As most of the regular readers of this blog or listeners to the Creating a Family radio shows know, I am a research geek.  I love nothing more than curling up with a good peer reviewed journal.  Meta analyses and longitudinal studies make me swoon.  But as much as I like research for research sake, I particularly like research that offers practical suggestions for parents, especially parents like me.  So you can imagine my excitement at the release of the new report by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute titled “Beyond Culture Camps: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation in Adoption”. We had a preview of this report when I interviewed the lead author, Hollee McGinnis, on the Aug. 5, 2009 Creating a Family radio show on Identity and the Adopted Child.

Most adoption by US parents, both domestic and international, involves children of color being adopted by Caucasian parents.  This study by the Adoption Institute was designed to compare identity formation in inter-racially adopted adults and adult adoptees adopted by same race (white) parents.  Some of the press coverage of this report has failed to note that this study was narrowly focused on identity formation and was not intended to evaluate psychological adjustment of transracially adopted children.  The vast majority of research has found that the psychological adjustment of transracially adopted children and adolescents are very similar to same-race adopted children, particularly when they were adopted early in life.

This study was one of the largest studies of identity formation focused on adult adoptees.  Researchers compared the responses on an extensive questionnaire by 179 adults born in South Korea and adopted by two Caucasian parents with the responses of 156 Caucasian adult adoptees born in the U.S. and adopted by two White parents.  82% of all respondents were women. The white respondents were on average 13 years older than the Korean respondents. (White mean age 44, Korean mean age 31)

“Identity” involves answering the all important “who am I” question.  This report examines two separate but related identities for adopted adults: 1) their identity as an adopted person, and 2) their identity with their racial/ethnic group.  “Who am I” takes on an added degree of complexity with adoption, because “the reality for all adopted people is that they have dual identities – one related to biology and the other to adoption”.   Transracially adopted people have yet another identity hurdle to jump since they have to make sense of who they are as a member of their racial or ethnic group without the help of parents who have walked that road before.  Researchers call this the “transracial adoption paradox” — being a part of a minority group in society by virtue of birth, but identifying with the majority by virtue of adoption.

Now let’s get to some of the interesting findings in this study.  I should add that this is my interpretation of what’s interesting from the standpoint of a transracial adoptive parent and an adoption educator.  In other words, I don’t pretend to lack bias in what I’ve selected as “interesting”.  One of the first things that struck me was the amount of discrimination the respondents reported.  The survey distinguished between discrimination based on race and discrimination based on adoptive status, and the results were fascinating.  The majority of Korean respondents (78%) reported that as children they “sometimes/often/all the time “experienced teasing because of their racial status, but only 22 % indicated being teased as children because of being adopted.  The Korean adoptees found racial discrimination “sometimes/fairly often/very often” coming from strangers (80%), classmates (75%), childhood friends (48%), and teachers (39%).  One-third also experienced discrimination in the workplace, from extended family and from their partners’ parents.

More white adoptees (35%) were teased as children because of being adopted, with the discrimination coming from extended family (40%) and childhood friends (28%).  This study concludes that “race trumps adoption for transracially adopted persons”, but equally interesting to me was the degree of adoption prejudice white adoptees experienced from both family and friends.  I want to believe that this degree of prejudice does not exist today (remember that the average age of white adoptee was 44.), but it makes you wonder.

The next interesting finding was how the importance of adoption increases with age.  The researchers thought that adoption and racial identity issues would peak during adolescents, but their results did not support this assumption.  The importance of adoptive identity increased for the Koreans (73%) in college and remained high into young adulthood and beyond.  There was a similar pattern for White adoptees through high school, although adoption identity issues did not increase in college.  It might be fair to say that much of the “work” of adoption and racial/ethnic identity for transracially adopted people occurs in adulthood, although no doubt the foundation is laid in childhood and adolescence.

This study tried to tease out what factors were related to comfort with adoptive status in adult adoptees.  They found that for the Korean adopted adults, three factors predicted comfort with adoption identity: gender (females were more comfortable with their adoption); satisfaction with life (higher satisfaction predicted greater comfort with adoption); and self-esteem (higher self esteem predicted greater comfort with adoption).

For the White respondents, only two factors significantly influenced comfort with adoption identity: higher satisfaction with life predicted greater comfort with their adoption, while (quite surprising to me) diversity in their childhood communities predicted less comfort with adoption identity.  Again, I want to believe that things have changed in the last 40+ years.  The measures of comfort with racial/ethnic identity were really only relevant to the Korean adoptees, and two factors were significant predictors of comfort with their racial/ethnic identity: The higher their self esteem, the greater their comfort with their racial identity, and the more closely they identified themselves as Korean Americans, the more comfortable they were.

