By Dorothea McArthur, PhD, ABPP

I have been doing psychotherapy with members of the adoption triangle (adoptee, adoptive couple, birth family) for the past fifteen years. Each person has taught me how they feel about and cope with adoption. I am also a member of the adoption triangle.

Society likes to think that adoption is just a “joyful problem solving event” in which everyone gets what they want and everyone lives “happily ever after.” I have come to understand that society places subtle but enormous pressure on adoption triangle members to act in a manner that confirms that this is true.

There are some families where adoption issues are never mentioned; the family acts as if there is nothing to ever talk about. Some adoptees seem to adjust with no trouble and never request any information about their biological parents (usually labeled by adoptees as “other” or “real” parents). Other adoptees just sense that their adoptive parents are unable to talk about birthfamily.

However, for many adoption triangle members, the story is not quite so simple. Many adoption triangle members experience, from time to time, feelings related to the normal and natural seven core issues of adoption (as presented by Sharon Kaplan Roszia). These feelings are loss, rejection, guilt/shame, grief, confused identity, thwarted intimacy, and thwarted mastery/control. Adoptees may also feel that “they are looking into a different mirror” when they receive validation, criticism and support from their adoptive family. This is especially the case when they are placed in a home in which the talents, strengths, interests, and culture are different from their birthfamily. For instance, a slender, willowy kinesthetic dancer adoptee may be negatively labeled as “skinny” “emotional” and “not very academic” if raised in a short stocky engineering family. If she had remained with her birthfamily, she might well have been called “slender, graceful and creative.”

Many adoptees seem to have a sense that they were adopted even before they are told. Some worry about being displaced again. Some handle this worry by being very cooperative. They do what they are told as well as they can, hoping that they can gain control over never being rejected again. Other adoptees decide to test limits when they feel concern about being relinquished. They will do something wrong and wait to see if they get rejected. If these acting-out children experience support and firm limits instead of rejection, they feel reassured.

The overadaptive adoptee is perhaps the easier one, superficially, to raise. A disadvantage is that they often hide any feelings that might be perceived by others as negative. They are the ones who make society feel that adoption is merely a “joyful problem-solving event.”

The acting-out adoptees can be more overtly troublesome to work with. If teachers and parents do not understand what they are trying to do, they can be inappropriately labeled the “bad seed.” Sometimes they are rejected again. However, it is easy to determine when an acting-out adoptee is upset. After the acting-out episode, they are often available to process some important and valid feelings which result in an intimate exchange. Acting out tends to happen during transitions, holidays, travel, separations from adoptive parents, and the adoptee’s birthdays.

The very bottom line for an adoptee is that they had to leave the most important person in their lives after having a nine-month relationship in utero. Whether they talk about it or not, this is a major event with lifelong psychological repercussions.

Psychotherapists with a specialty in adoption can often be helpful on an periodic basis by:

  1. helping an infertile couple decide to adopt,
  2. helping a birthmother or birthfather to grieve the loss of a baby placed for adoption,
  3. helping an adoptive couple reach and understand the unresolved feelings of an adoptee that might be overadaptive,
  4. setting limits and working through expressed issues for an adoptee who acts out,
  5. helping adoptive triangle members search for each other and arrange for a reunion,
  6. aiding an adoptee in diagnosing and setting up an individualized educational program since quite a few adoptees work with learning difficulties or ADHD.

Adoption triangle members are entitled to this kind of support because adoption is a truly different form of family building.

Dorothea McArthur is a Diplomate Clinical Psychologist practicing in Los Angeles.  She is President of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.  She can be reached at 323-663-2340. Her email is

Copyright 2019 by Dorothea McArthur, PhD, ABPP