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The Impact of Adoption and How Open Sky Can Support

The Open Sky Clinical Team

Adoption is a complex experience that can come with a myriad of joys and challenges. Awareness of the emotions and issues associated with adoption can help families better understand each other and the effects of the adoption experience for those involved.* 

In this blog, we explore some of the core impacts of adoption, and how Open Sky can help support students and families navigating these challenges.  

*Adoption impacts three primary parties: adopted children, adoptive parents, and birth parents. This known as the adoption triad. While the core impacts of adoption affect every part of the triad, this blog focuses specifically on adopted children and adoptive parents, as those are the populations we work most closely with at Open Sky. 

Impacts of Adoption

Loss and Grief

While adoption results in a range of emotional impacts, loss is the central issue faced by those involved with adoption. People who were adopted may lose their birth families, a cultural connection, or language. If they were adopted when older, they might lose friends, foster families, schools, pets, neighborhoods, or familiar surroundings.  

Adoptive parents may experience loss associated with incomplete pregnancies, failed fertility treatments, or expectations of raising a child with whom they are genetically connected. 

Adoption-related loss and the resulting grief is difficult to understand and often overlooked by larger society, making it challenging for those experiencing it to know how to grieve. In general, society regards adoptions as a ‘win’ for all involved, while missing the pain and grief experienced by those affected by the process. 

 

Rejection 

People who were adopted often feel a sense of rejection from their birth parents, which can lead to challenges with self-esteem and forming a sense of belonging. Some may project their feelings of rejection, anger, and abandonment onto their adoptive parents.  

Adoptive parents might perceive their child’s challenges as a subtle or outright rejection and wonder if they were meant to be a parent.

 

Shame and Guilt

Adopted children might feel ashamed that their birth parents were unable to raise them. Furthermore, because society often positions adoptees as “lucky” for having been “chosen,” they might feel shame and guilt for the deep feelings they experience associated with   their adoption.  

Adoptive parents might feel ashamed that they were unable to have biological children or for the challenges their family is experiencing related to adoption. Feelings of shame and guilt can heighten a sense of grief.  

A person stands and looks at the sky, silhouetted against the sunset.
Identity

Identity development is already a central experience for young people. It can be especially confusing for those who were adopted. Students may want answers to questions that could help them form their identities, such as who their birth parents are and if they have any siblings. 

Adoptive parents might struggle with their identities in their adopted child’s life. Seeing their child struggle might give rise to identity issues around their role as a parent.  

 

Relationships

Because of feelings of shame, guilt, and rejection, adopted children may avoid forming close relationships with others as a way to prevent experiencing new loss. 

For family members, the circumstances that led to adoption— an inability to conceive, for example—might put a strain on family relationships and effect the dynamic into which they’re bringing a child.  

 

Mastery and Control

Adoption requires everyone involved to relinquish some sense of feeling in control. Young people who were adopted likely were not involved in the decisions that led to their adoption, especially if they were adopted as an infant or young child. This can lead to lowered sense of self-responsibility, and young people who were adopted may engage in power struggles with their parents as an attempt to regain control.  

For adoptive parents, the adoption process can be cumbersome and stressful, leading to a sense of helplessness as well as a less engaged style of parenting. Conversely, parents may try to regain a sense of control by using a strict and dominating parenting style, which can strain the family relationship. 

Adoption is a Unique Experience

While the above list provides a general overview of potential challenges of the adoption experience, it is important to remember that adoption effects everyone differently, and no two adoption experiences are the same. How, when, and if someone is affected by the challenges of adoption depend on many factors, such as personality, family dynamics, and what is happening in the world around them. Some students are openly angry about their adoption; others over-identify with their biological parents; while others simply have never given their adoption the attention it deserves, despite experiencing deep emotions they may not understand. 

Open Sky works with each student and family individually. The information we gather as we get to know them is what ultimately determines our clinical approach. Our goal is to help students and families develop the necessary skills to navigate the developmental stages of life. This process provides a framework for students and families to better understand and contextualize the relevance of adoption in their own family system. 

Clinical Therapist Sam Verutti walks with an Open Sky Wilderness Therapy student against. backdrop of yellow and green oak brush.

