Adoption counselling for adults

Written by Emily Whitton
Emily Whitton
Counselling Directory Content Team

Reviewed by Alison Knight
Last updated 20th March 2024 | Next update due 20th March 2027

If your life has been affected by adoption, you may be looking for some answers to specific questions, or you may just feel as though you require some additional support in your life. On this page, we'll explore some of the issues that are central to adoption, and explore how adoption counselling may be able to help you as an adult.

The impact of adoption

Adoption has a huge impact on the lives of everyone involved. Whether you are an adoptee, part of an adoptive family, or the birth parent of a child who was adopted, the emotional impact of the adoption process is likely to be lifelong.

Though the experience of each individual is likely to vary, for many, the journey will be a double-edged sword - leading to both a great deal of happiness and an equal number of challenges.

In this video, registered adoption counsellor Stephanie Smith (BA, MBACP Accred) explains how counselling can help people affected by adoption.

Adoption counselling

If you’ve been affected by adoption in some way, you may benefit from seeking help from a counsellor or psychotherapist. Therapy can help individuals struggling with adoption to:

  • understand and explore the way they are feeling
  • develop new coping strategies
  • find ways of managing stress
  • learn more about the lifelong effects of adoption

How can counselling help with adoption?

Though the approach of each counsellor will differ from case to case and from person to person, psychoanalytical and psychodynamic therapies are commonly used in this area. These types of therapies are based on an individual's past thoughts and perceptions and how these affect their current behaviour and thoughts.

For example, an adult who was adopted as a child who is now experiencing depression may benefit from psychoanalysis - a form of therapy that focuses on an individual's unconscious deep-rooted thoughts that were developed during childhood. Using this therapy, clients are then taught how to interpret deeply buried memories and experiences that may be causing them distress.

On this page, we explore how adoption counselling can support adults, whether you are an adult adoptee, an adoptive parent or a birth parent of an adopted child. To learn more about how counselling can support adoptees under the age of 18, visit our adoption counselling for children page.

In November 2023, the need for counsellors working with adults on adoption-related issues to be registered as an adoption support agency (ASA) with Ofsted was removed. This means that there is now improved access to adoption counselling services for adults. However, the initial amendments to the Adoption and Children's Act of 2002 in 2010 remain in place for counsellors working with people under the age of 18. 

Therapists who can help with adoption

Adoption concerns­

It’s important to remember that not all adoption stories are the same. Adoption can be complicated, and untangling your thoughts and feelings isn't always easy. It can be hard to know where to begin.

Each individual involved in adoption - from a birth parent to the child, through to an adoptive parent or extended family - is likely to encounter some difficulties along the way. More often than not, the emotional roller coaster does not end when the papers are signed and the child moves in with their new family. The impact is likely to be indefinite and associated problems may sporadically emerge throughout childhood into adult life.

Not all adoption stories are the same. Some people may not feel they have any issues, while others may feel quite distressed. In itself adoption can be complicated, plus not all the facts from the past may be known with any certainty. Untangling thoughts and feelings and making some personal sense of the issues may not be an easy task.

- Read Adoption Issues - Difference, Personal Tales and Therapy

Adoptees

Generally speaking, society views adoption as a positive solution to a negative situation that should lead to happiness and gratitude. Those who have no experience of adoption may believe that children and adolescents should feel relief and, ultimately, appreciation when they are adopted.

However, the reality of the situation can be very different. Individuals who are adopted as children can face difficult and conflicting emotions.

Many children placed for adoption spend months - sometimes years - in the care system. Being transferred back and forth with no real support from a 'family' unit can be traumatic for a child of any age. For some, this can lead to the development of behavioural, attachment and development issues that can follow an adoptee into adulthood.

Understandably, many children and adolescents can view their placement as a form of rejection from their birth parents. Adoptees may feel deserving of rejection, believing that perhaps there is something fundamentally wrong with them.

