birth parents or their desire to synthesize their dual identities. However, unlike searching, preoccupation is thought to more aptly capture the “identity work” that occurs across levels of openness. In other words, intense curiosity about one’s identity as an adopted person is not an inherent byproduct of confidential adoptions. Preoccupation with adoption may look qualitatively different in mediated or fully disclosed adoptions from how it does in confidential adoptions (Dunbar, Kohler, van Dulmen, Grotevant, & McRoy, 2000; Kohler, Grotevant, & McRoy, 2002). The following example of preoccupation highlights its intrapsychic and relational aspects.

In her narrative, Melanie reveals a high preoccupation with her adoption, especially in her desire to search for her birthparents. She reports that meeting her birthmother is a “lifetime dream.” She often thinks about her birthmother and even daydreams of looking in old high school yearbooks to see if she can identify her. Melanie states that she is more interested in meeting her birthmother than her birthfather. She relates this feeling to her closeness with her adoptive father and her feelings of distance from her adoptive mother, sensing that she is perhaps more in need of a “mother figure.” Melanie talks with her adoptive parents about her adoption, asking them for more information about her birthmother and reminding them how close she is to the age when she can look in her file at the agency. Although she strongly wishes for contact with her birthparents, she says she would understand if they didn’t search for her because it would be “a hard memory to bring back.” (female, age 17)

Gender may add a layer of complexity to the development of adoptive identity. Although minimal gender differences have been found in identity formation in domains involving vocation, religion, and politics (Grotevant & Thorbecke, 1982), identity development in relational domains (sex roles, relationships) appears to be more complex for girls (Archer, 1992). Whereas boys seem to focus their exploration on aspects of identity having to do with school and work, girls tend to integrate aspirations and goals across more areas of life at the same time (Meeus, Iedema, Helsen, & Vollebergh, 1999). Adoptive identity provides adolescents with another relational identity to integrate along with other areas of life. The identity literature suggests that girls will achieve such integration more readily than boys (Kroger, 1997). If and when boys try to integrate their adoptive identity with other important aspects of their lives, they may encounter more difficulty than girls do because they have had less experience integrating relational and social identities in general.

Although the identity status literature has yielded many important insights since its beginnings in 1966, it has not satisfactorily dealt with the issue of identity integration (Grotevant, 1997; van Hoof, 1999). In an attempt to understand identity in a more integrated way, scholars have turned to a narrative approach as another way of understanding how one’s intrapsychic sense of being an adopted person is woven into the larger fabric of one’s life (e.g., Grotevant, 1993; McAdams, 1988). Narrative psychology focuses on meaning-making—how it is that our story helps us make sense of how and where we fit in the world. The developmental process can be seen in the growing sense of coherence in the person’s adoption narrative. Understanding of this intrapsychic developmental process also requires knowledge of the degree of exploration that it has been given, the relational contexts in which it has been considered, the salience of adoptive identity to the person, the positive and negative affect associated with it, and its integration into a larger sense of identity.

Dunbar and colleagues on the Minnesota-Texas Adoption Research Project (Dunbar, 2003; Dunbar & Grotevant, 2004) analyzed the interviews of 145 adolescents (mean age 15.6 years) who were adopted as infants by same-race parents. Four subgroups were identified. Adolescents with unexamined identity had not thought much about adoption issues and reported that these issues were not very central in their lives. They simply didn’t think about adoption very much, and their discussions were neither particularly positive nor negative in tone. Adolescents with limited identity had begun to explore their ideas about adoption. They did show evidence of talking about adoption with their friends and answering people’s questions about adoption, but adoption was still not particularly central in their lives, and they reported that they did not think about it very much.

