What social workers can learn from children’s experiences of adoption

Key messages from research which has captured children's views about being adopted

Photo: pict rider/Fotolia

Being adopted can be confusing, frightening and distressing for children of any age. This is only exacerbated if the child feels like have no say in the decision about who adopts them, or they don’t get enough information about their prospective adopters.

In a new guide for Community Care Inform Children, Elaine Dibben summarises key messages from research which has captured children’s views and experiences of adoption. Elaine Dibben is adoption and fostering development consultant for CoramBAAF. Here, we present an excerpt from her guide. Inform subscribers can read the full guide, which is part of the adoption knowledge and practice hub.

Research is referred to using abbreviated titles, with full references at the end.

Idea of adoption

Adoption is a difficult concept for children to grasp. Many children in the adopted children speaking study (1999) who were adopted after infancy remembered that they had felt anxious and frightened when they were first introduced to the idea, and worried about the changes that were ahead of them. They wanted to know about the family they were going to join, and the place they were going to live and go to school. They remembered that the reassurances that their foster carers and social workers had given them were helpful but had not completely allayed their fears.

Some of the children in the study recalled that when they were initially introduced to the idea they had wanted to stay with their foster carers rather than being adopted, but they had subsequently settled well into their placements. However, some of the children in the beyond the adoption order study (2014) were clear that they had never wanted to be adopted. Instead they had wanted to stay with their birth mothers, although with hindsight they also recognised that this would not have been possible.

Given the anxiety the concept of adoption generates in children, it is understandable that the about adoption children (2006) expressed the need to know and understand “what being adopted would actually mean for them (how it would feel) as well as what would actually happen (how adoption works, and how much say they would have in what happens”).

First meetings and introductory visits

In the adopted children speaking study (1999), the children’s first meetings with their adoptive parents were characterised by feelings of trepidation and confusion. The children were anxious to know whether their adopters would like them, what they should say and how long the meeting would take. The children were also concerned about whether they would like the adopters. Many of the children recalled feeling shy and awkward during these meetings. Some reflected that they generally found it difficult to meet new people, especially in unfamiliar surroundings.

The children’s subsequent introductory visits were generally remembered as more comfortable. Nevertheless, some children recalled that they were unclear about the purpose of these visits and continued to feel anxious. They described feeling on trial and as though they had to be on their best behaviour. They were also unsure whether they were going to be offered opportunities to say that they did not want the placement to go ahead.

The about adoption children (2006) similarly described these first meetings and introductory visits as a ‘scary’ time. They suggested their five “best ways of getting to know their adoptive family”:

  1. Visiting and staying a few days before moving in.
  2. Going on days out with the family.
  3. Spending time talking with your future adoptive parents.
  4. Being given a video or book about the family.
  5. Having fun and playing games with the family.

Register now for Community Care Live London for two days of free and essential learning to boost your CPD, sharpen your legal knowledge and improve your practice, on 26-27 September.


‘Adopted children speaking’
Thomas, C and Beckford, V with Lowe, N and Murch, M (1999)
Adopted Children Speaking
London: BAAF

‘About adoption’
Morgan, R (2006)
About Adoption: A children’s views report, Report by the Office of the Children’s Rights Director
Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Commission for Social Care Inspection (CSCI)

‘Beyond the adoption order’
Selwyn, J; Wijedasa, D and Meakings, S (2015)
Beyond the Adoption Order: challenges, interventions and adoption disruption
London: BAAF

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One Response to What social workers can learn from children’s experiences of adoption

  1. Nenna September 20, 2017 at 2:30 pm #

    This, to me, shows just how little we understand the adoption process, and the feelings of those involved. Indeed, it suggests that empathy may be lacking from many of the processes that Social Workers, NHS staff, legal staff and charity staff may be asked to undertake. I say this because, firstly, it is important to note that Social Workers are NOT the only professionals involved in the adoption process – it may involve NHS staff, legal staff and staff from charities. Secondly, I suggest a lack of empathy, because it appears clear that, to date, processes have not fully appreciated, allowed for, or understood the feelings and emotions of those involved in them.

    I write this because, as a small child, I was placed a year early in full time education because one of my parents had mental health problems. Now, I was FULLY AWARE, even as a little child, that I had started school early, and had joined a year group with children older than me. I was also FULLY AWARE when the school forced me to repeat a year in order that I could join my own age group, because I could not legally leave school early. Alas, this is where things get really difficult…

    NOBODY ever bothered to explain to me what was happening, or why. I was not even informed of my parent’s illness, nor that this was the reason I was starting school. To make matters scarier, the school I attended DID KNOW of my parent’s mental illness, as did many of the parents of children attending the school. Therefore, I was left in the unpleasant, and extremely painful, situation of finding out about my parent’s mental illness by being BULLIED AT SCHOOL. Absolutely NOBODY seems to have thought about me, or my feelings, or whether I would be scared, or confused, or distressed, or anxious. Yes! I know people kid themselves that little children don’t remember much, and are extremely resilient… but should we be relying upon such ignorant beliefs as an excuse for not caring about someone’s feelings? The REALITY – and I know this for a FACT – is that little children DO remember things, and when they are left scared, confused, lacking information and support, they definitely DO NOT have resilience to fall back on. It HURTS!

