Over the last several years, there seems to be a rising connection between more patients entering treatment for substance use and co-occurring mental health disorders and having been adopted as children. While clearly adoption does not cause addiction, nor does every child that is adopted become addicted to drugs and alcohol, there is clearly a pattern for many adopted children to eventually develop a substance use disorder. In fact, research demonstrates that children who are adopted are almost twice as likely to develop a substance use disorder in adulthood as those who were not adopted.

family with adopted child - Addiction and Adoption

While the scientific research does suggest a potential link between addiction and adoption, it is important to note that whatever association does exist, being adopted does not determine if a person will eventually develop an addiction or a substance use disorder. Addiction is a complex illness with multiple risk factors. These risk factors may contribute to the potential link between addiction and adoption, but do not themselves demonstrate that adoption will equal addiction. Some of the risk factors between addiction and adoption include:

  • Genetic Factors

Many studies have indicated that people with a family history of addiction may have a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder themselves. Therefore, a child that is adopted who may have had one or both biological parents who suffered from addiction may be at higher risk or have been born with a biological predisposition to addiction.

  • Early Life Adversity

Many individuals that were adopted as children have faced early life adversity. Some examples of this type of early life adversity could be neglect, abuse, prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol, malnourishment, or other forms of trauma. These imprinted memories or traumatic experiences can increase the risk of developing a substance use disorder later in life, as the adopted child finds ways to cope with or escape emotional distress and those coping mechanism often turn into maladaptive behaviors.

Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are incidents or situations that are potentially traumatic events that occur when individuals are children that can undermine the child’s sense of safety, stability, security, and bonding. Some examples of ACEs are growing up in a household where one or more parents or caregivers have a substance use disorder or a mental health disorder, parental separation through divorce or incarceration, ongoing domestic violence, or being the victim of neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse. Just as early life adversity often occurs in the homes of biological parents that put children up for adoption, so do adverse childhood experiences. And like early life adversity, an adopted child that has experienced one or more ACEs will develop unhealthy coping mechanisms that can push them down the path of active addiction.

  • Identity and/or Attachment Issues

Adoption can present unique challenges related to identity formation and attachment. Children that are adopted may struggle with questions of belonging, self-esteem, or feeling disconnected from their biological roots. This can happen when a child is adopted into a family from the same area that look similar, but these issues can be even more magnified for the adopted child is they are differently looking than their adopted family, such as a different race, color, or from a different part of the globe. These emotional difficulties can potentially contribute to a higher risk in the adopted child of developing addictive behaviors or a substance use disorder.

  • Trauma

Many adopted children have suffered trauma. There are a surprising number of adopted children who have vague memories or recollection of their abandonment or being placed in a nursey or foster care, even if they were very young when it happened. They may suffer from such memories or learning that they are adopted might be a traumatic experience. Separation trauma and other emotional difficulty felt during the separation and subsequent adoption process may linger in the developing neurological systems of the adopted child, which can then result in intense emotions, difficulties understanding and processing their experience, potential invalidation from the adopted family, attachment disorders, feelings of being unwanted, unloved, or undeserving, or issues surrounding self-esteem. One large study found that individuals who were adopted as children experienced much higher rates of depression, anxiety, and PTSD throughout their lifetime than those people in the general population.

  • Other Psychological Factors

There are other psychological factors that children who are adopted may face due to their circumstances that can place them at a higher risk for developing a drug or alcohol addiction or a substance use disorder. Challenges such as intense feelings of grief, loss, or abandonment, which will lead to a decrease in the quality of their mental health. Additionally, attachment issues, personality disorders, or emotional difficulty with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, or unresolved trauma can increase the adopted person’s vulnerability to addiction as a means of self—medication, isolation, or escape.

A very important point to remember as it relates to a link between adoption and addiction, especially for the families that adopt children, is that these factors that may create a higher risk of addiction in adult children that have been adopted have little to nothing to do with the family that is adopting the child. Many children who are adopted and grow up to become adults suffering from addiction come from warm, loving, supportive homes with wonderful adoptive parents. While there are family units that adopt children and surround them with unhealthy, chaotic, or traumatic environments, many adoptive parents are looking to offer loving homes for children in need. An adopted child that becomes an adult in active addiction is not the fault of the adoptive parents. However, it is also important to remember that no amount of love and support can shield a child from active addiction if the circumstances or situations line up just right. Remember, addiction is a complex illness influenced by many factors, including biology, genetics, and environment.

One important step that can be taken is, due to the strong link between adoption and addiction, that adoptive parents are aware and educated about the potential for addiction in their adopted children. Adoption agencies should take steps to educate potential adoptive parents about the risk factors many adopted children face, and adoptive parents can then take necessary steps to educate their adopted children about the risk factors. Adoptive parents can also work to help take prevention measures, including education and awareness about the risks of drugs and alcohol, the propensity for addiction, and figure out the best ways to support their adopted children, create an open and supportive communication style, and stay engaged in their lives.

Once again, it is important to acknowledge that adoption does not lead to addiction, but that adopted children are at a higher risk for potentially developing a drug and alcohol addiction later in life as an adult. Adopted children often suffer from attachment issues, difficulties feeling accepted or fitting in, and self-esteem issues, regardless of how loving, supportive, or healthy the family system that they are adopted into is. Over time, these issues can lead to mental health or emotional health issues, which are often driving forces in drug and alcohol addiction. Therefore, it is vital that adopting families are aware of these issues and take necessary and purposeful steps in getting their adopted children support, a sense of community and belonging, supporting their adopted children’s identity and authenticity, allowing an environment of open communication, empowerment, and empathy, and practicing and modeling healthy attachments and love.

If you or someone you know needs help for addiction or co-occurring disorder issues, please give us a call. Maryland Addiction Recovery Center offers the most comprehensive dual-diagnosis addiction treatment in the Mid-Atlantic area. If we aren’t the best fit for you or your loved one, we will take the necessary time to work with you to find a treatment center or provider that better fits your needs. Contact us at (866) 929-4318 or email our team at info@marylandaddictionrecovery.com.

family with adopted child - Addiction and Adoption

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