Why is adoption a social problem?

Motives of adoptive parents and development of their children


Between 1950 and today, the world of adoption in Europe has changed fundamentally. In this post we will illustrate this change and its impact on adoptive parents and children. First, let's name some important changes in the 20th century:

Throughout the 1960s all kinds of family matters became more openly discussed. The situation of the donor mother was seen in a different light. Her pain and grief over giving up the child were recognized. This greater openness meant that adoptive children could find their parents of origin. Child protection institutions have provided support in this direction.
At the end of the 1960s there was also a growing understanding of both the great misery of a mother who had to give up her child and the psychological problems of an adoptee because he had been given away. Since the end of the sixties, the social workers who work in the field of adoption have tried to prevent the abandonment of a child - if possible.
The number of unwanted pregnancies fell sharply across Europe in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to reliable contraceptives such as the pill.
The introduction of social welfare laws, which guarantee a subsistence level for every needy person, made it possible for single young mothers to look after and raise their child themselves.

These developments and the improved social and economic conditions were the cause of the rapidly decreasing number of European children put up for adoption in the 1960s and 1970s. Those who wanted to adopt were soon almost completely dependent on children from abroad. The “adoption world” had changed fundamentally.
Consequences for the adoption area

According to our experience and scientific research, this change led to changes in the motivation of adoptive parents. Four central attitudes can be distinguished over the last 50 or 60 years:

(1) When the phenomenon of child adoption was still little known and accepted, adoptive parents were mostly traditional and rather reserved. In the years before about 1970, the adoption of a child was mostly taboo. Almost only unintentionally childless married couples registered for a “native” adopted child. There was little or no talk about the adoption of their child. Most parents did inform the child about the situation. After all, they were obliged to do so in almost all countries, but otherwise the existence of the parents of origin was negated. The adoption was mostly kept secret from other people. The prevailing attitude towards adoption can therefore be described very briefly by denying the difference between adoptive and biological parenthood.

In the 1950s and early 1960s there was little opposition to the various requirements of the Adoption Act. As was customary at that time, the people and the adoption applicants were very obedient to the authorities. For example, in the Netherlands they accepted without complaint that they had to be married for five years and that the child had to have been cared for with them for three years before they could legally adopt it. Nonetheless, adoption practice soon indicated that the law needed some changes. Adoption care for three years was not in the child's interest. For example, if one parent died within those three years, the adoption could not be pronounced and the child was in a legal vacuum. It was not until 1998 that the parents in the Netherlands no longer had to be married for five years, but only for three years. In addition, a civil marriage is no longer a requirement for adoption in the Netherlands. A partnership contract is now sufficient. Under certain conditions, single people can also apply for adoption (for information on German adoption law, see the article “Adoption - from a legal point of view”).

(2) In the period after about 1970, in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, issues such as adoption, starting a family, sexuality and abortion were dealt with much more openly than in previous years. The greater openness in society with regard to adoption also meant that adoption was increasingly viewed as a possibility of starting a family. As a logical consequence, the number of childless and non-childless married couples who wanted to adopt a child increased rapidly in the 1970s. As a result, the number of adoptions increased considerably in countries such as Sweden, Holland, Belgium, Denmark and Norway.

Television, which had existed since 1951 and which had become common property in our world as early as the 1960s, also contributed to this. Images of the great misery in which millions of children in the Third World (e.g. in South Korea, Biafra, Vietnam, India and Colombia) lived were shown directly on television. Many people took the fate of these children very seriously.

This development created a new, globally oriented openness towards adoption. It was the time of the idealistic, open adoptive parents. Not only unwanted childless married couples applied for an adopted child, but increasingly also married couples who already had one or more biological children. This was related to the fact that the attitude of recognizing the difference between adoptive and biological parenting was now increasingly accepted. Since then, it has been recognized more and more by adoptive parents that their parenting differs from biological parenting in some key respects. We must see the adoption motivation of the new generation of adoptive parents against the background of this change in attitudes. It was often about parents who already had children. Also, the idealistic and often passionately committed parent group was not as obedient to authority as the previous generation of adoptive parents.