In contrast, adolescents with unsettled identity had thought about adoption quite a bit, had explored its meaning in their lives, and felt that it was very significant for them. They also had moderate to high degrees of negative affect associated with adoption, sometimes involving anger or resentment toward their birth parents or adoptive parents, or sometimes feeling bothered that there were things about their past that they did not know. Many felt “different” from their adoptive families. Those who had contact with their birth parents tended to be dissatisfied with the contact, typically wanting to have more than they had at present, but feeling that they were unable to bring about the additional contact (Mendenhall, Berge, Wrobel, Grotevant, & McRoy, 2004). Adolescents in this group conveyed the impression that they were trying to sort out their feelings about adoption, but that it was a difficult process.

Adolescents with integrated identity had also thought a great deal about adoption. They felt clear and resolved about its meaning in their lives, and their discussions about adoption were couched in generally positive terms. They generally viewed themselves as fortunate, and they felt that their family situations were positive. They looked on their birth parents with sympathy, compassion, and understanding.

Although these four identity profiles are very different from each other, they should be viewed as snapshots in time rather than endpoints, since identity development during adolescence is fluid. We do not believe that one of these identity patterns is “healthier” than another, especially during adolescence. Different adolescents will explore adoption with different levels of intensity on their own timetables. By young adulthood, the time of the next follow-up study currently under way, we expect that many more of these adopted persons will have developed an integrated sense of identity.

Relational Contexts within Families

Adoptive identity is negotiated and enacted in relational contexts within families. Adoptive families vary in degree of openness with birth-family members, ranging from adoptions that are confidential, to those that are mediated and include the exchange of nonidentifying information, to those that are open. These different openness configurations present different relational contexts in which adoptive identity development occurs.

For most children adopted as infants, the developmental process follows a fairly predictable pathway. The early socialization process for adopted children typically engages the child with a family adoption story or narrative (Brodzinsky, Lang, & Smith, 1995). The story, which usually contains information about birth parents and circumstances surrounding adoption, communicates the “facts” that the adoptive parents wish to disclose at that time as well as subtle cues about the child’s birth parents and their circumstances that will influence his or her developing narrative. In the early years, the family serves as a source of interpretation for the child through stories, songs, written material, and social affiliations. The family narrative is influenced by what adoption professionals have told the parents about “revelation”: what should be told, how much, and when. The family’s comfort with acknowledging that adoptive parenting is inherently different from biological parenting (e.g., Kirk, 1981), and their comfort with discussing adoption, is also part of the context.

The family narrative may come into question in several ways. If the child were not told of the adoption, the discovery could be very traumatic (e.g., Fisher, 1973). The child may have been raised to think of adoption in a neutral way (just another way to build a family), but other children who tease or misunderstand what adoption is about may challenge this view. As abstract reasoning capabilities develop during adolescence, the child comes to understand all the legal, societal, relational, and sexual meanings involved in adoption (Brodzinsky, Singer, & Braff, 1984). The normal questioning associated with this time period may extend to questioning the motives of the child’s birth parents or adoptive parents and may lead the adolescent to realize that there is another component of his or her identity that will have to be worked through and integrated into a larger whole (see Grotevant, 1997).

Adoption often becomes “visible” within families because of real or perceived differences in physical appearance, abilities, or personality. Within biologically related families, differences are frequently attributed to heredity; if there is no one in the immediate family whom the child resembles, the similarity may be attributed to an extended family member—“Oh, your temperament is just like your Uncle Harry’s.” In adoptive families, differences are obviously not due to heredity from the adoptive parents or extended family. When nothing is known about the child’s birth parents, attributions are sometimes still made to hypothesized characteristics of birth-family members—“Your mother must have had hair just like that.” Children who are adopted internationally or transracially are, almost by definition, different in physical appearance from the members of their adoptive families.

How families deal with difference plays an important role in adoptive identity development. Kaye (1990) examined discourse processes in families considered “high distinguishing” (i.e., emphasizing the difference between adoptive and biological status) and “low distinguishing” (rejecting the difference between the two). Examining transcripts of family discussions, Kaye asked whether the adolescent’s freedom to express feelings about adoption that were different from his or her parents might be related to the adoptee’s identity formation. Such a hypothesis is reasonable, given research with nonadoptive families demonstrating the link between family discourse and adolescent identity exploration (Grotevant & Cooper, 1985). Kaye found that the high and low extremes of distinguishing were associated with family problems and low self-esteem, both of which may have consequences for identity development. This finding is congruent with the assertions of Brodzinsky (1993) that either denial or insistence of difference may be problematic for adoptive families.

