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Profiles in Adoption: Adult Adoptee Experiences, per three researchers at NCFA

What the New NCFA Adoptee Research Means for Adoptive Parents

8 Takeaways for Adoptive Parents from 2024's NCFA Adoptee Survey Report

Recently, the National Council for Adoption released a report from a  survey of 1,247 adult adoptees to provide “a snapshot: one cross-section of adult adoptees in the U.S., intended to contribute to the growing body of research that seeks to better understand adoptees from their own perspectives.”

The findings offer important information for those who are raising adoptees. Before I get into some of the commotion the release of this report led to, I’d like to highlight 8 takeaways I drew from the research, plus a bonus one that surprised me.

1. Openness is Important to Adoptees

(p25) Nearly two-thirds of respondents (64.7% in the chart below) identified openness as the most important factor for original parents to consider when choosing adoptive parents. This is the breakout for those adopted through private domestic adoption. 

Those adopted through foster care cited the age of adoptive parents garnered as most important (64%), followed by other (59%), lack of/or number of children already in the home (52%), race of adoptive parents (51%), views on openness in adoption (39%), and political/social/religious views (38%).

The question was not reported for intercountry adoptees — and perhaps not asked because original parents are not often involved in relinquishment decisions.

And What is Openness?

Longtime readers already know that  openness is so much more than contact with or information about birth parents. It’s finding openness and clarity within ourselves so that we connect with our children with a vibe of curiosity and flexibility rather than one of insecurity and fragility. We continually work through our own wounds and triggers (which parenting brings out) to become able to hear and talk about our children’s feelings around their adoptedness and thoughts about their birth family. In other words, openness is us clearing space within ourselves so we can hold more space for our adoptees.

This is one of the foundational insights Angela Tucker and I offer when we present our Inclusive Family Support Model workshop/webinar to child welfare agencies, adoption professionals, and foster, kinship, and adoptive parents.

2. Create an Environment of Openness and Belonging

(pp31-32) OK, fine, but how? The report offers several pieces of advice.

Talk about adoption early and often. “For many adoptees, engaging in early discussions about adoption contributed to normalizing their adoption status, strengthening feelings of belonging, and preventing feelings of disillusionment about their adoptive identity. Furthermore, adoptees stressed the significance of tailoring conversations to ensure they are age and developmentally-appropriate, particularly when addressing topics related to birth family.”

Establish a safe space for open communication. “Many shared that their parents created environments where they always felt safe raising questions and expressing their feelings.”

Direct quote from an adoptee respondent: “Assuming your child will tell you when they are ready to learn about things is a slippery slope so being proactive in these conversations will help alleviate a lot of burden from the adoptees themselves.”

Clients I work with sometimes say they’ll deal with questions as they come up so that they can follow the child’s lead. But following and leading is not that clear-cut. As my co-author Sara Easterly (an adoptee and attachment educator) advises, parents are supposed to assume a leadership role (but don’t take this to mean an authoritarian role). Seasoned parent Maureen McCauley and I talked about the dance of leading and following in episode 408 of Adoption: The Long View.

Demonstrate openness to birth family. “Adoptees discussed the value of adoptive parents being encouraging and open to birth family relationships, highlighting instances where they felt unsupported and torn between their adoptive and birth families. Others described that maintaining connections with their birth family made them feel complete and connected to an essential aspect of their identity.”

And even if, for whatever reason, you cannot maintain connection through contact, you can still maintain connection in the absence of birth family by carving out space for it, as adoptee playwrights Suzanne Bachner and Maggie Gallant tell us in episode 302 of Adoption: The Long View.

3. Be Child Centered

(p34) This one sounds deceptively simple.

“Best interest of the child” and “child-centered” get much lip service, but in reality, it’s difficult to (a) know what is actually best for the child, and (b) to disentangle the fears and needs we hold deep within ourselves from the love and good intentions we have for our beloved child. Our capacity to center our child is limited by how much attention we have given our own inner child. Otherwise, our needs may be occupying a too-prominent spot without us even knowing it.

How might we get a handle on what exactly is best for our child, an adopted person? One way is by continuing to listen to a variety of adult adoptees when they share their lived experiences with us. The more we listen, especially to experiences that make us uncomfortable, the more we grow and the more capacity we’ll have for our own adoptees.

4. Have Realistic Expectations about Adoptive Parenting

(p35) This one is not as easy as it sounds, either. Adoption is often cast as a win-win situation by our culture and many adoption professionals. Everyone finds a good way out of a bad situation! (I used to say this myself but then I began to see the untruths of the win-win narrative by hearing from adoptees, birth parents, and seasoned adoptive parents. Many of us start of thinking that the once we fill our arms, the hard part is behind us and it’s alllll happy ending from there.

From the NCFA report: “Many adoptees centered their responses on setting realistic expectations for adoptive parents, highlighting its profound impact on their family dynamics and upbringing. They shared that their parents were often unprepared for the realities and complexities of adoptive parenting, leading to challenges following the placement.”

For more, check out the book Adoption Unfiltered, which I co-authored with adoptee Sara Easterly and birth parent Kelsey Vander Vliet Ranyard. Setting realistic expectations by offering more informed consent to all parties entering into adoption is one of the key points of our book.

5. Talk (and Listen) about Adoption Openly, Often, and Early

(p41) Some adoptees shared “adverse impacts of being raised in environments that lacked open communication, including internalized feelings of shame, stress, and guilt related to their adoption status. As one adoptee expressed, By not talking about adoption, they made my entire identity, to some degree, taboo. Many also shared a desire for their parents to be more receptive to answering their questions about their adoption and birth family, some even described being met with frustration when raising difficult questions.”

