How to Support the Person You Adopted
by JS LEE
For decades, I’ve received requests to counsel those who’ve adopted. They once found me through my adoptive siblings, friends, and acquaintances. These days they find me through articles, social media, and this website. Their question is usually broad and posed as if seeking a short but effective response. And each time, it’s expected that I’ll help for free. In the early days, I kindly complied. I was raised a people pleaser with a lack of agency and poor self-worth—like many displaced/adopted people. But, mostly, I gave my uncompensated time in hopes that it would benefit my adopted peers. Yet, it rarely has.
Why It Fails
Problem #1: The Quick Fix Mentality
Assuming the best, I imagine that those who approach me love their adopted person and have reached a point of desperation. They want a simple solution that will solve all that’s broken. I get it. I have multiple chronic illnesses—likely activated by trauma and exacerbated by stress. I often wish for some magic pill or diet or otherwise easy fix. But such things can’t be easily reversed.
For many of us, being adopted is a big part of our identity and a lifelong journey of experiences that often press on our unhealed invisible wounds. It’s not just a singular event that “happened to us”. Once we awaken to this, we’re either forced into toxic positivity that denies and avoids our complicated feelings as we suffer the seemingly unrelated consequences, or face difficult truths that often pit us against the very people we look to for safety and love.
Solution #1: If your adopted person is struggling and your relationship is fractured, you must prove over time and repeated efforts that you’re willing to travel the difficult journey with them. This means lowering your defenses. It’s committing to a lifetime of listening, learning, and growing.
Problem #2: Thinking the Adoptee is the Problem
I once spent hours on the phone with the father of an adopted son who was frustrated because none of what I suggested had worked. His son wasn’t ready to tap into community after his sole experience of racial isolation. He was abusing substances. He wouldn’t open up. He rejected therapy.
This father compared his son to other adopted people who appeared as if succeeding in life with no adoption issues. He couldn’t understand that we don’t all experience and process things the same, and many of us learn to mask our struggles as a trauma response and self-protective measure.
Like many adoptive parents, he still viewed his son—and his inability to assimilate—as the problem. He wasn’t able to see that the preverbal trauma of biological family separation, a lack of racial mirrors, and perpetual invalidation had likely become unbearable, causing him to detach and escape. Add to that, racial dysmorphia, racial imposter syndrome, and the typical difficulties of being a Person of Color in the West.
Solution #2: Learn how the industry you’ve participated in is racist, classist, misogynistic, and the root of the problem. Think of the ways you may have put your own comfort and desires above your adopted person’s. Examine the normalization of adoption propaganda and how it’s embedded into popular culture to the point that your adopted person is gaslit, infantilized, made the butt of the joke, used as inspiration porn, objectified, and invalidated on a regular basis. Look at the whole picture. Does the person you adopted have any additional marginalization that compounds their life experience—such as gender and sexual identity, disability, and neurodivergence? Consider the unattainable expectations—both in your own home and on a large social scale. Then use what you’ve learned to help them feel seen, understood, and released from the pressure to perform an unnatural role.
Problem #3: Too Much Control
Something I’ve noticed more woke adoptive parents doing is pushing their adopted child too far and too soon. They’ve been listening to adult adopted people and are eager to do the right thing. Their hearts are in the right place but they fail to see that they’re still causing harm by, once again, stripping their adopted person of agency.
Solution #3: Understand that no matter how much of an adoption academic you become, you will never know more about what it’s like to be adopted than an actual adopted person—and we don’t all experience and process the same. Therefore, treat them as the expert of their own adoption experience whenever appropriate. Explore questions to see where they’re at and be open to letting their answers evolve. Unless their beliefs are harmful (such as internalized racism), don’t rush to correct them with what you’ve read or been told. Refrain from being competitive or boasting of what you’ve learned. Let them lead the way. If they’ve already seen therapists who’ve lacked adoption competency, respect that they may need time to heal and rebuild trust from what was likely a more traumatic than therapeutic relationship. Same goes for your relationship.
Problem #4: Abusing One’s Privilege and Power
This will be hard to hear but it must be said. It’s highly problematic to expect an uncompensated, marginalized stranger to solve a deeply intimate and complex family situation for you. If they share a similar identity to the person you’ve adopted and displaced, you may be perpetuating damaging power dynamics. The level of harm will likely increase if they’re a Person of Color and you are White.
