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People who are adopted have more psychological problems than others, yet they also tend to have other psychological strengths. Experts, both themselves also adoptees, discuss the roots and outcomes of these issues as adopted children grow up.

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  • Dr. Stephen Betchen, Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology, Thomas Jefferson University, Senior Supervisor, Council for Relationships and author, Magnetic Partners
  • Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao, adoption consultant and Lecturer in Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

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16-41 Adoption Psychology

Reed Pence: Every year, more than 120,000 adoptions take place in the United States. Nearly two-thirds of them involve a child less than a year old. Of all children in, about two-and-a-half percent are adopted. Today, it’s a common way to build a family. But a lot of myths and misconceptions still exist about adopted children and the adults they become. For example, that they’re not loved as much as biological children. Love is hard to measure, but nearly three quarters of adopted children under age six are read to or sung to at bedtime every night…about 25 percent more than biological children. And nine out of 10 adoptive parents describe their relationship with their child as “very close.” Still, many experts, even some who were themselves adopted, say being an adoptee creates more risk of a psychological wound both growing up… and later on.

Dr. Stephen Betchen: I do think there’s something to it. I went over some of the research and a lot of the articles talk about low self-esteem, bouts of depression. I think a lot of the research have referred to how an adoptee referred to us as somewhere in between normal and outpatient.

Pence: That’s Dr. Stephen Betchen, clinical assistant professor of psychology at Thomas Jefferson University, senior supervisor for the Council for Relationships, and author of the book, Magnetic Partners.

Betchen:  I definitely buy the research that talks about our affiliation issues. We’re much better at alienation than affiliation. And that I see pretty regularly and I’ve experienced that myself. There’s something about being left, even if you have the greatest adoptive parents in the world, there’s a void there and there’s some kind of a hole, something missing. It makes it difficult to feel quite comfortable wherever you’re at. Even if people love you to death and want to take you in and make you part of their own families, there’s just something about that’s missing that can’t be plugged.

Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao: There’s definitely loss that happens even in an open adoption, even in a very simple infant placement and then of course there are more losses involved if a child goes through numbers of orphanages, foster homes, hospitals and changes of that sort. There are traumas and losses that are part of the process. But I think that human beings are resilient and they deal with them in different ways.

Pence: Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao is a consultant on adoption issues and a lecturer in psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School. She says that growing up as an adoptee isn’t bound to create pathology. Not at all. It usually simply creates a slightly different normal. But that inevitably changes who a person becomes… at least a little.

Pavao: If the adoption was during the infancy period, there’s some trust and mistrust, the developmental stages. I mean that’s really the first thing. So that complete loss of the original caregiver, you know, has an impact. So some of the reactions to that, some of the behaviors as a result of that may be of note. But they’re not necessarily pathological.

Betchen: A lot of it depends on the circumstances around the adoption. I think the research indicates, you know, you adopt better if you were adopted as an infant as opposed to being moved in and out of different homes until finally somebody adopted you. I think a lot of it depends on who adopts you.

Pence: When and how a child is told they were adopted, and what they’re told that means, is very important. Pavao says it should be an ongoing dialog between parent and child, not a one-and-done as it was for her many years ago.

Pavao: I was told I was adopted once at age three and then it wasn’t supposed to be talked about again. Well, I’m sorry but I’m a person who needs to ask a zillion questions and find out everything I can and there are many more children like me who needed to do that. So I think that we began to teach birth parents and adoptive parents to learn to talk about it more so they could take the burden off the child who really needs to have this information. The best person to impart it is the parents who are raising the child. But, of course, that’s a sticky situation because the parents who are raising the child, you know, it makes them sad to have to talk about adoption because there’s a sadness that comes with it. There may have been infertility and that may have led to adoption. The adults carry a lot of sadness and guilt and shame and anger and that gets funneled right to the child if it’s not processed by the adult.

Pence: Always, there are questions. Sometimes unspoken. Sometimes, not even conscious. And hidden in the background, Pavao says, may be grief over loss that can manifest itself as fear of more loss. So Betchen says some adoptees may be reluctant to get close to others.

Betchen:  There’s something about allowing yourself to be taken in and accepted that they have some difficulty with. I see that a lot. And I do a lot of couples therapy – that’s my specialty – and I, there are a lot of intimacy issues and commitment issues even and fear of getting too close. I think a lot of kids are adopted worry that they’ll be rejected again or put up for adoption again so it makes it difficult for them to allow themselves to become part of something. And I think you have to really work hard at it to allow yourself to feel comfortable.

