Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

What Is Adoption?

Adoption is the process by which an adult legally and permanently takes over parental responsibility for a child and, at the same time, the rights and responsibilities of the child’s biological parent(s) or legal guardian(s) are terminated. In rare cases, an adult may adopt another adult.

Understanding Adoption


Families have been formed by adoption for centuries; in recent years, psychologists have begun to investigate how adopted children and their adoptive families navigate their lives together. In an attempt to help children who have been adopted adjust and thrive in a new home, and to understand why problems may arise, studies look at the genetic as well as both prenatal and postnatal environmental influences on the development of children who have been adopted.

Other areas of interest to mental health professionals and researchers are the post-adoption experience and mindset of new parents and the adjustment of siblings, who—while they may be excited about the addition to their family—are often faced with unexpected emotional challenges of their own.

What are the psychological effects of adoption?

Adoption is complex, and adoptees themselves vary widely in their psychological response. Most must navigate feelings of loss and/or questions of identity formation, while a subset cope with traumatic experiences. Some adoptees, as a result, struggle with psychological disorders, behavioral challenges, or a sense of “not belonging” that can negatively affect their mental state. Cultural myths about adoption—like that adopted children should feel grateful for being “saved,” or that adoptive parents cannot love adopted children as much as they love their “real” children—can contribute to negative emotional and psychological effects.

Despite these obstacles, however, many adoptees grow up happy and well-adjusted. Adoptees who have close, honest relationships with their adoptive parents—and their birth parents, if applicable—may be more likely to feel secure in their identities and more capable of navigating adoption’s challenges.

Is adoption good or bad for children?

Adoption is not one-size-fits-all, and narratives that try to paint the practice as all good or all bad are likely missing some critical nuance and the wide range of possible experiences. Some adoptees report feeling supported and nurtured by their adoptive families; others feel misplaced or struggle with feelings of abandonment, grief, or guilt. As with biological children, there are sadly cases where adoptees were subject to abuse or trauma after being adopted.

Adoption has long been discussed in black-and-white terms—children who experience were painted as either “saved” or “traumatized,” with little room in-between. Recently, more nuanced discussions that incorporate the stories of adult adoptees suggest it is neither universally good nor universally bad; rather, the outcome depends on a wide variety of factors including the parent’s (or parents’) behavior, the child’s genetic makeup and personal history, personality traits of both parties, and the environment in which the child grows up.

article continues after advertisement

Essential Reads

Recent Posts