The bulk of inquiries I’ve received have shown no regard for me as a person. If they found me through an article in which I’ve revealed pieces of my personal story, there’s often no mention or consideration for me or what they’ve read. It’s all about them and their needs. This can leave me feeling dehumanized, undervalued, and in a position of indebted servitude to adopters at large. It can be retraumatizing and it’s not okay.
The truth is, you might need to sit with the reality that you may be a bigger part of the problem than you realize. If you are White and were raised in the West, you likely internalized a sense of privilege—that you’re not even aware of—which comes across in your communication style. I’ve had to remove many White folks from my life that I otherwise loved because their behaviors, beliefs, and communication were unhealthy for me. Many other displaced/adopted People of Color who’ve grown confident in their identity and self-worth have reported the same.
Solution #4: Take time to examine and work on yourself so that you can be a healthy support to your marginalized person. When you approach adult adopted people, be mindful that you’re not entitled to us. While you may be an adoptive parent, you’re not our adoptive parent, and your adopted person might also deserve more respectful communication. Treat us as adult human beings who have the rare and specific experience that might benefit you. If you’ve read and appreciated our work, tell us what you’ve learned and thank us for it. If the information isn’t posted, ask how you can compensate us. Even if we’ve been paid to write an article, I can assure you that it’s not enough. Once you’ve shown that you value our time and what we have to offer, you can ask if we’re available for a paid consultation. Plan for our rates to be at a professional level.
Once more, before you ask an adult adopted person if you can pay them to serve you, make sure you’re caught up with basic terminology and an intermediate understanding of the adoption industry. In other words: Do your homework to minimize our agony. This is also how you can begin to show the adopted person in your life that you’re serious about sticking with them for the long haul. If they’re a Person of Color, you’ll need to become racially literate, too, which will double your work. Don’t forget that you brought this person into your home. It’s unfair to expect them to do all the adapting. You can learn the basics using the resources below and share them with your adopted person.
Books, Articles, and Blogs
My novels KEURIUM and Everyone Was Falling both examine adoption, race, and trauma through fiction. If you’re here, you’ve likely read my nonfiction articles in Yes! Magazine and Health.com. There’s more to be found on my blog.
I haven’t read Melissa Guida-Richards’s new release yet, but it looks promising and will likely be helpful to you.
Adoptee Reading contains a wealth of books written or suggested by adopted people.
Calling in the Wilderness is a blog that discusses race, adoption, and faith.
Dear Adoption is a platform that amplifies a variety of adopted people’s voices.
Harlow’s Monkey is a well-respected staple written by an adoptee academic.
InterCountry Adoptee Voices is a community and org that shares adoption knowledge.
The Daily Adoptee is a Black-led site that features transracial adoptees.
Articles written by or featuring adoptee peers:
Adam Crapser’s Story
Adoption is a Feminist Issue
I’m Adoption and Pro-Choice
Korean Adoptees Felt Isolated and Alone for Decades
Mooresville Resident Finds Birthmother
My Parents Hid the Fact that I Was Adopted
Depending on the race of the adopted person in your life, I recommend the following history books for greater context of their racial experience:
Asian American Dreams
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Stamped From the Beginning
The Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States
Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok are bursting with adoptee content these days. If you don’t have accounts, sign up to browse. You’ll quickly come across things that may hurt to discover, but will provide invaluable insight. Please curb your desire to argue in the comments. Those brave enough to share on these platforms are often newly empowered and won’t hesitate to (rightfully) put you in your place. Save them and yourself from that painful interaction.
A few adoptee-centric Instagram accounts that I suggest:
Adoptee Knowledge Affiliates
AV Adoptee Voices
Beautifully Broken Adoptee
Emily the Adoptee
I Am Adopted
Katie the KAD
Laura is A Lot
The Black Adoptea
The Declassified Adoptee
The Silenced Adoptee
Not adoption-centric but necessary learning for transracial APs:
No White Saviors
YouTube Adoptee Vlog:
Finding others who have an innate understanding of our experiences is vital. It can help us feel connected in ways we couldn’t have previously imagined. That said, there are also strong views, differing politics, and given the amount of unprocessed trauma, there’s a tendency for high drama. Like anything else, they’re best when used in moderation.
