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Troubled Adopted Children

Learn how to spot behavior problems and psychological issues in your adopted child, and read tips on getting help.

Troubled Adopted Children

This section is about more serious behavioral and psychological problems that some adopted children sometimes have, problems that are difficult for them and for their parents. They may stem from earlier abuse or from a lengthy stay in foster care or an orphanage. Or they may just be caused by problems that life throws at them, and they need some help. (Even kids have problems, although adults often forget this.)

Troubled adopted children (like troubled nonadopted children) will often display observable signs that they need help. The following list shows a few possible indicators.

If your child exhibits just one or two of the problems described in this section (with the exception of the last four items on the list), your child may have a temporary problem. But if three or more of these problems show up, or any of the last four, your child needs professional help.

  • Sudden loss of appetite or extremely increased appetite
  • Change in sleep habits (needing too little sleep or sleeping all the time)
  • Serious drop in grades
  • Frequent lying or evasion
  • Deteriorating personal hygiene
  • Obsession with fears and worries
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or friends
  • Lack of friends
  • Association with undesirable friends
  • Persistent “orphanage behavior,” such as rocking or head-banging that occurs beyond the toddler years
  • Slow physical or mental development
  • Physical violence or attacks
  • Antisocial behavior such as stealing, starting fires, or harming animals
  • Self-injurious behavior (cutting or harming oneself)
  • Substance abuse
Adoption Alert

Keep in mind that after placement and for at least several months, older adopted children will nearly always act out. This is normal. If they're bad, will you still want them? They want to know, so they have to test you. As you discipline the bad behavior, make sure you always show that you still love the child.

Getting Help

What if your child needs a therapist? It's important to find a sympathetic, knowledgeable therapist to help you and your child. Some therapists are biased against adoption in general; they attribute all problems to the adoption itself. Others think adoption is completely irrelevant and look for some other cause, without realizing that some children are genuinely confused and troubled by their adoptive status.

Psychiatrist Steven Nickman has bluntly stated that sometimes mental health professionals can make already-existing problems worse for adopted children. Nickman cites several problems that therapists may display when treating adopted children:


A 1993 issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry studied adopted and nonadopted children referred for therapy. Researchers found that adoptive families had more supportive resources than nonadoptive families.

  • Not understanding the difference between adopting a child from foster care or from an orphanage and adopting a newborn infant. That's a big difference!
  • Not understanding the difference between confidential adoption and open adoption.
  • Not recognizing or acknowledging the bond that exists between the parents and the adopted child; not perceiving similarities between the parents and adopted child.
  • Providing inappropriate therapy. The therapist might insist on working exclusively with the child and shutting the family out, or might ignore the child's previous history.

So how do you find a qualified therapist? Don't be afraid to ask your pediatrician or other physicians for recommendations. You can also contact a local teaching hospital and request a referral. Your network of friends and family might also be able to help.

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