Addressing Mental Health as an Adoptee

“She’s such a lucky girl!” is a phrase often heard in reference to a child being adopted by a loving family. But although an adoptee’s fate might be better than a lifetime of abuse, neglect, or need, adopted children could still experience trauma. Finding an adoptive “forever family” means the loss of a biological family and produces many changes.

Conditions in South Korea

Starting in the 1950s, 80% to 90% of all South Korean children without families lived in orphanages and were available for adoption. Born into poverty, these children were typically abandoned by their parents. Some became victims of human trafficking, while others were left in doorways, on steps, in alleys, and on sidewalks.

Legal reasons appear to have prompted many of these abandonments. Former laws stated that children born to a non-Korean father or without legal proof of paternity to a Korean citizen were not considered citizens of the Republic of Korea (South Korea). This meant the child would have difficulty obtaining social services, an education, or employment. Parents believed that abandoning such children would give them better chances later in life.


Adoption and mental challenges

Since 1953, it’s believed that parents from other countries have adopted more than 200,000 South Korean children. The vast majority of the children moved to the United States.

While in their new environments, children of adoption might struggle with abandonment and trauma. Whether alone or combined with other potential sources of trauma, such as human trafficking, neglect, or abuse, abandonment can cause or worsen mental conditions.

Some of the conditions could include:

  • Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD or c-PTSD)
  • Chronic depression
  • Anxiety or panic disorders
  • Mood swings
  • Loneliness
  • Irritability
  • Brain damage

A 2013 study featuring 692 transracial adoptees, mostly of Korean descent, noted that several had mental health problems. They were more likely to struggle with conditions such as impulse control, aggressiveness, and hyperactivity. Compared to people who weren’t adopted, their risk of attempting suicide was four times higher.


Unique challenges for Korean-American adoptees

In addition to possible mental health concerns, people who are born in South Korea and adopted by U.S. families might face other difficulties. These challenges include understanding their ethnicities and cultures and their places within them.

Children born in South Korea who are adopted by white families may have been treated as if they are white themselves. Meanwhile, their native ethnicity may be ignored. But others may note the differences between their biological and adoptive families, which could make the adoptive child feel conflicted.

Korean-born children may feel as if they are Caucasian in some instances and Asian in others. They might feel as if they’re not part of either culture. As a consequence, adoptive families might want to expose their adopted children to their Korean backgrounds and help them find ways to navigate their cultures.


Helping Korean-American adoptees

While adoptive children from Korea may struggle, there are ways to help them. As with other mental health conditions, early intervention is often helpful.

According to the Center for Adoption Support and Education, as many as 80% of youth in foster care have an issue related to mental health. As a child ages, they may face problems such as school truancy and dropping out, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, homelessness, unemployment, and incarceration.

In 2018, the U.S. Family First Act was passed to improve training and understanding for mental health counselors who worked with adoptees and their families. It included a Training for Adoption Competency (TAC) curriculum for U.S. states.

Another initiative, the National Adoption Competency Mental Health Training Initiative (NTI), offers free web-based training for caseworkers, mental health counselors, and others within the adoption/foster system. It aims to raise awareness of the trauma and loss adoptive and foster children may have encountered.

Adoption doesn’t magically make problems disappear. It can even cause new ones. But helping adoptees acknowledge their trauma can help them address these problems and discover ways to find happiness.



Sources - The Surprising Facts Behind Korean Child Abandonment - Korean Adoptees Felt Isolated and Alone for Decades. Then Facebook Brought Them Together. - Comparing the Ethnic Identity and Well-Being of Adopted Korean Americans with Immigrant/U.S.-Born Korean Americans and Korean International Students - Mental Health and Foster Care - Drug Rehab in Huntington Beach, CA - About NTI