Adopted Child Syndrome

The Adopted Child Syndrome: Controversy and Reality

Adopted Child Syndrome includes a pattern of maladaptive behavior that may be mistaken for other disorders; therapy and proper family dynamics usually help.

 | Last updated: Nov 2, 2013
Addressing Adoption Issues May Clarify Behavior Addressing Adoption Issues May Clarify Behavior | Horia Varlan

Long-term studies examining the emotional and mental health of children who were adopted as infants indicate that most fare very well. They are not plagued by low self-esteem or chronic lack of empathy, and are actually less likely to exhibit delinquent behavior during adolescence than are their non-adopted counterparts.

Nonetheless, about 10% of adopted children exhibit serious behavioral symptoms that are sometimes mistaken for Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Conduct Disorder, Childhood Onset Type. These children are angry, argumentative, and often refuse to accept any personal responsibility for their aggressive actions or outbursts of rage.

Psychologist Dr. David Kirschner has coined the phrase “Adopted Child Syndrome” to refer to this aggregate of symptoms; the syndrome is considered controversial and has not yet been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Possible Psychodynamics of Adopted Child Syndrome

In a healthy adoptive situation, parents are open and honest about the child’s adoptive status. In dysfunctional situations, parents either wildly overcompensate by showering the child with intrusive attention and material things; or utterly ignore the fact of adoption as much as possible, refusing to discuss birth parents or the adoptive process with the child.

The adopted child thus never develops an adequate conscience because there is a proposed schism between good and “evil” self-images. Often, the child believes that a “good adoptee” would never want to know about or meet his birth parents. At the same time, hostility toward the adopted parents builds, leading to explosions of fury. (In less than 1% of such cases, the adopted child eventually murders one or both of his parents.)

Children with the syndrome also have a tendency to act out in such distressing ways (fire setting, truancy, compulsive lying, violence toward animals or other children) that they suffer inevitable rejection by parents, peers, and authority figures. This defensive provocation gives the child a measure of perceived control: The world is rejected before the world has a chance to reject the child. Their actions increase their isolation, confusion, and frustration.

Interestingly, the same feelings of alienation exhibited by some adopted children have been tracked in studies of “test tube babies” as well. Some feel adrift and disconnected from society, the product of a mere donor rather than the child of a loving parent. In fact, symptoms of pain and confusion are much stronger and more prevalent in sperm donors’ offspring than they are in adopted children.

Of course, the above statements are generalizations gleaned by therapists and researchers through their interactions with myriad adoptees and their adoptive families. Each case will exhibit its own unique characteristics; symptomology and its origins do not always fit into a neat little box.

Pre-exsiting Conditions That Can Be Confused With Adopted Child Syndrome

Sometimes an adoptee comes to her new home with a plethora of problems. These may include Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, attachment disorder, and PTSD or Acute Stress Reaction from pre-adoption abuse. Other factors that seem to increase the development of behavioral problems in adoptees include: older age at the time of the adoption, and a longer amount of time spent in institutional-style settings such as orphanages.

Adoptive parents may wrongly blame themselves for the child’s symptoms, and perhaps not seek available therapeutic help due to misplaced feelings of shame or depression. Some parents even harshly punish the child for wrongdoing, which usually exacerbates the problem.

Treatment for Adopted Child Syndrome

Unlike true Conduct Disorder or Antisocial Personality, those who exhibit symptoms of Adopted Child Syndrome have a more encouraging prognosis. Their preoccupation with biological origins, which is often vociferously denied because it causes guilt, can be brought out and resolved through psychotherapy.

If the adoptive parents are very reluctant to discuss adoption with the child, they too may benefit from counseling sessions. Results are often excellent; though as with all emotional disorders, long-term therapy may be required. The prognosis for adopted children with Conduct Disorder is, unfortunately, not so optimistic.

Positive Family Dynamics and Adopted Child Syndrome

In general, parents who maintain an environment of nicely balanced structure and flexibility in the home will achieve the best results with a troubled adoptee.

One Lakota Sioux child’s delinquent behavior virtually disappeared when her Caucasian adoptive parents permitted her to visit Native American reservations, where she learned about her culture and incorporated some aspects of Native American spiritual beliefs into her family’s Christian tradition.

The family’s tolerance of the child’s anxious identity quest is probably key to permanently resolving the behavioral issues. If the adoptee is required to deny his longing for knowledge of his origins, it’s believed that the psychopathological behavior is likely to continue or worsen.

First Step: Admitting that Trauma of Adoption Exists

Since the vast majority of adopted children do not exhibit Adopted Child Syndrome, psychologists worry that adoptions will be needlessly discouraged if they admit that some children are deeply traumatized by the adoption process. This fear is possibly specious or overemphasized, as most prospective adoptive parents realize that an immense amount of work is required to raise any child; a natural child may well have special needs or severe emotional issues, and no one worries that the birth rate will plummet because of this.

Moreover, the Adopted Child Syndrome is generally only mentioned in the media in relation to the less than 1% of alleged sufferers who commit murder (e.g., Matthew Heikkila, David Berkowitz, Joel Rifkin). Thus it becomes difficult for patients and therapists to examine the facts rationally and conclude that the Syndrome’s existence should not be denied just because it has occasionally been exploited for “shock value” publicity or used as an excuse by those desperate to justify indefensible actions.



  • American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision, Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2000.
  • Clark, Karen and Marquardt, Elizabeth, “The Sperm-Donor Kids Are Not Really All Right,” Slate, June 2010.
  • Coulter, Ann, Guilty, New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2008.
  • Kershaw, Sarah, “In some adoptions, love is not enough,” MSNBC, April 2010.
  • Lang, Denise, The Dark Son, New York: Avon Books, 1995.
  • Niels, “ Adopted Child Syndrome,” Pound Pup Legacy, April 2007.
  • Pipher, Dr. Mary, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.

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