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What Is Adoption?

Caz knew she’d been adopted as a baby, and she’d always felt loved and special. She didn’t know the names of her birth parents or the details of her adoption and she’d never really thought about it that much. So she was surprised to find herself thinking more about her adoption as her fifteenth birthday approached. Although Caz knew a lot of things about her adoptive family, she realized that she knew nothing about the people whose genes she shared.

It’s natural for people who are adopted to wonder about their birth families (also called biological families) and where they came from. This curiosity often becomes more intense as part of the process of self-discovery that happens during the teenage years. Sometimes there are health reasons, or other important reasons, for searching for one’s birth family.

Adoption is the creation of a new, permanent relationship between an adoptive parent and child. Once this happens, there is no legal difference between a child who is adopted and a child who is born into a family.

Birth parents have many different reasons for putting children up for adoption. Some decide that they want better lives for their kids than they feel they can provide. Some feel their child would do better living in another country. Sometimes parents just can’t take good care of a child because of illness or other difficulties. Many birth parents say that having their child placed for adoption with another family is the most difficult thing in the world, but that sometimes it is truly in the child’s best interests.

Every Adoption Is Different

Families of all kinds adopt kids of all kinds, from babies to teens. Kids may be adopted by a relative, foster parent, or a completely new family. An adoptive family might be a single parent, a couple, or a family with kids.

Adoptions can be arranged by adoption agencies or handled independently (where the parties involved work through an adoption attorney or private center). An increasing number of adoptions are taking place internationally, with people adopting kids from a different country.

Adoptions are subject to the laws of different states and countries. Some adoptions are confidential (also called closed adoptions), which means that neither the birth nor adoptive parents know the others’ identities. Other adoptions are handled more openly. Open adoptions, where both parties have some level of contact with each other, are becoming more common.

As views about adoption change, the secrecy and confidentiality surrounding adoption is giving way to openness in which birth parents are more likely to be involved in the process. This can mean anything from choosing the family they want to adopt their child to keeping in touch with that family as the child grows up.

Emotional Aspects of Adoption

It’s natural for any adopted person, child or adult, to have complex feelings about being adopted. It’s also natural to feel that “my parents are my parents” and not feel a desire to seek out more information about the identity of the birth family.

Most of us (whether adopted or not) go through a process of self-discovery and identity development throughout our teens — figuring out who we are and the kind of person we want to be. Being adopted can make that process more complicated. For example, family members may look different from the adopted person or come from different cultures.

It’s common for kids who’ve been adopted to want to know more about their birth history. Usually a big question is why the birth parents placed their child for adoption. And, now that we know the role genes play in many medical issues, lots of people want to know about their health history.

When people are curious about their birth family, it doesn’t mean they don’t love their adoptive family or feel close to them. This curiosity, which can feel quite intense, is a normal part of development. It’s common for people to just want to figure out more about themselves by finding out about or even meeting their birth families. There might also be some worry about whether your birth parents and family want to meet you.

It may take a while for some people to feel they can talk about the different emotions relating to their adoption. Finding a trusted person to talk to — a family member, friend, or counselor — can help when it comes to figuring things out. It can also help to talk to others who were adopted or to join a local or online support group.

The National Adoption Information Clearinghouse’s website has a section that provides advice on searching for birth families in both the United States and some other countries.

Teens who decide to take this step might worry that searching for their birth families may hurt or insult their adoptive parents. But many adoptive parents will be understanding about this natural curiosity, even if they feel unsure about a potential reunion. Many adoptive parents are willing to help their kids find answers to their questions, even if it’s difficult for them.

Deciding whether to search, or choosing not to search, can be a stressful time. It’s important to prepare yourself and your family for any and all possibilities. Finding out about birth families has both advantages and disadvantages. It’s important to expect the unexpected and not set your hopes too high. As long as you’re doing what feels right to you, it will likely all work out.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: April 2014