A significant majority of the transracial adoptees in the study described a progression from thinking of themselves as White or wanting to be White when they were children (78%), to going through a period of discomfort with their race/ethnicity, to finally achieving as adults a level of acceptance of themselves as Asian-Americans raised by parents of a different race.

Now to the part all adoptive parents are waiting for, what can we do to help our kids develop a healthy identity as an adopted person and as a person of a different race from us. The questionnaire included a variety of experiences and respondents were asked about the availability of these experiences or services to them, whether they utilized these experiences or services, and the extent to which they felt each experience or service would have helped them in forming a positive identity had it been available to them.  The following lists in order of importance the activities the transracially adopted adults thought would be helpful in forming their identity as an adopted person of a different race than their parents.

  • Travel to birth country-74% thought would have been helpful
  • Attend racially diverse schools -73%
  • Having child care providers, teachers, adult role models same race/ethnicity -73%
  • Family travel to culturally significant places -72%
  • Read information from Internet- 71%
  • Live in racially diverse neighborhood -70%
  • Books/Articles on adoption -68%
  • Cook food or dine at restaurants -68%
  • Regular contact with people of same race/ethnicity -67%
  • Exposure to multi-cultural entertainment -64%
  • Take classes learn history/culture of birth country -64%
  • Having siblings (presumably transracially adopted siblings, although this wasn’t specified) -63%
  • Events by adult adoptees/adult adoptee organizations -63%
  • Support group for adoptees -62%
  • Involve ethnically diverse religious, social groups/activities -62%
  • Culture camp -61%
  • Study birth language -59%
  • Events sponsored by own ethnic group -55%
  • Have traditional objects (dolls etc.) from birth country -49%
  • Having contact with birth relatives -47%
  • Study martial art, traditional dance etc. -38%

The resources that White adoptees perceived as most helpful in building healthy identities were having contact with birth relatives (45% have had contact and 72% think it would be helpful), having siblings (again, presumably adopted siblings–70% have, and 68% think it would be helpful), reading books or articles on adoption (75% have, and 66% think it’s helpful), and reading information on the internet ( 75% have, and 62% think it would be helpful).

These results are a mixed blessing to transracially adoptive parents.  Some of the “easy” things such as surrounding our kids with toys from their birth country, sending them to language schools or culture camps, and going to ethnic celebrations and activities aren’t the most helpful.  Attending racially diverse schools and surrounding our kids with adult role models of their race or ethnicity are harder but ultimately more useful.  We talked about this at length on the June 3, 2009 Creating a Family radio show on Becoming a Multicultural or Multiracial Family Through Adoption. The results were a resounding confirmation of taking a family trip to your child’s birth culture.  For same race adoptions, the results argue very favorably for open adoptions to some degree.

This study provides valuable information for adoption professionals and adoptive parents.  I do have a few quibbles with the design.

  • The participants in this study were not randomly selected from the universe of adult Korean adoptees and they self-selected to participate. I’ve been fascinated over the years by the differences I’ve heard from adopted adults who are active in the “adoption community” and those who are not.  I’ve interviewed many of both, and while there is nothing scientific about my impressions, those adult adoptees involved with the adoption community through participation in adult adoptee conferences, internet forums, and organizations are certainly more conversant with adoption language and adoption political correctness.  Many of them have more curiosity and interest in adoption “issues”.  From the way the participants in this study were solicited, it looks like most are connected to the adoption community.  This is not necessarily bad and doesn’t negate what we can learn from them, but it does leave me wondering if those individuals who are struggling with their identity are more likely to seek out and participate in the adoption community and to fill out the lengthy questionnaire required for this study.  .
  • I would have liked to see a few of the questions asked differently to be most helpful to me as an adoptive parent and educator.  For example , one of the things I was most looking forwarded to in this report was what can parents do to facilitate identity development in our kids.  When asking about the experiences that helped them in identity formation the question asked did they utilize the service and would it have been helpful if they had utilized it. I want to know what was actually helpful to them, not what would have been helpful if they had been exposed to it.  It’s possible that I’m missing something here, but that is how I read the question.
  • As far as I can tell, this study was not submitted to a peer reviewed journal.  There is no way to tell whether it would stand up to the rigors of a peer review.
  • We can’t say for sure whether the experience of non Asian adopted children will be the same.  Their experience may be different depending on the extent to which their race or ethnicity is represented in our population and the level of prejudice toward their particular racial/ethnic group.
  • This study was not able to control for the significant age difference between the two compared groups.  A thirteen year age difference could well influence findings especially when findings about identity formation.  A lot is settled between the mean ages of 31 and 44.

However, in the scheme of things, these are small questions.  This study provides us with valuable information on how better to raise adopted kids in general and transracially adopted kids in specific.  As always, we owe a debt to the great work done by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.

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