More and more couples who already had one or more children wanted to adopt a child from South America, Asia or Africa. Their motivation is more externally determined: the focus was more on the child in need and less on satisfying an unfulfilled desire to have children. Full of enthusiasm and idealism, the adoptive parents made contacts in many countries. During this time, a large number of children from Asia (Vietnam, Thailand, China, etc.), South America (Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, etc.), the Near and Middle East and Africa (Ethiopia, Morocco, etc.) were adopted. The number of local or European child adoptions continued to decline.

However, hardly any thought has been given to the upbringing problems that adoptive parents might have when adopting children from Asia, South America or Africa, or the possible discrimination against these children in our society. It was not until the 1980s that books and newspaper articles took up these questions with increasing frequency. The adoptive parents were encouraged not to spend too long alone looking for solutions to the sometimes very stressful behavioral problems of their child. From research and adoption practice it was concluded that these idealistic parents hesitated for a long time before seeking professional help for their family problems. A very important point for the adoptive parents was therefore the recognition of the fact that raising an adoptive child can be associated with more psychosocial problems.

(3) Relevant reports in the media as well as books have certainly contributed to this new awareness of the problem - books written by adoptive parents who had had very problematic experiences with their adopted child. Foreign children were often a little older than local children when they were placed in the family. In many cases, they initially lived in a children's home for some time, where they were often neglected due to the poor general conditions. However, three decades ago hardly any thought was given to possible educational problems as a result of these negative living conditions. Only now have these questions been taken up in books and newspaper articles.

During this time, adoptive parents began to be less tense and much more realistic about parenting problems than the idealistic adoptive generation. Various studies showed that they were not afraid to seek help. In this respect, too, there is now greater openness. Adoptive parents dared to admit - sometimes out of necessity - that their family problems were very complicated and that they were not up to the task on their own.

Possible psychosocial problems in adoptive families were now anticipated. Objective research results have been published and many useful recommendations and advice that adoptive parents can use have been published in books and magazines. It was increasingly recognized that adoptive parents need to be much better prepared for the adoption of a foreign child, better preparation for their “adoption adventure”. For example, the Bureau Voorbereiding Interlandelijke Adoptie, established in the Netherlands in 1989, developed a preparation course for adoption applicants.

During this time, the practice was increasingly criticized that couples who had not been checked and registered as adoption applicants adopted children outside of Europe. Many couples looked for their own children in South America or Asia - without the involvement of recognized adoption agencies. In some cases they adopted children whose parents were still alive but could not feed their children (sufficiently). In such cases, the birth parents often received compensation. But commissions and bribes also flowed in, so that this practice was thematized in the media as “child trafficking”. In addition, there was an increasing number of reports of discrimination against older adoptive children from non-European countries in schools and in society. As a result, Terre des Hommes, for example, stopped the placement of adopted children and demanded that children in need (and their parents) should be helped in their home country. The funds needed for an adoption abroad could secure a long-term livelihood for many families. The German legislator has reacted to child trafficking with changes to the Criminal Code and the Adoption Placement Act. But most of the Asian and South American countries have passed adoption laws - especially since they were concerned about their reputation in Europe and North America because of the “child trafficking”.

(4) The current generation of adoption applicants has a different attitude towards the educational possibilities of a (foreign) adoptive child. They confront adoption brokers very explicitly with their ideas about the age of the child and they are less willing to accept children with medical risks. Often, it is demanding, almost imperative, that the smallest possible child - in any case younger than two years - is required. Children with three years of age or older are more and more difficult to place and sometimes not at all. In this regard, the situation has changed completely. In the seventies and eighties, only children six years and older were referred to as “old”. Today the age limit is much lower. In the past, it was almost always possible for adoption agencies to find adoptive parents for a child. This is no longer the case today.