Support from Open Sky

 Therapeutic Relationship

The therapeutic relationship built with their Open Sky therapist is foundational to the work that occurs for each student. The therapist builds trust and rapport, creating an emotionally safe environment. This is always necessary for effective therapeutic treatment and particularly helpful for those who are experiencing challenges related to adoption. When adoption is a clinical issue for a student, we use a clinical approach that is relational, trauma-informed, attachment-focused, and family-centered. Open Sky therapists are well-experienced in the range of issues associated with adoption.  

 

Community

Each student at Open Sky comes into a team of peers that can help them make sense of their experience. Students deepen their understanding of themselves and build connections with others through group therapy sessions in addition to their individual sessions. Exploring shared experience this way can help students feel less alone and form authentic, trusting, and healthy relationships.    

When appropriate, we also bring students from different teams together to connect about things they have in common. Adoption is one such group; however, we create many opportunities for students to connect with each other about the vast number of things they have in common, not just adoption. 

 We provide similar experiences of community and connection for parents. Through opportunities like Wellness Weekend, Monday night support calls, the Family Quest intensive, and graduation councils, families connect with other families facing similar challenges. They build a sense of community and belonging and come to understand that they are not alone in this journey. 

A group of Open Sky Wilderness Therapy students and parents sit together in a tent during a graduation ceremony.
Holding Space for Grief

Wilderness can help students actively explore the grief and loss associated with adoption, which is often overlooked. This happens through individual and group therapy, psychoeducation, assigned book readings, journaling assignments, and therapeutic interventions using elements from nature. 

Wilderness is rife with opportunities for ceremonies and rites of passage. These are utilized individually and intentionally to honor a student’s past, current, and future. Creating a designated space to grieve and honor old hurts is often cited by our adopted students as one of the most powerful interventions they experience while at Open Sky. 

 

Identity and Core Values

Most of our students are working to better understand themselves and their place in the world. Cultivating a sense of identity is a normal developmental task for all young people. This is also true, albeit often more complicated, for students who were adopted. 

 At Open Sky, we help students form a sense of self by identifying and exploring their personal values system. Not having a clear set of values to live by can cause students to feel uncomfortable, dissatisfied, depressed, and frustrated. By consciously considering their values, students and families are able to develop self-understanding and confidence.  

Both the Student and Family Pathways provide many exercises, questions, and examples for students and families to consider as they begin to explore who they are and their value systems. Guides and parent coaches are also great role models for showing families how our thoughts, words, and actions reflect what is most important to us.   

A mother hugs her child during graduation at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy.
Coping Skills

Open Sky students learn tangible skills that empower them to slow down and tune into their emotional experience. Without external distraction, students in wilderness can begin to contemplate how their behaviors may be emotionally motivated, the underlying cause of such behaviors, and how to develop healthier habits moving forward. They learn and practice a variety of coping skills, including yoga, mindfulness and breathing exercises, and communication tools, which can help adopted students navigate feelings of rejection, shame, guilt, and grief.  

As students are learning these valuable skills in the field, parents are also learning and practicing them. Together, families learn to navigate challenges and move into a healthier dynamic.  

 

Resilience

Experiencing power and control in a healthy, constructive way is extremely important for individuals whose conceptualization of their identity begins with powerlessness or a complete loss of control. Adopted students and adoptive parents can begin to regain a sense of control by developing resilience, or the ability to navigate stress and recover from adversity, grief, and trauma. The practices we employ in the field at Open Sky are designed to nurture resilient behaviors, thoughts, and actions, so adopted students and adoptive families may thrive. 

Key Takeaways

  • The adoption triad is composed of adopted children, adoptive parents, and birth parents. Each part of the triad experiences impacts and emotions associated with the adoption.  
  • The core impacts of adoption are: loss and grief, rejection, shame and guilt, identity, relationships, and mastery and control.  
  • Adoption effects everyone differently, and no two adoption experiences are the same. Open Sky works with each student and family individually to determine our clinical approach. Open Sky therapists are well-experienced in the range of issues associated with adoption. 
  • Open Sky can help students and families navigate challenges related to adoption through building therapeutic relationships, cultivating community, holding space for grief, exploring identity and values, learning coping skills, and developing resilience. 

Other Resources

The Primal Wound – Nancy Newton Verrier 

Twenty Things Adopted Kids Which their Adoptive Parents Knew – Sherrie Eldridge 

April 5th, 2023

The Open Sky Clinical Team