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