Adoptee Greg Gentry shared how he was denied space to talk about adoption openly in episode 407 of Adoption: The Long View, and how that negatively impacted his relationship with his parents.

6. Give Space for Evolving Questions and Complicated Emotions

(p42) Three quotes, two of them directly from adoptees, emphasize the importance of parents having the capacity to hold – not mold – adoptee emotions, whatever they are.

  • “Ongoing conversations and periodic check-ins would have provided more space for [adoptees] to explore their evolving questions and emotions throughout their development.”
  • Many adoptees recounted instances of parental defensiveness or fragility regarding their adoption or birth family, which contributed to feelings of split loyalty, insecurity, guilt, and shame.
  • “I wish [my parents] had given me room to feel all the complicated feelings I did and still do about my adoption.”

For more on making space for an adoptee’s emotions, check out my interview with two adoptees, therapist Lauren Fishbein music educator Glenna Boggs, in episode 502 of Adoption: The Long View.

7. Know This: How you FEEL about Birth Parents Deeply Affects Your Adoptee

(p43) The NCFA report suggests we: 

Be intentional with our messaging around adoption. “Adoptees valued when their parents conducted conversations calmly and respectfully, and when they emphasized love and belonging. They expressed feeling hurt when their parents expressed negative views of their birth family or conveyed false narratives about the reasons for their adoption placement.”

This advice is less about getting the words right than about the true feelings you have about the existence of birth parents. Be mindful of your own unsettled emotions that may come out at all negative or overly positive, as well as pat responses (she loved you so much she gave you to us, or you are a chosen child, isn’t that great?) to decidedly un-pat queries. Any emotions you put onto your child’s canvas leave less space for them to have and figure out their own feelings. Of course they need to know they are loved and that they belong, but we can leave them plenty of room to develop and explore their own emotions about their adoption journey – not ours (point 6 above).

8. Continue to Increase Your Adoption Competency

(p44) Adoptees wish parents would access continuing education and support around trauma-informed parenting, mental health issues, and cultural competency. “Adoptees expressed the belief that their parents would have better-navigated adoption and birth family discussions if they had received more guidance and training on these issues.” 

This isn’t just so that we can help our children work through their issues. It’s also so that we work on our own. When things got rough for my family several years ago, I erroneously thought my role was to find support to “fix” the child, which would restore harmony in the family. I didn’t understand until later that therapy isn’t to “fix” anyone, but to tend to the space in between, the relational space, of which I was a key player.

In episode 207 of Adoption: The Long View, I grasp this in an interview with an adoption-fluent therapist.

More from the NCFA report: “Adoptive parents should seek counseling pre-adoption, specifically underscoring the need for them to process grief related to infertility. Adoptees also wished for more opportunities to engage with the adoptee community, and transracial adoptees specifically wished to connect with their racial and cultural communities.”

Adoption camps and heritage camps can be a way for parents to continue their education periodically and give their children the gift of community with others who share the experience of being adopted.

Bonus: Gotcha Day/Family Day—Yay or Nay?

(p22) For various reasons – mostly because adoptees have told me so – I have long held that Gotcha Day is more harmful than helpful. Adoption educator Gayle Swift explains why in this guest post to counter Dear Abby .

So this section of the report gave me pause. NCFA asked adoptees if their families recognized the day they joined their family, calling it perhaps “family day,” “adoption day,” or “gotcha day.” Families formed through domestic infant adoption were much less likely to have marked these days than those formed by foster or intercountry adoption.

So what is the verdict? Those who did celebrate were asked if they would recommend that future adoptive families mark the day, and those who did not celebrate were asked if they wished their families had marked the day.

NCFA’s takeaway is that whatever the family did felt right to a majority of respondents. “Among adoptees who had an annual celebration, the majority think other families should celebrate this, too. Among adoptees who did not have an annual celebration, they do not wish their family had done this.”

Color me surprised that those who celebrated such a day recommended it to others. Maybe I need to recalibrate something I thought I knew. And yet, while I can abide Family Day, I think Gotcha Day will continue to feel  icky to me.

(p39) In case you are setting your own calibration about Gotcha Day, the NCFA  report later shares varying direct quotes on it:

  • “I HATE when I see people I know that have adopted Happy Gotcha day it sounds like they adopted a dog. I think the kids will hate it when they get older… No one wants to feel different.”
  • My family made our gotcha day a special day for us. Wishing us a happy gotcha day, letting us choose the dinner we ate that night, and just made it a happy occasion and made it about us, I feel like that really helped me feel accepted and loved.”
  • “I’m glad my parents didn’t celebrate gotcha day or whatever – I was their child – birthdays were enough just like the rest of my siblings. I didn’t need extra attention because my mother didn’t give birth to me.”
  • “The day we were placed with them and the day the adoption was finalized are joyful for them. Those days may not be joyful for us.”

Conclusion and What's Next

The NCFA report breaks out some data by foster care adoptions, intercountry adoptions, and domestic infant adoption. I encourage readers to look through it to find in-their-own-words insights from adoptees that may make you more savvy and informed as an adoptive parent.

Back to the commotion I mentioned above. In adoption circles there has been much conversation about the survey and its validity and reliability. All this, and my own whiplash about Gotcha Day, is making me wonder: How do we know that we’re listening to adoptees well? What if we realize that we’re open to the ideas of some with lived experience but closed to that of others? How might coming “out of the fog” and into adoptee consciousness factor into whom we do listen and to whom we should listen? What would a true representative sample be and how would a researcher tap into it?

More about all that in a Part 2.

Adoptive parents must clear space within ourselves so we can hold space for our adoptees.

~~ Lori Holden,

Want to Take a Deeper Dive?

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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