Pence: Identity issues also may become difficult as kids grow up.

Pavao: Those are pretty complex for any adopted person, but add to that transracial adoption, international adoption. There are other situations that just add to the complexity and make it more to contend with during that period of life so the behaviors may be more extreme. But those, to me, are normal under the circumstances. Why wouldn’t you have confusion about your identity if you didn’t know anything about where you came from? I do think adolescence is the more difficult stage of development. I mean identity is the work of adolescence and for someone who doesn’t have the right tools to figure out their identity it makes if very difficult to claim who you think you are and what you think you are.

Pence: However, Pavao says sometimes that can be a positive if you put the right spin on it. An adopted child can be anybody they want. Their birth parents may have been a king or a queen.

Pavao: There are those possibilities and you do think of yourself in a wider context because you don’t know who you might be. I can give you a real sense of, you know, belonging to the bigger world.

Pence: And Pavao says there’s another positive. People who’ve been adopted also may handle adversity better than others. They may seem to better accept that “it is what it is” and move on. Betchen agrees.

Betchen:  There is some research on our ability to cope with some things a little better. I mean you’ve already been through something. And I also think there’s something about being prepared for it too. So, because we’re a little bit on alert, I think it prepares us a little more to deal with something that might come down the pike. So I think that we’re a little stronger in many ways. I also think that if you look at adoption from a positive perspective, somebody really wanted you. And I think that that’s also positive, it makes you feel special as well.

Pence: Pavao says these generalities don’t apply to everyone. They may be imperceptible in any particular person and many adopted people claim that in their lives, the differences are irrelevant. But Betchen says no adoptee is completely unaffected, and sometimes, connecting the dots helps explain some of how we feel and act. And even in those who’ve had an idyllic life with seemingly no issues, the urge to search for birth parents and fill in the blank spots can eventually be insatiable.

Pavao: Every human being at some point begins to wonder about their past and their ancestors and where they came from. Now, people who live in the family they were born into have the opportunity to go and ask their grandparents or go and ask people and have stories told about the country of origin, the experiences of the family, what’s happened within that family. For people who are adopted and don’t have contact – some do that have open adoptions – but for the ones who don’t, there’s a big blank there. There’s a big question. And I think it’s very human to want to know something about where you came from and who you are. There’s a divided loyalty if you’re very loyal to your adoptive parents you feel like you really shouldn’t do this, but in fact, it’s your right. It’s information about who you are and how you came to be. So I think people really do need to have some information to make sense of who they are. And you need to know where you came from to know where you’re going.

Betchen:  I had fantasies about who my real parents were and my analyst challenged me and he said, “Why don’t you go find out?” I was really kind of ready to go and do it but it’s a very difficult process and a lot of people are looking for some kind of a, not just closure, but to make something up, to fix something, to repair something and oftentimes they’re let down with what they find. But I do believe it brings closure. I do believe it’s something that you feel that, a lot of people feel, that they just have to do to at least feel at peace.

Pence: Betchen didn’t start searching for his birth parents until both his adoptive parents had died. He says they were old school. They would have been hurt. And throughout this segment, by the way, we’ve said “adoptive” parents really for the benefit of clarity. Adopted people have birth parents who they may or may not know… but those they call mom and dad are the ones who raised them… read to them at bedtime, cheered on the sidelines, and put kisses and Band-Aids on their skinned knees. And when their parents pass on, it can be a devastating loss.

Pavao: As an adopted person you’ve already lost one set of parents so there’s a lot of fear of losing your other parents, and yeah, when the adoptive parents die of course any kind of loss like that is very difficult, but it carries a little more intensity because it’s a repetition of an earlier loss.

Betchen:  It can make you feel for some people, I know I felt this way, that when my second adoptive parent died I was out there again, orphaned.

Pence: However, people who’ve been adopted just might be better equipped to pick themselves up after such a loss. Not just because they’re more adaptive… but Pavao says they’re often more spiritual.

Pavao: You believe in things, the things you can’t see. There’s an element in faith that you have to believe in things that you can’t see, so if you don’t know your birth parents but you know they’re out there somewhere a lot of kids, little kids that I work with, have a real relationship with the moon or the stars and they’ll look out their window and say, “Somewhere my birth mother, my birth father are looking at the same moon and the same stars. And that’s what connects them.

Pence: You can find out more about all our guests through links on our website, radiohealthjournal.net. I’m Reed Pence.

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