Even in the absence of information about or contact with birth parents, adolescents will construct a narrative, although it may not be as coherent as one based on real people and events (Grotevant, Fravel, Gorall, & Piper, 1999). During this phase of narrative construction, the adolescent’s sense of adoptive identity may become much more important and central than other aspects of identity. Other domains may await some resolution of adoptive identity before they can be undertaken. One strategy adolescents in confidential adoptions may use is to contemplate or initiate searches for birth parents to synthesize their dual identities—as a birth child of unknown birth parents and an adopted child of their adoptive parents—and establish a sense of continuity in their lives (Stein & Hoopes, 1985). The following case example from our research illustrates how meeting her birth father had a significant influence on a young woman’s adoptive identity development.

An increasing number of infant adoptions are open from the beginning, as birth mothers may choose the parents to adopt their children, and the adoptive parents may be present at the birth. Such an arrangement implies that the adoptive parents have already made a decision that their family’s boundaries extend beyond their household. Even if the parties do not plan extensive contact postplacement, they know each other and know how to contact each other. There is no pretense of the child’s “passing” as a biological child of the adoptive parents. In fact, the act of choosing an open adoption implies an acceptance of differentness within the adoptive kinship network (adopted child, adoptive-family members, and birth-family members).

The family narrative into which the child is socialized may be co-constructed by the members of the adoptive kinship network. Co-construction of the narrative is more likely and perhaps more challenging in the context of an open adoption, because there are more relational contexts or relationships in which to construct an identity. Although all family relationships present opportunities for secrets and conflicts to occur, the nature of open adoptions reduces the likelihood of secrets related to the circumstances of adoption, since the relevant parties are known to each other. Although there may be fewer secrets about biology or heritage in open adoptions, this does not mean that all the children’s questions are answered. An open adoption does not make the child immune to the questioning that is inherent in adolescence. In fact, we have found that all adopted children are curious about their birth families; but that children in different openness arrangements are curious about different things (Grotevant & McRoy, 1998).

In adoptions involving mediated or direct contact, a significant predictor of the child’s socioemotional development (measured during middle childhood) is the collaboration of the adoptive parents and birth-family members toward the child’s best interest (Grotevant, Ross, Marchel, & McRoy, 1999). These results suggest that collaboration in relationships may be one benchmark for successful adaptation in adoptions involving contact. This finding is similar to the current findings about postdivorce relationships (e.g., Hetherington, 1999). Children thrive best when the adults are able to have a civil, reasonable relationship with each other, and when they recognize that the children’s best interests come first. The degree of collaboration among the adults in the child’s adoption will serve as input to the process of adoptive identity development, in that it has to do with the child’s primary relationships and how those individuals think about and portray adoption to the child.

Case Study

There were so many questions I had that no one could answer, I mean, my parents didn’t know. No one knew. And, I just would sit and think about it all the time. And I’d think of different, you know, scenarios, and by the time I got done thinking I was so confused I didn’t know what to do, and, no one was there to talk to me about it because I didn’t know anyone else who was adopted, I mean my mom was always there, but it’s different. As soon as I met [my birthfather] it was like, I knew who I was, and I don’t know why that had anything to do with it, but, it was like, I was more focused on me…. I didn’t actually feel a part of the [adoptive] family until I met my biological parents, and then it was like, I knew myself more [emphasis added]. So I became my own person. But I don’t, I don’t know why that had such an impact on me. But it, it just did. And it was like I could become me, after meeting someone else. (female, age 18)

