Adopted Adolescents' Preoccupation with Adoption: The Impact on Adoptive Family Relationships

Article excerpt

This study examines the relationship between the intensity of adopted adolescents' thinking about their adoptions and their adoptive family relationships. Participants included 135 adopted adolescents involved in an ongoing study of openness in adoption. Adolescents who reported high levels of preoccupation with adoption reported greater alienation from their adoptive fathers than did adolescents who reported moderate or low levels of preoccupation. Adolescents with extremely high levels of preoccupation reported significantly higher levels of alienation and significantly lower levels of trust for their adoptive mothers and fathers than adolescents with extremely low levels of preoccupation. These findings, along with the divergences between adolescents' perceptions of dyadic and overall family relationships, are discussed in terms of how they relate to the process of adoptive identity exploration.

Key Words: adoption, family relationships, identity development, parent-adolescent relationships.

Adopted persons differ in the degrees to which they are curious about birthparents or their biological heritage (Sachdev, 1989). The desire of some adopted adults to gain information about their background or to establish contact with their birthparents or other birthfamily members has been a topic of particular interest within the field of adoption research (see Bertocci & Schechter, 1991; Haugaard, Schustack, & Dorman, 1998). Often, this curiosity has been linked to adopted persons' psychological development, most notably their formation of a sense of identity (Sobol & Cardiff, 1983).

From a developmental perspective, identity formation-achieving a cohesive definition of the self while individuating from parents or family-- is thought to be the primary developmental task of adolescence (Erikson, 1968). Although all adolescents construct a global sense of identity, adoption adds an additional dimension of "differentness" to integrate into one's overall sense of self (Grotevant, 1997). Moreover, it is thought that adopted adolescents construct an adoptive identity-a unique meaning of what it means to be an adopted person (Grotevant, Dunbar, Kohler, & Esau, 2000). The focus of this study is the connection between these identity development processes and adoptive family relationships.

Because of the transpiring "identity work," increased distance is hypothesized to occur between adoptive parents and children during adolescence (Sobol, Delaney, & Earn, 1994). This study explores the relationship between the intensity of adolescents' thinking about their own adoptions and birthparents and their family relationships. Specifically, it seeks to determine whether adolescents who report greater preoccupation with their adoptions or birthparents also report different levels of alienation, trust, and communication with their adoptive mothers and fathers and different levels of overall family functioning. It further investigates the role of openness in adoption and gender in these dynamics.

In the following sections, we review the literature on searching as it relates to adopted adolescents' identity exploration, openness in adoption, and adoptive family relationships. The searching literature often uses the term "search" loosely, encompassing a wide range of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors pertaining to adopted persons' strong interest in learning more about their birthparents, from "intense curiosity" about birthparents to actual search behavior, such as trying to locate them through the use of the Internet or phone directories (Stein & Hoopes, 1985). For the purposes of this research, searching is conceptualized in its broadest sense-as a marker of curiosity. The underlying assumption of this research is that curiosity about adoption and birthparents is expressed differently during different developmental stages. Although this study does not investigate actual search behavior, it does examine behaviors that are believed to more aptly capture the ways that adolescents express their curiosity about adoption-intense, reflective thinking. …