Finding out you're adopted

Whether you are told as a child or later in life that you’re adopted, it can come as a huge shock. Common reactions include disbelief, confusion, anger, sorrow and loss.

Identity is often an issue for adoptees, particularly during our teenage years - when our sense of identity becomes very important. It's often the not knowing that results in many adoptees having burning questions about who they are; the circumstance behind their placement, their birth parent and ultimately why they were ‘given up’.

Tracing birth parents

It's understandable to want to know more about your past and to want to reconnect with your birth parents and relatives.

If you were adopted, at 18 you are within your rights to apply for a certificate of your original birth registration form. Similarly, your birth parents may also be able to contact you. Before you take this step, it is advisable to discuss it with your adoptive parents and/or a counsellor, as it is likely to be a heavy emotional undertaking.

Adoptees should prepare themselves for the following outcomes:

  • One or both birth parents may have a new family/partner/children.
  • Birth parent(s) may not want to meet their child or might lose interest in staying in touch after a short time.
  • The birth parent(s) may be unable to provide answers to certain questions and might not want to go into detail about the adoption itself or life before or after the birth.
  • An instant parent-child connection may not be formed which could result in disappointment being felt. 

Adoptive parents

Whilst it is true that many adoptive parents live an extremely happy and fulfilled life, caring for a child who has had a difficult start in life and giving them a future filled with love and support carries with it a number of challenges.

Individuals who are considering adoption will usually be offered a counselling service as part of the process. The idea of the counselling is to help prospective adopters to explore their feelings and make sure they are serious about adopting a child.

Some children will have experienced neglect, abuse or a major upheaval in their lives and will, therefore, present a different set of challenges in terms of being cared for. Counselling will help prospective adopters understand and prepare for these challenges.

Other issues that may arise for adoptive parents include the following:

  • Bonding issues - Some adoptive parents and children have difficulty bonding with one another.
  • Reconnecting with birth parents - An adopted child wanting to get in touch with their birth parents or vice versa is a concern that adoptive parents are likely to experience. It's only natural for adoptive parents to feel protective and concerned for their child at this stage. Supporting your adoptive child in their endeavour to seek out their birth family and watching them reconnect can be difficult.

Birth parents

You might be facing the possibility that your child will be adopted or perhaps they were adopted some time ago and are now grown up. Placing your child for adoption is an enormous decision, and rarely an easy one to make.

There are many reasons why a birth parent may feel that adoption is the right choice for them. No matter what the circumstances are, even if a parent knows that adoption is the most suitable option, the pain and sacrifice involved can make it an incredibly difficult decision.

Many birth parents will find that, after undergoing an initial period of grief when they have placed their child for adoption, well-meaning friends and family assure them they have done the right thing and encourage them to move on with their life because the child is now 'better off'. While it may be true that the child is indeed in a more stable environment, the grief and regret many parents experience won't simply vanish and can last a lifetime.

Additional issues that birth parents may encounter both pre and post-adoption may include the following:

Before the adoption

  • Telling family members and friends - This is a huge concern for many parents considering placing their child for adoption. Will their loved ones support them or will they disapprove?
  • Considering an open adoption - This would mean some contact would still be allowed between the child and their natural family after the adoption.

After the adoption

  • Secondary grief - Grieving for the loss of their parenting role or for the person their son or daughter may have become.
  • Identity issues - Placing a child for adoption can lead to the development of identity issues, especially in that of open adoption cases in which some contact is maintained. Birth parents may feel incomplete as a parent without a child, or if they go on to have more children they may find it affects their ability to bond.
  • Reconnecting - The turmoil that surrounds the decision to search for children is often overwhelming. Is it the right thing to do - do they want contact to be initiated?
  • Deciding not to reconnect - On the other hand, birth parents may not want to see their adopted children. Some birth parents would find it too difficult or painful, others may have new families.

Remember, you’re not alone. It’s good to talk.


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