Interaction with Contexts outside the Family

Adoptive identity also involves interaction beyond the family. Yngveson (1999) has suggested that adoptive identity is more about movement and tension than it is about self-sameness. For example, she noted that an Ethiopian young adult who had been adopted into Sweden as a young child may feel more Ethiopian (than Swedish) when in Sweden, yet more Swedish when in Ethiopia—thereby exemplifying the dynamic tension between self and context. March (1994, 1995) has argued that the process of social interaction may make adoptees feel disconnected from others because others define them as “different” based on their adoptive status. In this view, the presence or absence of autobiographical information affects how the adoptee will present himself or herself in social interaction, thereby eliciting different responses from social partners. In some cases, lack of information led adoptees to experience “a sense of uncertainty over the authenticity of the identity that they had presented” to others (March, 1994, p. 219). Thus, the definitions of others, formed through social interaction, play an important role in the development of identity.

Adopting children across racial or national lines makes families bicultural or multicultural. The racial and cultural mix of the family’s community will determine whether their status is a source of visible difference or not. Depending on the community context, adopted children may experience a whole range of reactions, from open arms to teasing and denigration. The “fit” of the adoptive family with its community context will have an impact on the identity development of its children. For example, Cheri Register, an American parent of two daughters adopted from Korea, wrote a book about her experience with family-community fit titled Are Those Kids Really Yours? (Register, 1991). The title echoed the many encounters she had had with strangers in the grocery store, airport, and neighborhood. It speaks to the issue of self in context—not only the child’s identity but also the identity of the whole family. Lee (2003) has underscored the salience of this dilemma, labeling it the “transracial adoption paradox.” For children adopted by White parents across racial or ethnic lines, the child or adolescent may be viewed by the larger society as an ethnic minority or a person of color. However, they may be perceived by some (and perhaps by themselves) as members of the majority culture, since they were adopted into a White family and grew up in that context. The sometimes contradictory experiences that can arise in this situation have implications for the developing sense of identity in adolescents and young adults.

Even if children adopted transracially or internationally are accepted in their community, they may encounter challenges to their emerging sense of identity if they move into a dramatically different context. For example, a Korean child adopted into a rural community may be well-liked and well-accepted; however, if the child attends college in a large multicultural urban area, others may respond socially in ways that challenge his or her identity (Meier, 1999). Through social interaction, adopted adolescents may begin to identify or align themselves with ethnic groups to which their adoptive parents may not belong. Adolescents may also seek out adoption-related groups and affiliation with the “adoption community” when they move into contexts where their adoptive status or family and community membership is questioned. The availability of numerous adoption-related Web sites and Internet chat rooms has made it possible for adolescents to participate in this exploration separately from their family, yet before they leave home.

If the child was adopted transracially or internationally, is there a community of like individuals with whom the child (and perhaps the family) can identify and interact? The availability of the community itself is only one piece of the puzzle; the child must be interested in interacting in this way, and the community itself must be welcoming. For example, because there are so many Korean adoptees in Minnesota, there are Korean culture camps offered in the summer for internationally adopted children. Although many children love them and benefit from them, there are other children who want nothing to do with them. Similarly, members of the child’s ethnic community may not be interested in interacting with the adopted child, who is different from them as well as from his or her adoptive parents (Meier, 1998).


Several contexts of adoptive identity development have been explored in this chapter: intrapsychic, relationships within the family, and connections beyond the family, to friends, neighborhood, community, and culture. Although it was argued that adoption itself presents adolescents with a number of complexities that demand integration into their emerging sense of self, we also showed that children with different adoption arrangements have different resources and challenges with which to work in the identity development process.

Multiple and complex factors, stemming from different sources, influence adoptive identity development. Some are related to early experience, some are related to the fit of the child within the family and the surrounding community, and some are due to societal attitudes about adoption in general or specific types of adoption. Taken together, they underscore the challenges associated with integrating one’s sense of self as an adopted person with other significant domains of identity.