However, adoption seekers are highly dependent on the judgment and benevolence of the placement agencies. During the placement, the placement offices in the “giving” country (Germany or abroad) or in the “receiving” country (Germany and other Western European countries) have a great deal of power over the applicants. While in the years immediately after the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc many children were adopted again without the involvement of adoption agencies and there was also “child trafficking” again, in recent years the placement process in the Eastern European countries - as previously in the Asian and South American countries - has been regulated by law and formalized (a general overview of adoption placement in Germany can be found here).

Today's adoptive parents are also more optimistic about the educational opportunities for a very young adoptive child. It is known from research that it is less the age of adoption than the experiences the child has had in his or her country of origin that determine whether the child will later exhibit behavioral problems. It is therefore necessary for all adoptive parents to learn as much as possible about the background of the adoptive child.

Some considerations regarding the different motivations

There are three groups of people involved in the adoption process: the biological parents, the adoptive children, and the adoptive parents. For traditional and withdrawn adoptive parents, it is very important to realize that almost always their child will want to know more about his or her background as an adolescent. In the Netherlands, for example, we asked adoptive children who had been born in Greece and were 25 years old and older at the time of the study whether they felt “Greek” or “Dutch” and whether they would like to talk to their biological parents want. The majority felt they were “in-between” Holland and Greece - partly Dutch, partly Greek - and two thirds had either looked for their Greek parents or had met them.

The knowledge of one's own origin is simply part of the identity of a child or adult adoptive person. In the Netherlands there have been associations of foreign “adopted children” for almost 15 years, e.g. in 2002 associations for adoptive children from Korea, Indonesia, Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, India, Sri Lanka, Holland, Peru, Bangladesh, Greece and Austria. These associations are important for mutual contacts and help with trips to the country of origin.

We know from research and practice that the adoptive parents' openness about the child's origin leads to greater mutual understanding in the family. We now also know that idealism alone is not enough to make use of all the educational options on the part of the parents - and especially not if the child shows psychosocial problems during the settling-in period and / or later. Then, in addition to love, time and energy, parents need in particular - we would almost say - educational professionalism, namely knowledge of how to deal with neglected or otherwise impaired children. These parents need to face the reality - the reality that raising their child will be difficult. You cannot raise a child with idealism alone.

Realistic parents, and especially today's optimistic and demanding adoptive parents, would do well to moderate their expectations that may be too optimistic. The child has its own identity, abilities, possibilities and impossibilities. The latter is certainly due to the consequences of separation and often neglect. The influence of the adoptive parents is great, but not overwhelming. If you think about the adopted child and consciously support him, you can achieve a lot. On the other hand, if you expect the child to fit in well with the family immediately and later, the likelihood of disappointment will be high.

The settling-in period and special educational issues

Much research has shown that a large number of adoptive parents need support. Adopted children from abroad often show behavior problems that are difficult to solve. Most of the time we know little about the situation of the family of origin and the care of the child in the first years of life. It is therefore very important to obtain detailed information about the length and quality of home stays, the quality of ties with parents or carers, and early childhood development.

When it comes to adopted children from the Third World or from Eastern Europe, we can assume that many of these children have been malnourished and have been mentally or physically neglected in the long term. Some of them have also been mistreated and sexually abused. Almost all adopted children experience serious psychological consequences due to the separation from their birth parents and perhaps also from other carers, due to their neglect, malnutrition and perhaps also abuse. Many adoptive children have difficulty forming positive bonds with adults and peers. Mental health problems - such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), post-institutional autistic syndrome (PIAS), attention deficit disorder (concentration problems), and hyperactivity (ADHD) - are often diagnosed. Symptoms of several disorders are often found (comorbidity).

The worse the state of health of the child when it arrives in the family, the more problems with upbringing can be expected immediately and later.During the settling-in period, problems arise in terms of adapting to the new living conditions in the adoptive family. The children are also often very anxious - especially with small children, everything new causes a lot of fear. For example, you shouldn't sleep alone in a dark room during the first few months. Sleep disorders and eating problems are common. Sudden disturbances with excretion, encopresis and enuresis, occur more often. The main adjustment problems, however, have to do with human relationships. Typical reactions of a slightly older child on arrival are clingy or very shy behavior, lack of distance (which can take many years), fear of physical contact, rejection from one (in most cases the mother) or both parents, destructiveness, incomprehensible aggressiveness and relapse into an earlier one Phase of life - the so-called regression. Especially if the child is in the Attachments phase when they arrive (six months and older), it can take an unexpectedly long time before they adapt to the new parents.

