Adoption Paranoia (Not Every Issue is Related to Adoption)

Dawn Davenport


Adoption Paranoia

All children face issues growing up… adopted or not.

In last week’s blog I talked about trying to accept my teens and tweens need to dress in a uniform.  I understand the need for security clothing, just like I understood the need for a security blanket when they were younger; I just don’t always like their chosen uniform.  A well meaning newly adoptive mom emailed me to ask if I thought my children’s need to fit in with their peers was related to adoption, and if so, what she could do to prevent this from happening to her beloved child.  Her comment reminded me of one of my pet peeves with much of adoption literature today.  In our attempt to fully prepare adoptive parents for all the issues they may face, I think we risk creating an atmosphere of paranoia where every little thing portends a significant adoption related problem.

Peter and I attended an adoption support group when our second birth child was two in anticipation of adopting.  While at this meeting I listened to the parents discuss the adoption related problems their children faced.  One worried over her child’s dislike of being rocked; another was concerned about his child’s thumb sucking, and yet another talked about her child’s non stop motion.  I looked at Peter in horror.  Here we were with two children from birth that we had obviously screwed up royally because they were exhibiting most of these same “adoption symptoms”.

Our son had never liked to be rocked.  In fact, he wasn’t much for cuddling at any time.  He favored motion, the faster the better.  Up to this point I had not realized it was a problem and thought it boded well for his future in sports, but now realized that he probably had attachment issues.  Our daughter was the most orally fixated child I had ever seen.  Once she got past a very deep attachment to her thumb (no small fete, I might add), she started biting her nails and sucking on her shirts and hair.  Up until this point I just encouraged frequent hand washing and looked for shirts that were hard for her to get into her mouth.  I wasn’t sure what this fixation meant, but after the adoption meeting, I knew it probably wasn’t good.  I hated to think what it meant that my son preferred to sleep on the floor under his bed or that my daughter hid her clean underwear in the potted plants.

Not all Issues are Related to Adoption

Now all these years and two kids later I still don’t know why my kids do most of the things they do.  I’m not even sure I know why I behave like I do most of the time.  What I do know is that not all “weird” behavior is pathologic or predictive of future woes.  My son has bounced his way through life and started sleeping in a bed when he was 13.  (When asked why he moved to the bed, he said beds were more comfortable.  Duh!)  My daughter continues to bite her fingernails, but her shirts and hair are now dry and she hasn’t substituted cigarettes.  And, sad to say, I haven’t been on an underwear hunt in years.

All four of my children –adopted and non-adopted alike–at some point in their life have wanted to dress like their peers in a way that  intentionally sets them apart from me.  Come to think of it, so did I when I was their age.  My mother thought I looked ridiculous, and from the safety of adulthood, I agree.  There are many things I love about my body, none of which are enhanced by hip hugger jeans.

Adopted Kids are More Like Kids by Birth Than Not

I’m not trying to discount your fears or offer meaningless platitudes about everything turning out OK in the end.  You’ll get enough of that from others.  But in all my interviews and consulting with adoptive parents I’ve noticed a tendency in some to assume each “problem” their child is experiencing is related to adoption and an ill omen for the future.  I understand the need to try to make sense of our children’s behavior and strongly encourage you to get help soon and often.  But in our attempt to be proactive, I think we sometimes miss the point that adopted kids are more like birth kids than different.  In my experience, all kids can be pretty strange at times and it usually means nothing in the end.  As even Freud supposedly acknowledged, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

Image credit: appropos

09/06/2009 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 11 Comments

11 Responses to Adoption Paranoia (Not Every Issue is Related to Adoption)

  1. Avatar Amanda says:


    Thanks for this! I do get paranoid a lot!

  2. Avatar Monica says:

    I appreciate this post as well and whole-heartedly agree that adoption parents can be hyper-vigilante about quirky behavior. My only daughter, adopted 10 months ago, seems to have adjusted famously to being part of our family and having 2 parents. She certainly has us running around in circles, like any 22 month old. I have the unique perspective of being a psychotherapist so I’ve been working with families and their kids for many years. I have seem some of the oddest behaviors in regular old biological kids and while many adopted kids come through my door, their behaviors often need to be handled just like any other family. The exception to this are kids who were bounced around a lot in foster care and have some horrific events in their early lives. I also find that most adopted kids at some point have to deal with issues regarding loss and abandonment, but the reality is that we all have to deal with issues in our lives, depending on our circumstances. Just like divorce, trauma, losses, etc. we do not get out of childhood unscathed.

  3. Avatar Dawn says:

    Leanne Renee, I loved your ending comment about your aim improving with time. Amen! That is exactly what parenting is about–getting a bit better as we get to know our kids and ourselves a little better. Of course, the little buggers keep changing and maturing (we hope) so we have to change to keep up with them.

    As the parent of children by both birth and adoption, I can tell you that most birth children are not little images of their parents, no matter what the parents might want to believe.