    Decisions cannot, and should not, be made about children without their involvement. Children are not just “things”, they are people. Surely, it makes sense that to ensure the success of an adoptive placement, everyone involved has to be fully, and truly INVOLVED. That means the child, too. Which means providing the child with information, answering the child’s questions (as much as this is possible), allowing the child to have a say in the process, providing the child with someone who will explain matters, and someone to go to if the child is distressed or has queries.

    If we stop to consider the experiences of adoptive children, surely it does not take much to understand that many have had a very difficult and possibly traumatic time. This naturally impacts upon how the child behaves (they may “act out”, or conversely become “withdrawn”, some may be anxious and “clingy”), and also on how the child sees the world (because the child has internalized a view of the world based on personal experiences which may include rejection, fear, traumatic events, domestic violence, abuse, parental disability, mental illness or substance abuse). Children who are up for adoption may be children who have already been through the mill, so to speak. Remember, they have been uprooted from their birth parent(s), possibly because said parent(s) was/were unable to look after them properly. This may mean that the child has witnessed traumatic events, or started life in a dysfunctional family (both of which are hard to cope with). The child may have been rejected by his or her birth parent(s), and may fear further rejection – which can make trusting and forming relationships very hard. The child may have witnessed abuse or domestic violence – which has a profound effect, and can alter a child’s usual behaviour quite significantly. Some such children may have experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse, or maybe neglect. Some may show feelings of absolute loathing towards their birth parent(s). Others may be desperate to return to the home of their birth, because they did not perceive their relationship with their birth parent(s) as all that bad. For such children, there may still have been problems which meant they cold not stay at home (e.g. a disabled parent, or acrimonious parental divorce), but their loyalty remains with their birth parent(s). Even children who appear superficially to hate their birth parent(s) and to be aware of reasons why, may still hide some sense of longing to be reunited with their birth family. The irony of dysfunction in families is that children who have dysfunctional parents often long to have an idealized version of their parents appear in their lives. Children whose parents are dysfunctional may internalize an “ideal parent” notion, and desperately cling to this. Some hope endlessly that their parents may change.

    So, with a child who is up for adoption, we may already have the above scenario. However, we may have to add on top of it the fact that the child may have been fostered. In some cases, children become very fond of their foster carers, and really want to stay with them. This is perfectly natural – if the child ends up in a home that provides much, if not all, that the child needs, and the child is happy there, then why would the child want to move? Some foster carers do an amazingly good job, and children placed with them are probably very likely to want to stay. How could you NOT want to remain in a home that meets your needs, and where you are starting to finally feel happy, safe and loved? If a child like this is then placed for adoption, the process may feel very traumatic, because the child perceives it as being torn away from perhaps the only person they have felt able to bond with. Imagine how scary and frustrating that must be!

    Other children are not so lucky, and are passed from one foster home to the next (this can be for a variety of reasons). These children are likely to experience a deep sense of anxiety, fear and instability because they are not permitted to settle and to “put down roots”. Research has shown that “roots” are very important to humans, as they provide a sense of belonging – something that may be vitally important to the child who has been fostered or adopted. This is perhaps why many of the children in the study talked about wanting to “know their adopters would like them”, and talk of feeling “on trial”. Incidentally, the need for “roots” is also an important reason why many foster and adoptive children retain an idealized image of their birth parent(s), or desire contact with them. Humans appear to have a strong need to know, and to understand, their origins; not knowing where one came from is perceived as scary, unsettling, or worrying (perhaps because mystery and unanswered questions are both threatening and provoking to humans).

    Children who have had negative experiences of foster care are children whom I would expect to find the experience of being placed for adoption very frightening. Via conditioning, they may have come to always expect negative experiences, and thus may worry that being adopted will be unpleasant. Conversely, some may become anxious about the adoption process not because they predict it as being negative all over again, but because they have invested too highly in it as a solution to all their problems (i.e. they are looking almost for a “fairytale” end to their fostering, in that they finally find the perfect home). Children with such high expectations risk disappointment if they find they do not get on with their prospective adopters, and they may therefore perceive the process as stressful and scary because they are so desperate to be liked, and to find a new, permanent home.

    It goes without saying that adoption is a difficult process – especially for staff involved – because it is necessary to “get inside the heads” of both the prospective adopters, and of the adoptive child. Clearly, these individuals need to be able to “hit it off” (a bit like matching a date, really), and will have all sorts of ideas about the process, and any manner of investment in it. It is thus important for staff overseeing the adoption process to understand this – to look at thoughts, feelings, motivations, views, beliefs, ideologies, fears, emotions… Pretty deep stuff, really. Because they are dealing with humans.