The length and quality of home stays are obviously particularly decisive for psychological development. The longer and more discontinuous - more frequent change of caregivers - this time was in the country of origin, the less favorable the development of self-confidence and self-esteem of the adopted person. Often these children show what we call “hotel behavior”: The adopted children behave very nicely and lovingly at first. They are obedient, do whatever their parents say, are a bit shy, etc. They act like they are in a hotel. However, only when the child begins to behave in a more normal way, i.e. also more negatively and looking for boundaries, does it finally begin to fill up at home.

When the adopted child reaches adolescence, many adoptive parents (as well as birth parents) have to struggle with major upbringing problems. Often antisocial behavior such as aggressiveness, stealing, lying, alcohol and drug abuse, even arson, little emotional ties, little social interest and emotional problems like depression need to be addressed. Empirical studies give reason to believe that a significant number of foreign adopted children show such symptoms.

When a child is exposed to an unexpected traumatic event (accident, violence, natural disaster) or has experienced persistent neglect or repeated extreme negative events such as abuse and breakups, they can develop severe behavioral disorders such as PTSD, PIAS and attachment disorders or even personality disorders. In our many years of treatment practice with adopted children, we see that the traumatic experiences of adopted children largely influence their further development. It is essential that all adoptive children have been separated from one another, but mostly several times. In the psychiatric and developmental psychology literature it is emphasized that a secure bond between mother and child is very important for the further emotional and cognitive development of the child. The separation from the mother or from other important caregivers can have pathogenic consequences for the child.

If the adoptive family is unable to appropriately integrate the child's different identity into the upbringing, the series of successive traumas - the de facto separation from parents and other caregivers, the later becoming aware of these separations and the adoption status - will not end. This only works if the adoptive parents accept and respect feelings of loyalty to their birth parents and other relatives in their adoptive child.

The stressful experiences can occur repeatedly in the child's fantasy life. We even observe feelings of guilt in some adopted adolescents for believing that they are to blame for the mother giving them up for adoption or for being ill-treated. In some studies in clinical populations, the connection between certain behavioral problems in adulthood and (repeated) breaking of emotional ties in adolescence has repeatedly been established.

The way in which the attachments and relationships developed after the birth, how they were then broken and what subsequently happened to the child are essential. It is very important to find that the quality of upbringing and care in the adoptive family is essential for breaking off the consequences of traumatizing events. This knowledge is of course of great importance for adoptive parents.

Several studies made it clear that adopted children who were two years of age and older when they were placed were much more likely to be in the problem group than the younger children. Their adoptive parents should have at least the following three characteristics:

  • Patience, flexibility and distance. In a group of Romanian adoptive children who had been with their adoptive parents for at least five years, we found that only then did the problems decrease significantly. In terms of attention problems, aggressive behavior, social behavior problems, and total number of problems, this group had significantly fewer behavioral problems than the group of Romanian adoptive children who had been in the family for less than five years.
  • A certain reluctance to show feelings is also very important. Adopted children are often not used to suddenly receiving so much love and attention. Therefore, reactions such as fearfulness, extensive restraint and aggressive defenses sometimes occur.
  • Adoptive parents should also be willing to change their views and expectations about raising children; they cannot be rigid. In particular, if they already have parenting experience with their own child, these parents often have certain, very explicit expectations.

As already mentioned, long-term and serious neglect can also lead to post-institutional autistic syndrome (PIAS). In our study of 80 Romanian adoptive children, a total of 13 could be assigned to the autistic area. Because generally very few, i.e. only four to six out of 10,000 (German) children would show the basic forms of the autistic disorder, it is obvious that the cause in Romanian children is not genetic. Hence we speak of the post-institutional autistic syndrome.

