Skip to content

How To Know If You Need A Therapist Who Specializes in Adoption

Many parents tell me that they are confused about what behaviors are normal and what behaviors signify that their child needs professional help due to an adoption issue. The answer lies in what adoption competent therapists have come to know as the “lifelong issues in adoption” and the “normal and predictable developmental milestones” for adoptees and their families. As a profession we have learned that adopted individuals and their families experience the same set of core issues in the same developmental periods. For example, just like all children begin to walk and talk around the same time, all adoptee’s curiosity about their adoption occurs around the same developmental period. Although the specific experiences of each individual and family will vary, there is a commonality of emotional experiences that will occur around the same time for all adoptees and their families. Adoptee’s questions about their first families and about adoption is normal, healthy and predictable and within this framework we can anticipate and normalize when adopted individuals need a little help from an adoption competent therapist.

When I first started seeing Rebecca (not her real name) and her family, she was 6 six years old. Up until that point she had been content with her adoption story and, “how we became a family” and “how much we wanted you”. As a preschool she enjoyed telling her adoption story. Entering kindergarten, however, gave her more access and exposure to the bigger world of primarily non-adopted friends and families. As her mind began to expand and her thinking became more mature, she began to think more intently on the “whys” of her adoption. She began to realize that there was another side to the coin of “being wanted” and that side of the coin held bewilderment, loss, insecurity, sadness and the worry of why she was not wanted.

She began to ask more questions about her adoption as her need to know more of her adoption story increased. The more open her parents were, the more questions she was able to formulate in her mind. This was a good thing because it allowed her parents insight into what was percolating in her mind. We now know that this curiosity affects all adopted children at about the same developmental point, just as most teens go through similar issues surrounding identity around the same time.

Because children act out what they feel inside, their grief, sorrow or worry does not look as you might expect of an adult. Rebecca’s behavior became more sassy, defiant, aggressive yet clingy. In school she demonstrated an inability to attend to her schoolwork. Because her parents did not know what questions to ask, they were not aware that classmates were asking her “where is your real mom?” and “why didn’t she keep you?” Fortunately, Rebecca’s parents recognized that she was struggling and sought out an adoption competent therapist and began to learn ways to help their daughter.

Selecting and Working With an Adoption Competent Therapist – Fact Sheet for Families

Author(s): Child Welfare Information Gateway Year Published: 2005

Adoption is an event that has a life-long effect on everyone involved. Adoption brings unique rewards as well as challenges to families, and sometimes families will need or want professional help as concerns or problems arise. Timely intervention by a professional skilled in adoption issues often can prevent issues common to adoption from becoming more serious problems that might be more difficult to resolve.

The type (e.g., individual, family, and group) and duration of therapy will vary depending on many variables, including the kinds of problems being addressed. Some families build a relationship with a therapist over years, “checking in” for help as needed. Other families might find they need a therapist’s help only once or twice. Sometimes a difficulty a child is experiencing is very obviously connected to adoption, but sometimes the connection is not readily apparent. On the other hand, issues that seem to be related to adoption, after investigation, turn out not to be related to adoption at all. Clinicians with adoption knowledge and experience are best suited to help families identify connections between problems and adoption and to plan effective treatment strategies.

Finding the right therapist can seem like a daunting task, especially when parents may be feeling overwhelmed or burdened by the difficulties for which they are seeking help. Parents should take the time to shop around for a mental health provider who has the experience and expertise required to effectively address their family’s needs. At minimum, an adoption competent therapist will:

  1. Be knowledgeable about adoption and the psychological impact of adoption on children and families
  2. Be experienced in working with adopted children and their families

You can locate a therapist who has the experience and training best suited to your needs by emailing Dr Carlis at: