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Adoption: Dealing with Genetic Differences

Some adopters have difficulty accepting a child who looks very different from what they envisioned. (However, most adopters don't have a problem with the fact that their kids probably won't look much like them. The people who have the problem are usually outside the family.) Instead, it's often behavior problems that are the toughest part of parenting, whether your child enters your family by birth or adoption.


Back in 1976, Michigan researchers looked at a large sample of adoptive and nonadoptive families to see whether there were any physical similarities between parents and children. They found significant similarities between the biological parents and their children, which was no surprise. But although the significance was less, the researchers also found significant similarities in the stature and weight of the adopters and their children.

How we view ourselves and each other affects how we act and even how happy we are with each other. In 1980, researcher Lois Raynor studied adopted adults and their adoptive parents and reported her findings in The Adopted Child Comes of Age. She found that the more they saw themselves as similar to each other, the happier they were. For example,

  • Of adopted adults who said they were “very much like” their adoptive parents, 97 percent said their adoption experience was satisfactory.
  • Of adopted adults who said they were “unlike” their adoptive parents, 52 percent said their adoption experience was satisfactory.
  • Of those adoptive parents who thought their adopted children were “like” them in appearance, interests, intelligence, or personality, 97 percent were happy with the adoption experience.
  • Of those adoptive parents who thought their adopted children were “unlike” them in appearance, interests, intelligence, or personality, 62 percent were happy with the adoption experience.
Familybuilding Tips

Many adoption experts urge adopters to acknowledge and accept the differences between themselves and their children. I think this is good advice for any parent, because it helps to see your children as individuals. However, some parents go overboard and tend to concentrate on those differences. Try to do both: Acknowledge the differences and celebrate the samenesses. Achieve a balance.

The important thing to note in Raynor's study is that it did not matter whether the adopted child and adoptive parent actually seemed similar to outsiders! Adoptive parents and their children who saw similarities between each other were happier with each other, regardless of whether anyone else saw those similarities. One suspects that if a similar study were done on biological children and their parents, the happier ones would also be those who perceived similarities in each other.

Eventually adopted children do notice physical differences between themselves and their parents, whether it's their and your skin color, ethnic appearance, or some other characteristic. Your child may say that she wishes her skin was the same color as yours or that she had curly hair like yours, instead of straight hair. She will also realize (by the age of five or six) that other people notice that she doesn't look much like you.

It's best to not deny that there are differences or try to avoid the topic. Tell your child that not all biological children resemble their parents—some look very different. But do acknowledge the physical differences between you. And do realize that it is positive that your child wishes she could look like you. You might share with her that you wish she had been born from you and your spouse, but that it wasn't possible.

Remember, too, that sometimes adopted children do resemble their adoptive parents. Just because someone is not genetically “yours” doesn't mean she will have nothing in common with you.

More on: Adoption


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Adoption © 2004 by Christine Adamec. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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