In diagnosing autism, the following are crucial:

  • the qualitative impairment of social interaction, e.g. lack of socio-emotional mutuality;
  • the qualitative impairment of communication, e.g. delayed onset or complete absence of the development of spoken language, i.e. serious linguistic disorders;
  • limited, repetitive and stereotypical behaviors, interests and activities, e.g. constant preoccupation with parts of objects and resistance to change.

By PIAS we mean the entirety of these symptoms of autistic behavior. Each category can be observed for at least three months.

We can suspect a link between serious neglect and autistic behavior. However, there is no neurological basis for autistic behavior in children. Factors and circumstances such as experiences in the children's home or with parents or carers who neglect the child extremely are predominantly the causes of the autistic symptoms. The decisive factor for the prognosis is therefore whether there will be positive changes after adoption. When living conditions improve and the child is better cared for, we can expect a positive change in behavior and some autistic symptoms will go away. In an adoptive family, of course, this is mostly to be expected.

Almost all adoptive children require special empathy on the part of the adoptive parents. Parents should also be particularly careful not to express false expectations. If you immediately expect a lot of positive mutuality and joy in your child and combine it with personal happiness expectations, the disappointment can be great. This is all the more true if the parents expect the problematic, perhaps even autistic behavior of the child to occur for a very limited period of time and to disappear after a few weeks or months.

In terms of counseling and care services, the foregoing means that individual counselors and therapists should specialize more with regard to the particular problems of adoptive families or adoptees. The switching centers and organizations would have to work closely with these specialists. Then it is possible that the adoptive parents are more likely to realize that their most likely traumatized child shows a variety of serious disorders and that bringing up the child will be associated with particular problems. It can also be clarified at an early stage whether it is an attachment disorder, autistic symptoms, ADHD or something else.

With regard to school performance, it can be expected that a relatively large number of foreign adopted children will attend special schools. In this respect, too, many adoptive parents have to reduce their expectations. However, these children also often display “survivor” behavior. At school, this can mean that the adoptive child tries almost excessively during the first few years. The child wants to survive and also be successful in school. Here, too, empathy on the part of the adoptive parents is indispensable.


  • Brodzinsky, D.M./ Schechter, M.D. & Henig, R.M. (1992). Being Adopted, the Lifelong Search for Self. New York / London: Doubleday.
  • Federici, R.S. (1998). Help for the Hopeless Child. A Guide for Families. With Special Discussion for Assessing and Treating the Post-Institutionalized Child. Alexandria, Virginia: Federici and Associates.
  • Hoksbergen, R.A.C./ Textor, M.R. (Ed.) (1993). Adoption - basics, placement, follow-up care, advice. Freiburg im Breisgau: Lambertus publishing house.
  • Hoksbergen, R.A.C. (1999). Trauma, a Relevant Concept in Examining Adopted Children. Best interests of the child, 4, 23-25 ​​and best interests of the child, 5, 8-10.
  • Hoksbergen, R.A.C. (2002). Fifty years of adoption in the Netherlands. A historical-statistical view. Utrecht: Utrecht University, Adoption Department.
  • Hoksbergen, R.A.C. and the staff of the Romania project (2002). The consequences of neglect. Experience with adopted children from Romania. Idstein: Schulz Kirchner Verlag.
  • Paulitz, H. (Ed.) (2000). Adoption - positions, impulses, perspectives. Munich: Beck Verlag.
  • Selman, P. (Ed.) (2000). Intercountry adoption. Developments, Trends and Perspectives. London: British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering.
  • Verrier, N.N. (1993). The Primal Wound - Understanding the Adopted Child. Baltimore: Gateway Press.


Prof. Dr. René A.C. Hoksbergen is a psychologist and specialist in adoption at the University of Utrecht. He has his own practice for adoptive children and parents, gives lectures on adoption in Germany and Austria and has published many books and articles in Dutch, English, German and French.


Prof. Dr. R.A.C. Hoksbergen

Hartmanlaan 20
NL - 3768XH Soest

Tel .: 31- (0) 35/6018069


Created on January 14th, 2003, last changed on March 10th, 2010