Although a clearer picture of adoptive identity is emerging through recent research advances, much remains to be understood. The diversity of situations experienced by adopted children and adoptive parents will provide adoption researchers rich opportunities for further understanding the complexity and intricacy of adoptive identity development. This approach will also be relevant for understanding identity integration in the case of other “assigned” identities, such as gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

Implications for Research and Theory

Although Erikson’s (1968) theory of identity has been central to the emerging understanding of adoptive identity, further theoretical work is needed to clarify the links connecting adoption as an assigned identity, other domains of identity that involve choice (e.g., occupation, values), and the social contexts in which this developmental process takes place. This chapter is a first step in this direction. To our knowledge, the only measure specifically designed to assess adoptive identity is the interview developed by our research team and its accompanying codebook (Grotevant, Dunbar, et al., 1999). The interview takes a narrative approach to understanding identity and evaluates the following aspects of adoptive identity: depth of exploration, valence of affect, salience, relationship connections, and four aspects of narrative coherence (internal consistency, organization, flexibility, and congruence between affect and content). It is hoped that this chapter will stimulate further theoretical and methodological advances in understanding adoptive identity.

Best Practices for Professionals Working with Adopted Persons

This discussion of adoptive identity development suggests a number of specific implications for professionals who work with adopted persons and their families.

  1. Overall, we recommend that professionals be aware of the tremendous variation in adolescents’ individual cognitive processes and in the resources—within both the family and the larger community—that adolescents have available to them as they construct a sense of themselves as adopted individuals.
  2. Practitioners working with adopted adolescents should be particularly aware of how different adolescents perceive their adoptive identity as being more or less salient to their overall sense of self and that these degrees of salience may hold implications for other activities in adolescents’ lives (initiating a search for birth parents, deciding on an adoption-related career, etc.). They should also attend to adolescents’ personal perceptions of adoption-related “stigma” and the resources they have to deal with such feelings. They should be cognizant of the different levels of access to background or biographical identity information that adopted adolescents may have, due to the nature of their adoption (international vs. domestic, confidential vs. mediated or fully disclosed) and the dynamics in the adoptive family (e.g., the degree to which adoption is discussed within the adoptive family).
  3. Because of the existence of these differences, professionals working with adopted adolescents should be careful to avoid a “one-size-fits-all” approach. In any group of adopted adolescents, school personnel or other professionals might find adoptees in each of the four identity categories described above. Although it may be extremely useful to connect some internationally adopted youth with organized cultural resources, such as cultural camps or agency programs, not all youth may be comfortable with these activities. Searching may be a necessary activity for some adolescents to feel “complete” but irrelevant to others. Since there is no single course for adoptive identity development, educational and clinical interventions should be carefully designed with adolescents’ individual characteristics and specific family and community contexts in mind.
  4. Despite the need for individually tailored interventions, some basic guidelines may be useful to family professionals in their work with adopted adolescents and adoptive families (for further discussion, see Wrobel, Hendrickson, & Grotevant, 2006). For example, it is important for professionals to use language respectful of adoption and its participants. It is preferable to say “birth mother” rather than “natural mother,” to avoid suggesting that there is something “unnatural” about adoptive mothering. Teachers and family life educators should develop curricula respectful of adopted children. It should not be assumed that children adopted from other countries are experts on their home countries or necessarily want to become experts. Family trees, autobiographies, and studies of genetics should be done in such a way that the assignment can be completed by all students, and so that adopted children do not feel singled out. Professionals should familiarize themselves with adoption issues by reading first-person accounts and the research literature. Informed professionals will, in turn, be able to help combat uninformed stereotypes, expectations, or attitudes. Finally, professionals can be attuned to the issues adopted adolescents might be considering (searching, connecting with a home country, etc.) and be prepared to listen and provide a safe climate in which they can consider options.

Reflection Questions

  1. Why might adopted adolescents show different patterns of identity development, and what factors might stimulate movement from one pattern to another?
  2. How can adults who have contact with adopted children and adolescents identify and support the needs that such children and youth might have?
  3. What impact do changes in society’s attitudes about adoption and the meaning of family have on young people’s identity development process? What will the situation look like in the year 2030?
  4. We often think of identity as something that is worked out during adolescence. In what ways is identity development a lifelong process?