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  5. Avatar Mirah Riben says:

    I think the key here is balance and recognizing fear. YOU have the advantage of being able to compare your parenting of adopted and non-adopted children. Parents who do to have that frame of reference, do not have that frame of reference.

    As a divorced parent, I am concerned about what behaviors are related to my children having lived through a very protracted divorce and custody battle. Like adoption, divorce is an unnatural and unwanted experience of loss for children and we cannot ignore its affects on them. I can tell you that it has and does effect every aspect of their lives, particularly their interpersonal relationships.

    Teen, pre-teen and young adult behavior needs to be treated differently than infant thumb sucking. When a teen acts “strangely” it may be normal teen strangeness – or it MAY in fact be adoption related. The best way to determine which is to ASK! Sit down with your teen and TALK TO THEDM and don’t be afraid to ask them if they have questions about their adoption. All too often adopted kids will not broach the subject because of fear of hurting YOU and then the the adoptive parents take this as a signal that they don;t want to or don’t need to talk about it. NOT TRUE! They need to be given PERMISSIOn to talk about their fears, questions, confusion, feelings of loss, rejection, abandonment. Would you not talk to them and help them deal with loss if a friend of theirs f=dies, or even a pet? They have experienced a LOSS and need to GRIEVE and mourn.

    Teens can be weird, but so too is adoption weird for them. help them normalize it and feel comfortable talking about it. Help them INTEGRATE it s it is part of who they are and they should not feel ashamed or afraid to talk about it. Their curiosity about their original family is normal and not a threat to you.

    Find opportunities to open the door.

    One smart adoptive mother told me many years ago that she observed her teen studying his face in the mirror. As she walked past, she said: “I bet you wonder who you look like. I do.” This was a light way of opening the door for more conversation in a very non-threatening way.

    Note: Adopted teens often DO try to associate with underdogs or outcasts as they sense that that is where they came from. Identity crisis is very real in teen years and IS very much more complicated for adopted teens. Do not ever make too light of, or totally ignore, it.

  6. Avatar Rope says:

    No complaints on this end, simply a good piece.

  7. Avatar Leanne Renee says:

    We have four adopted children….the oldest 3 adopted as a sib set at 8, 6, and 4. Then their birthmom had another baby and we were blessed again! While we need to be careful not to over react, kids are kids….we need to do what all parents do, stay a couple steps ahead at all times!! I used to laugh when friends would tell me to “pick my battles”..that’s easier when your children are little images of their parents, but our adopted children aren’t. I fought every battle cause I didn’t know which one would be my child’s biggest struggle. Now that I know them better than they know themselves I can relax a bit and my aim is better!

  8. Avatar Mike says:

    Yes, I do think we adoptive parents take things too far and worry too much about every little thing. I know my wife and I are guilty of this for sure. It helps to hear that we can relax a little. By the way, our son is so wonderful that we have little to worry about.

  9. Avatar randi says:

    Ughh, I just saw myself in your blog. I know I am guilty of adoption paranoia, but I sure hated seeing myself depicted so clearly. I have become convinced that my child has attachment issues even though my husband and social worker thinks shw is perfectly attached and just a typical child. It is hard when your sdopted child is your only child. My friends with bio kids try to point out to me that my child acts just like theirs, so now maybe I’ll listen, espcially since our social worker keeps telling me to not look for problems. Thank you Dawn for a humorous look at myself.

  10. Avatar Suzanne Smith says:

    Dawn — This is a subject that has also rankled me a bit. We had three birth children when we adopted. Prior to our adoption, the adoptoin literature I read attributed certain behaviors to “adoption.” Yet all of my birth children exhibited these same kinds of behavior — weird phobias, bad dreams, odd obsessions, surprising fixations etc… Our adoptive daughter (now 4) currently has a serious bug phobia which has turned into a bizarre fascination of collecting bugs; is obsessed with hand washing after using the bathroom and stands outside the bathroom door yelling at everyone – even guests – to remember to wash their hands; still sucks her fingers in every new situation and likes to settle arguments with her 8-year-old brother with a slap to his head. Adoption behavior? It’s possible I suppose. But I think it is much more likely that this is just kid behavior so I don’t “worry” about any of it.

  11. What a great perspective! We have been home 8+ months now with our Li’l Empress and attachment has been, by and large, fabulous. She’s well-loved and very loving. Confident, outrageously extroverted, and already exhibiting the security of pushing and testing our boundaries. Typical toddler behavior. I laughingly told the hubby the other night that she’s officially driving me as nuts getting her two year molars as did her four older non-adopted sibs.

    I do admit that there’s always a caution light blinking in the back of my mind, looking out for signals I might otherwise be missing or behaviors that regress back to the first weeks with her. But a fellow adoptive mom gave me great advice in the days before we traveled that has kept that caution light firmly balanced and in check:

    “Don’t look for things that aren’t there.”

    That system of checks and balances in my head have kept us sane. And allowed us to enjoy the crazy, exuberant ride with this precious one whom GOD Himself planted into our family.

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