Adopted Children (Transracial and Same Race) Are Doing Just Fine

Dawn Davenport


self esteem and adopted children

Studies of nearly 11,000 adopted children show that adoptees do not lack in self esteem.

The myth of “the troubled adoptee”  is pervasive. It’s all the more insidious because it’s seldom voiced, but exists as an undercurrent.  This myth is a bit fuzzy on the details of causation.  Are problems with adopted children caused by poor prenatal care or early abuse or abandonment? Do adoptees perceive their adoption as a rejection by their first mother?  Are adopted kids “just plain ole bad seeds with inferior genetics”?   And if adoption itself is inherently problematic, then heaven help the poor transracial adoptee that has the added burden of not resembling his adopted family and a potentially convoluted sense of racial identity. This myth’s resilience frustrates the heck out of me mostly because it flies in the face of volumes of research.

Case in point: I ran across a fascinating meta-analysis of 106 studies the other day: Adoptees Do Not Lack Self-Esteem: A Meta-Analysis of Studies on Self-Esteem of Transracial, International, and Domestic Adoptees (Psychological Bulletin; American Psychological Association 2007, Vol. 133, No. 6, 1067–1083)  One of the main advantages of a meta-analysis is the ability to look at very large sample sizes and to even out design variations between studies. For these reasons, meta-analyses are particularly useful for generalizing to a larger population.

This study focused on self-esteem because that is considered to be one of the most important pillars of healthy personality development.  Low self-esteem is associated with not only internalized problems, such as depression, but also externalized behavior problems, such as aggression, antisocial behavior, and delinquency.  Self-esteem is particularly useful for studies of adopted people because if correlates highly with attachment.

I suppose it’s not altogether unreasonable for researchers and the general public to assume that adoptees are at greater risk for low self-esteem.  They speculate that adoptees may not only feel cut off from their birth parents but also rejected by them (Brodzinsky et al., 1992; S. L. Smith et al., 2000).  It might be reasonable to assume that adoptees may blame themselves for their relinquishment and think that they were not worthwhile enough for the birth mother to keep them.  They rightly may perceive differences between their adoptive family and themselves in terms of temperament or learning abilities and feel less capable in comparison (Tieman et al., 2005).  International and transracial adoptees may feel out of place in another national, cultural, or ethnic environment.  They also have the added difference of physical appearance to add to other potential differences with their adoptive family.  This litany of woes makes the results of this meta-analysis even more satisfying.

Self-esteem of Adopted Persons Compared to Non-adopted Persons

The researchers looked at 88 studies, which in total compared 10,977 adoptees with 33,862 non-adopted persons.  They found that adoptees’ self-esteem did not differ from the self-esteem of their peers.  The researchers dug deeper to see if there might be a difference in self-esteem of specific subgroups of adoptees when compared to non-adopted persons.  They looked at the following subgroups to see if adoptees in these subgroups were more vulnerable to low self-esteem:

  • International adoptees
  • Domestic adoptees
  • Transracial adoptees
  • Male vs. female adoptees
  • Adoptive placement before and after first birthday
  • Developmental stages (4-12 years, 12-18 years, and 18+years)

They found no difference in self-esteem between adoptees and non-adopted persons.

Self-esteem of Transracial Adoptees Compared to Same Race Adoptees

Researchers looked at 18 studies involving more than 2,000 adoptees and found that transracial and same-race adoptees did not differ with respect to their self-esteem.  They also looked at subgroups within this population (age at adoption, age at assessment, whether the same race adoptive families were of color or white),

They found no difference in self-esteem between transracial adoptees and same race adoptees.

All this means:

The study concluded as follows:

Contrary to expectations, adopted children are able to develop normative levels of self-esteem, and this appears to be the case throughout specific groups of adoptees (those placed before or after their first birthday, international or domestic adoptees, transracial or same-race adoptees), across the life span, and independent of informant (self- or other report). We did not find any statistically significant difference in self-esteem between adopted and nonadopted persons.

The study authors speculated that adoptive families may be at least partly responsible for this positive outcome. Adoptive parents invest substantially in their child’s upbringing, and they usually offer the child an enriched cognitive and emotional family environment. Adoptive parents often also work to establish secure parent– child attachment, which would be result in higher self-esteem.

Not all good news

This study is looking at only one predictor of mental health–self-esteem.  It is not saying that there are no inherent risks faced by adopted kids. Lack of prenatal care, poor nutrition, abuse or neglect, and substance exposure during gestation can and do cause problems for children throughout their lives.  Nor is this study saying that adopted children as a population have no problems.  Other studies, including other meta-analyses, have found that adopted kids as a whole have more learning and language problems and are over-represented in referrals to mental health professionals.

I also want to be very clear that by focusing on this meta-analysis study,  I am also not trying to negate the experience of individual adoptees who are suffering from problems they believe are caused by being adopted.  Their experience is very real on an individual level.  One individual’s experience, however, is not very useful to predict for the whole.   And on the whole, adoptees are doing just fine, at least as measured by their self-esteem.

Image credit: shelbythorner

12/04/2011 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 13 Comments

13 Responses to Adopted Children (Transracial and Same Race) Are Doing Just Fine

  1. Avatar ErinnEarth says:

    I agree with Manish, the line was quiet offensive and unnecessary. There is really no humor in saying anything like that anytime, please be more sensitive to this.. As an adopted person, I do not agree with this study, and I doubt the accuracy of the results. I was relinquished as a baby, adopted and while being raised, subtly, insidiously discouraged from talking about/questioning my origins. I was encouraged not to focus on it, to be grateful…I had very low self esteem but pretended i didn’t. But the thing about adoptee’s, is that we often learn early on to become silent because it seems like no one understands and they don’t, if you aren’t adopted and haven’t gone through what it feels like, you don’t know how weird it is. I suffered for all the years of my young life unable to talk to anyone, and no one ever asked how I felt about never ever knowing even one of my kin…? How can you even logically ask the question, Does the person feel rejected by the mother? Seriously? It is a rejection. Plain and simple. No sugar coating, it is the ultimate abandonment. Even though they may chose it for their own good, a mother leaving her baby is a very unnatural act. I have met my birth parents, i reunited with my birth people, learned my story that i never knew. It lead me to healing and helping others. Adoption and the Primal Wound are very serious and have to be taken seriously most importantly from the point of view of the child.

