Understanding Identity Achievement in Adoptees: A Closer Look

November 13, 2023

Adolescence is a pivotal time for identity formation, a process that can be particularly complex for adoptees. The journey towards identity achievement in adoptees is often influenced by their unique experiences and challenges.

The Struggle for Identity in Adoptees

Adolescents typically navigate through identity statuses including diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium, and achievement. However, for many adoptees, the phase of exploration is overshadowed by experiences of disconnection, gaslighting, suppression, or rejection from their original ethnicity, culture, and birth origin. This disconnection can lead to delayed identity exploration and crisis, potentially prolonging the journey towards identity achievement.

Insights from Research

A study led by Harold D. Grotevant and colleagues provides valuable insights into this phenomenon. The research focused on how adoptive identity, measured during adolescence, impacts adjustment difficulties in emerging adulthood. Adoptees face unique challenges in identity development due to information gaps about their personal stories and histories, which can act as barriers in their identity formation process. These challenges are compounded by factors such as pre- and post-adoption circumstances, including abuse, neglect, or ethnic and racial discrimination.

The study categorized adolescent adoptees based on their depth of identity exploration, salience, internal consistency, flexibility, positive and negative affects towards their adoption. These categories ranged from unexamined to integrated adoptive identity. Follow-up research showed that these categories correlated with internalizing behaviors like anxiety and depression, particularly in those with an unsettled adoptive identity.

The Role of Communication and Support

The importance of open communication about adoption is highlighted in the study. Adoptees often think about their adoption but may hesitate to discuss it with their parents, fearing to upset them. This underscores the need for supportive environments where adoptees can freely express and explore their feelings about their adoption.

Additionally, adoptees’ responses to their adoption are varied and change over their lifespan. This individual variability necessitates a person-centered approach in therapeutic settings. Parents are advised to seek clinicians trained in adoption issues, as adoptees generally seek mental health services at higher rates than the general population.


The path to identity achievement in adoptees is nuanced and requires a deeper understanding of their unique experiences. Supportive environments, open communication, and specialized care are crucial in helping adoptees navigate their identity formation journey. By acknowledging and addressing these specific needs, we can better assist adoptees in achieving a sense of identity that is both coherent and fulfilling.

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