fear that an adopted child will be like a birth parent

Adopted kids have two sets of parents:

–parents that gave birth to them and shared their DNA, and

–parents who will raise them and share their home and environment.

Often this duality is a source of joy to adoptive parents–hoping that our child inherits his birth mom’s mechanical abilities and his birth dad’s smile. But sometimes the reality of first families can be unsettling.

Since we adopted our son at birth, we have learned some very upsetting things about his biological father. Even though I know my son is not his birth father, there are times when he looks just like him, and it is scary to both my husband and me. There are even some pictures that we don’t display because they are the ones where our son looks so much like his birth father. He is just a baby now, but we are really struggling with the fear that he will somehow turn out just like his birth dad. I know this isn’t logical, and I never want our son to be ashamed about his history or his birth parents. *

I’m so very glad that you realize that this is something both you and your husband need to work through in order to be the best parents possible for this beautiful boy. I’m not a mental health professional, but if it were me, I would need to approach it on both the intellectual level and the emotional level, and I would want to start with the intellectual because my emotions will often follow.

Nature vs. Nurture in Adoption

I am fascinated with what current research is showing us about what traits are inherited, which are more fully controlled by environment, and which are a mix between the two. A tremendous amount of research has been done on how genetics influences (or not) our temperament, personality, behavior, and physical and mental health. Creating a Family has some fantastic resources on this (in part because I’m fascinated by this topic). Check these out:

We’re a Mix

Bottom line is that we humans are a mash-up between our genes and our environment, but behavior is far more influenced by environment. For example, let’s say your son’s birth father was impulsive. This is a highly inheritable condition, so it is likely that your son would also be impulsive. But that is where the similarity ends.

Your son’s birth father was likely raised in an environment that did not support him. His impulsivity may have resulted in beatings, and the school labeling him as stupid and bad. He may have withdrawn from his family, dropped out of school, and started on a path towards making poor life decisions. He may have self-medicated with alcohol and drugs.

Your son, however, does not need to follow this script. He will be raised by parents that will have him evaluated and diagnosed with ADHD. You will get him resources to aid him as he grows. You will make sure that he is supported in school, even if it requires meeting with the school regularly or sending him to a school that specializes in ADHD. You will set up routines in your home and life to provide structure, and gradually as he ages you will help him set up these routines for himself. You will wrestle with the decision of whether to use ADHD medication and decide what is best for you son.

You will not label his impulsivity as “bad”, but will encourage him in activities where this trait is an asset. As he gets ready to go to college, you will help him identify careers that reward or at least support people with ADHD. And your boy will become a marketing genius or win the Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

We could apply this same analysis to other highly heritable traits that he may inherit from his birth father. It is also possible that the genes for addiction or bi-polar might be passed on from his father, but you go in forewarned and on the lookout. You will talk with him about the fact that his birthfather was an alcoholic or addicted to drugs and encourage him to be cautious. You will educate him on the importance of seeking mental health counseling when you are having problems so he will be accepting of help if he needs it. (Also note that while bi-polar has a genetic connection, it is still unlikely that children with one bi-polar parent will develop this illness.)

In short, while we inherit genes, our environment is far more likely to influence how these genes play out in our lives.

Coping with the Emotions

It’s all fine and good to address this on the intellectual level, but while our emotions often follow, sometimes they get stuck. I would encourage you and your husband to seek short term counseling to help you put this knowledge and information in perspective. What you don’t want is to have these worries floating through your mind when this beautiful baby turns into a defiant 2 year old who says no to your every request or sneaky 7 year old who goes through the typical sticky finger stage and swipes a candy bar in the checkout aisle. Your son deserves parents who have worked past their hang-ups so that they can handle his behavior without overreacting because of fear.

Other Creating a Family Resources You Will Enjoy

Have you ever feared that you child will turn out just like their birth family?

*This is a paraphrase of two separate questions we received.