  2. Avatar Lisa says:

    Has anyone adopted from the U.S. foster care system? Children who have had several attachment disruptions? Curious as to your experiences as adoptive parents.

  3. I came by for ICLW, but I get swamped at the end of the month so usually don’t actually get to participate in the 21-28th, so I just do it the other 3 weeks of the month.

    What a fabulous article! My husband and I have decided to pursue adoption after moving in July, and are currently in the process of trying to decide what kind of adoption would be best for us and whatever child we eventually adopt. Looking forward to reading more in May!

  4. Avatar Ann L. says:

    You’re timing is perfectly great. I just had this conversation with my parents this past weekend. We are hoping to adopt and were sharing our progress with them. My dad asked if we had thought about what it would be like to have an adopted child. How would we deal with their psychological problems. My mom had heard that adults and teens that had been adopted did not love their adoted families and that they were all angry at the world because of the hand they were dealt. I truly had no comeback because I was so surprised. I emailed them this link to this blog. My mom sent back an email thanking me and saying that she guessed they had some uneducated opinions.

  5. Avatar swapna says:

    There is no difference and they are just fine children. They are confident and winning in nature,the god sent children bring lot of happiness to our world, and bring in positive energy, dont discriminate them from the main stream children, absolutely no difference

  6. Avatar Beth says:

    Dawn – I really appreciated this article, and posted a link to it on my own blog. What I think is the point, if I may address some of the previous comments, is that while we can’t change what has happened to our children, life is more than the sum of what has happened to us. Yes, there are difficulties to be faced and tough questions that must be answered. As a soon-to-be adoptive parent, I am very, very concerned about the ethics of adoption (we chose our program extremely carefully), the losses our daughter will endure, the importance of respecting her rights and giving her as much information about her background as possible so that she can grow up happy and healthy. I know this is always a hot-button issue because it is very emotional and there is a history of ethics abuse in the adoption world and much, much work still to be done. But as a parent (we also have 2 boys), I personally am very interested in “the long run”, because while we toil in the day-to-day, in the end it is how our kids turn out that will determine their health and happiness. So of course we must concern ourselves with each stage and all that comes with it and the many challenges our children will face whether they were adopted or not, but looking at the big picture never hurts, either. I often remind myself that I am not raising children, I am raising ADULTS – and that keeps the problems of the moment from stealing my joy and blurring my sense of purpose. I cannot change the birth defects that caused our daughter to be relinquished anonymously in her birth country. I cannot change the situations in her country of origin that cause the lack of access to health care, the social stigma surrounding birth defects, or the gender preference for males that still abounds. I will never be able to completely undo the pain of her past. But I can have hope for her future and instill the same virtue in her – and that will be a gift for us all.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Beth, I think that is the beauty of research such as this. It is the only way to step back and see the big picture. It’s not that the close up details aren’t important, but that the big picture is also important.

  7. Avatar Manish says:

    Dawn, I’m quite sure you didn’t mean it to be so, but I think many people would find this line gratuitous and offensive: “Are adopted kids just plain ole bad seeds with inferior genetics?”

    The way this is phrased suggests that the author actually thinks there are ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ character genes that determine a person’s personality and behaviour. She must – in order to be able to suggest that as a possible reason to explain troubled adoptees. (whether that in turn is a myth is, I know, the larger point of your article)

    Anyway the phrase turned me off immediately and I’m not even the PC brigade. 🙂

    I would at least put the words in quotes to indicate my disagreement with the concept of ‘inferior genetics’.


    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Manish: That line was added to poke fun at the absurdity of the statement. Hadn’t thought anyone would assume my agreement. I’ll take your suggestion and add quotes. Especially since you aren’t part of the PC brigade. If you took offense, heaven only knows what they’ll take. 🙂

  8. Dawn,

    I am not a fan of studies on adoptees and meta-analysis over such a large time frame and across multiple countries and conditions doesn’t wow me at all. Think about that – what would you all say about an adoptive parent study and breaks it down into subgroups of those challenged by infertility vs not, those that parent children with real long term issues vs surrendered at birth without drug or alcohol issue, that over the last 40 years it shows that there aren’t any challenges and no worries mate…giving it a thumbs up…

    All these studies do is cause the adoption industry to say “all is well” when they aren’t looking into what adult adoptees are saying are the things we actually face.

    Most of the adult adoptees I know would be in the “just fine” category on any of these studies – an most of them also have strong feelings on adoption related subjects, things like being treated as second-class citizens not having the legal right to know our orgins, how the adoption industry does not police its own and get rid of the bad apples and makes ethics the priority, how the lack of genetic origins knowledge impacts us physically and emotionally…and how we are thrown under the bus as mal-adjusted if we speak up about real ethical issues present in the world of adoption today…so much easier to simply dismiss those willing to speak up about tough issues than to listen and work together to speak up and make a difference.

  9. Avatar Mike Recant says:

    In support of this article I would reference people to the work of Dr. Tony Tan at the University of South Florida ( If my understanding of his work is correct, his research indicated that the psychological health of adoptive Chinese girls in the US is comparable to that of their American born Caucasian peers.

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