There are many adoptee spaces on Facebook and now Clubhouse. On other platforms, we tend to find one another fairly quickly using hashtags similar to the Twitter tags above. There are also spaces for adoptive parents if you search. Here are a few on Facebook that are for adoptees only to pass on to your adopted person. Please honor our spaces and don’t try to join them or you could inevitably cause more harm with such a breach of trust.
There are several specific to interest and geographic location—and with a quick search using the word “adoptee”, plenty more that look fairly active.
The following are available to stream on multiple platforms, but here are the Spotify links:
Approved for Adoption
Calcutta is My Mother
First Person Plural
Forget Me Not
Found in Korea
In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee
Side by Side
The Geographies of Kinship
Therapy, Counseling, and Training
Adoptee Suicide Prevention has an adoption competent therapist list, among other info.
Angela Tucker offers adoptee mentorship and transracial adoptive parent workshops.
Hannah Matthews offers adoptee mentorship and transracial adoptive parent counseling.
I Am Adopted offers AP counseling but is not currently accepting new clients.
First Family Search
Many adopted people don’t want to look into their biological family for valid reasons. They might fear secondary rejection, struggle with feelings of abandonment and resentment, or it may just seem entirely overwhelming. Intercountry, transcultural adoptees have the added cultural and language hurdles. (This recent article may shed some light.) However, the most popular reason I’ve heard is that they’re afraid to hurt their adoptive parents. Some even share they’ve been outright forbidden.
There have been amazingly beautiful reunions, heartbreaking ones, and everything in between. Whether to search or not is a personal decision. It’s best to make it known that you’re supportive of whatever they choose—and find a way to make that true. If you have insecurities around this, it’s probably best to work through it in therapy.
If they were adopted domestically, Googling “search angels” might help. Intercountry adoptions are typically harder to track, given the amount of lies and inconsistencies created because the system is/was corrupt. You’ll hear popular excuses of fires and floods. Still, contacting the adoption agency and orphanage is a good first start.
Adopted Koreans can try to utilize KAS (govn’t led) or GOA’L (adoptee-led). There are multiple homeland tours—but some feel they exploit us again. I’ve heard good things about Me & Korea which includes a family search and support if desired—as long as one’s comfortable with the church inclusion. I advise against anything that tours orphanages where you interact with children as that’s been said to be emotionally harmful.
While there’s a lot of controversy over using DNA matching services, they’re touted as “the equalizer” for those of us lacking proper documentation. Plenty have been able to trace roots this way. 325KAMRA provides a service to help adopted people navigate the process if needed. If a Korean adopted person joins the KAA group, they can get a free DNA testing kit if they follow procedure.
It’s wise to be aware that finding one’s first family doesn’t necessarily heal the adoptee loss. In some ways, it’s been said to open more wounds. While “reunion porn” is prevalent in the media these days, there’s often much more to each story.
Did you know that tens of thousands of intercountry adopted people were not granted citizenship and risk deportation? Being an ally means joining our human rights fight. Learn more and sign the petitions:
Learn about the domestic adopted people’s fight to have access to their factual birth certificates:
Go Forth and Be Brave
I understand that most who’ve adopted were also done an injustice by the propaganda that claims babies are interchangeable blank slates. Many ascribed to the outdated ‘colorblind’ mentality and the church’s urging to do God’s will. But now we know more about early childhood trauma and clearly see how the adoption and foster systems capitalize on racism, colonialism, poverty, and more. As the great Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, do better.”
Regardless of how it presents and is handled in each person, the loss of one’s family is traumatic. Experts, such as Gabor Maté MD and Resmaa Menakem MSW, LICSW, now say that the earlier the trauma, the greater potential for impact. So, please…go easy on the displaced/adopted person in your life who’s struggling to cope.
Before you comment, bear in mind that what you have read is the result of several hours of unpaid labor in response to the ongoing requests I receive for unpaid one-on-one conversations. Please don’t rush to ask “but what about ___” as it disrespects my time. If you don’t like my advice or what I have to say, a quick search through my above resources will surely lead you to someone more aligned with your needs. I imagine many will find these opinions radical—as I did at one point, too. Just make sure you’re challenging yourself and your current beliefs or you will not grow.
If nothing else, I hope this non-exhaustive guide creates a curiosity to learn more. What’s important is that you understand that being a supportive ally will take time and persistence. Although your situation may seem dire, you cannot inject and absorb anything to bypass the process of becoming a healthy and supportive presence to the person you’ve adopted. There’s plenty here to get you started, and I’ll try to add more to these lists over time.