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What the Research Says: Adoptee Identity

Topic: Adoptee Identity Development

Researchers: Harold D. Grotevant, Albert Y. H. Lo, Lisa Fiorenzo, Nora D. Dunbar

Study question:

To what degree does adoptive identity, measured during adolescence, predict adjustment difficulties in emerging adulthood, controlling for the level of adjustment in adolescence?

Research that Prompted the Study:

Previous research has shown that no matter the type of adoption they experienced; adoptees are at a higher risk for difficulties in identity development because of information gaps in their stories and histories. These gaps can become barriers to seeking out more information that may help them gain context to their adoption stories. It is important to note that there are differences in the type and amount of information to which an adoptee may have access. Also, each adoptee may respond and process that information differently.

Previous research also shows that adoptees have a slightly elevated risk for adjustment difficulties based both on pre-adoption and post-adoption circumstances such as abuse, neglect, institutionalization, international relocation, and ethnic and racial discrimination. There is still an elevated risk even if the adoptee has not experienced any of these other factors.

Summary of the Study:

In previous studies, Grotevant developed six categories to consider when determining an adoptee’s struggle with identity.

  • Depth of Identity Exploration: How much is the adoptee thinking about the meaning of adoption in their lives?

  • Salience: How important is adoptive identity to an adoptee?

  • Internal Consistency: How consistent are an adoptee’s internal perceptions of themselves and the world?

  • Flexibility: What is the adoptee’s ability to think about things from different points of view?

  • Positive Affect: Does the adoptee express positive emotions about their adoption?

  • Negative Affect: Does the adoptee express negative emotions about their adoption?

In this study, researchers used the six categories outlined to place adolescent participants in four groups:

(1) Unexamined Adoptive Identity,

(2) Limited Adoptive Identity

(3) Unsettled Adoptive Identity (most negative responses)

(4) Integrated Adoptive Identity (most positive responses)

Eight years later, the research team followed up with the participants as they were emerging into adulthood. The goal of this study was to examine “to what degree does adoptive identity effect adjustment as the adoptee transitions from adolescence into adulthood.” A special interest was taken at looking at the Unsettled group in comparison to the other three groups.

What they found:

The study found that the groups the participants were categorized into as adolescents did have a direct correlation to the participants’ internalizing behaviors (for example, their Inner critic or symptoms of anxiety or depression). The Unsettled group had the highest levels of internalizing behavior. This showed that adjustment difficulties that are associated with adoptive identity in adolescence do continue over time.

A similar pattern replicated itself in external behaviors (for example, acting out, aggression, avoidance and/or bullying) with the unsettled group showing the highest levels. However, the difference between groups was not significant enough to conclude a direct correlation between the group classification and externalizing behaviors

The study also found the high levels of Negative Affect set the Unsettled group apart. The feedback from the participants found that the Negative Affect can originate from multiple areas including relationships with adoptive parents, birth relatives or peers, lack of information about their adoption, difficulty being able to integrate their adoption circumstances into a cohesive story, lack of communication from either set of parents, or negative feedback about their adoption such as bullying, using their adoptive status as a joke or threat.


First, open communication concerning the adoptee’s adoption will help support them as they transition from adolescence to adulthood. The data shows that adoptees think about their adoption frequently but may not talk about it with their parents because they fear upsetting them.

This study also confirmed what other studies have found that each adoptee will respond to their adoption differently and that their responses may change throughout their lifespan. It also found that children who have experienced maltreatment, institutionalization and/or were transracially adopted have additional issues as they work to integrate adoption into their identity.

For parents, when looking for a therapist or a clinician, it is important to know that adoptees seek mental health services at greater rates than the general population. Parents should look for a clinician that has training in adoption. Parents should also look for clinicians that use a person-centered approach because each adoptee responds differently to their adoption experience.


Grotevant, H. D., Lo, A. Y. H., Fiorenzo, L., & Dunbar, N. D. (2017). Adoptive Identity and Adjustment from Adolescence to Emerging Adulthood: A Person-Centered Approach. Developmental Psychology, 53(11), 2195–2204.


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