Ask A Therapist:
What Are The Greatest Struggles of Adoptees?

Therapists hanging out and commenting at Adoptee Restoration was something I didn't envision when I started, but it's happened quite a bit, to my delight.

Karen Caffrey, LPC, JD is a therapist I've been privileged to meet here on the blog. She gives valuable feedback on the AR Facebook page and I've come to appreciate her contributions and expertise and am interviewing her today. She specializes in working with adoptees and has an enormous amount of insight to share since she has provided therapy for so many.  She will be available in the comments for anyone who would like to ask her a follow up question. 

Deanna: Karen, it's such a privilege to have you share at Adoptee Restoration today. I love that you specialize in helping adoptees. As you know, there is such a need!  I'd like to start off by asking you...what is the greatest struggle expressed by the adoptees you have
provided therapy for? 



Karen: The greatest struggle expressed by the adoptees I see in my counseling practice is difficulty creating and experiencing closeness in their relationships. To be able to form close, connected relationships we need to have a sense of our own needs, to be able to express our needs to others, and to trust that others will generally respond to us in a caring way. We can then reciprocate this process in response to other people’s needs. We learn how to do this (or not) in our families when we are young. Primarily this happens is our relationship with our parents.

Since I work with adult adoptees, their placements were made a minimum of two decades ago, or longer. The longer ago the adoption took place the more likely the adoption was closed, possibly secret (either from the adoptee, other family members or the community at large), and taking place in a culture when harmful adoption myths were even more prevalent than they are today. Thus most adult adoptees have grown up in a situation where one of their most important human needs, that being the need to know their origins, has been unmet. Basic, factual information is typically missing. (viz. - What is my nationality? What do my blood relatives look like? Where are they? Why am I not being raised by them? ) Even more damaging is that an adoptee’s natural need to ask questions about herself was often responded to by her adoptive parents (and others) with shaming, fear, hurt, judgment or unreality.

So an essential, core need (the need to know about oneself) becomes a problem within the very relationship that a child is learning how to “do” relationship. Adopted children tend to draw all sorts of mistaken conclusions from this, such as:

“I am bad.”
“I shouldn’t ask questions.”
“I make people sad or angry when I ask questions.”
“There’s something wrong with me.”
“What I think I need isn’t important.”
“What I need is wrong.”
“My feelings don’t make sense.”

These beliefs, tucked away into a child’s psyche and carried into adulthood, have a very negative impact on the ability to create closeness with others. There are other experiences in childhood, of course, that lead to these types of negative beliefs. But the experience of being adopted lends itself to them.

Deanna: I can relate to all of that. Why does it take some adoptees so long to realize that some of their life-long struggles stem from their adoption experience? 

Karen: Simply put, because they’ve been explicitly or implicitly told that being adopted did not impact them. Adoptive parents were told by adoption professionals for many, many years that being adopted would make no difference to their children. In fact this was originally kindly intended by the profession as a way to counteract the stigma of “bad blood” and illegitimacy that historically prevented adoptions. Most adoptive parents believed this (it may have suited their emotional needs, as well) and so raised their children with this mindset. And there is still an astounding amount of ignorance in our society about the impact of being adopted. I’ve had clients tell me they have been told by other therapists that being adopted is not an issue for anyone! Or not an issue for them, when it is clear to me (at least) that it is. If therapists charged with understanding the psyche and issues of identity and attachment are making this error, we can only expect that the average person would be misinformed as well.

Deanna: When adoptees identify post-adoption trauma in other adoptees (those who seem to be “in the fog” as those of us in the adoptee community call it) do you believe it is beneficial to point out the connection, or allow them to become aware of it on their own?

Karen: Most of the time I believe it is helpful to share our perspective with others in a  friendly, non-judgmental way, regardless of the issue. For example, “Have you thought you might be depressed?” can open a wonderful doorway to healing for someone who has never considered that might be their problem.

I ask about adoption, gently, when I meet almost any adoptee. I ask gently because I am so mindful of the possible sensitivity or pain my question may touch. But I also ask because I’m curious and interested. I don’t push or lecture. I am open to the possibility that an adoptee may go through her entire life and truly never feel the need, or enough of a need, to explore
her adoption experience in depth. That is her choice to make, not mine.


Deanna:  What if anything else would you like to share with adoptees to help them move towards health and overcome trauma? 

Karen: Trust yourself. Believe your gut instinct. Seek the community, support and insight of other adoptees either in person or through their writings. Do this particularly with adoptees who understand that being adopted has impact. Protect yourself when appropriate. On this topic, even well meaning and caring people can be woefully uninformed and in their ignorance, hurtful. It’s okay to make the choice to not share.

If you are in a healing relationship with a therapist or other professional, ask them about their understanding of the impact of adoption on the adoptee. You have the right to ask and have your questions answered.

I know excellent therapists who are not adopted themselves who have been of great help to their adoptee clients. But the most gifted therapist in the world is not going to be able to help you heal your trauma if they don’t believe it exists or don’t understand its origins.



For almost twenty years, Karen Caffrey, LPC, JD has been a counselor for individuals, couples and groups in her psychotherapy practice. She helps people recover from anxiety and depression, problems in their relationships, work and life stress, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), trauma, addictions, women’s issues, and achieve mental health and wellness.

For ten years prior to her career as a counselor, she was a practicing attorney. She practiced law in a Fortune 100 corporation as well as in a private law firm.  She found that herexperiences as a lawyer made her uniquely able to understand and empathize with her clients who work in the legal and corporate worlds.  She has a keen appreciation of what it is like to try to address your own needs while balancing work, family and community obligations.  She also learned that even highly successful, capable people can face life challenges for which they need help.  

She specializes in working with adult adoptees, and do this work individually and in groups. She has presented extensively on issues faced by adult adoptees including loss, rejection, anger and identity.   

Lastly, she has a special love for animals and has experienced how powerful a healing force they can be in people’s lives.  When possible and appropriate, she encourages people to involve their animals (real or symbolic) in their healing process.