The question of when adopted people learn about their adoptee status, fascinating as it may be to the general population, has generated only a meager amount of scientific inquiry. A robust body of research exists on the psychological effects of adoption and children’s understanding of it. But Amanda Baden, a professor in the graduate counseling program at Montclair State University who has been studying adoption-adjacent issues for 25 years, was surprised to find little research on how the age at which people discover they are adopted affects their later outcomes in life. This summer, Baden and her colleagues published a study on the outcomes associated with the discovery of adoption status at different stages in life. The results suggest that disclosure of adoptee status after the age of 3 could have negative consequences on an adoptee’s future life satisfaction and mental health.
When—and even whether—adoptees should find out about their adoptee status has been a topic of debate among experts for decades. For much of the 20th century, it was common for parents to simply never reveal their adopted children’s origins to them; research conducted in the 1970s showed that most parents didn’t. Those who did, Baden’s study notes, tended to do so in adolescence or adulthood, as some experts at the time believed it best to wait until an adopted person was old enough to understand the concept of adoption and its implications.
Today, adoption professionals are closer to a consensus on whether and when to disclose the information to children. The most common recommendation to adoptive parents is to disclose the story of a child’s adoption to him or her at a young age, the logic being that it can be harmful to children’s mental health to discover that their parents have lied to or misled them for a significant amount of time. Still, Baden finds, that logic is far from universally intuited, even by people who spend a lot of time thinking about mental health: Baden often asks her graduate students who want to be counselors when they think children should be told they were adopted, and the range of answers she receives is surprising. “I always get a couple of people who say, ‘As early as possible, from the moment you adopt them,’” she told me in an interview. “But the majority of people say 5, 10, even 18 years old, and a few say never.” And some experts still recommend waiting until a child is old enough to grasp the concept, though this viewpoint is rarer today than in the past.
Baden and her team surveyed a sample of 254 people, ranging in age from 24 to 78, who had been adopted before their first birthday and told at some point about their adoption. Each participant completed a questionnaire that assessed their life satisfaction, general degree of day-to-day distress, and coping ability, and included a few open-ended questions about how they learned they were adopted. Ultimately, the researchers found that “those in the earliest age group of adoption discovery, birth to 2 years of age, reported both the least distress and the highest level of life satisfaction,” and that adoptees “who consciously recalled the revelation and their age at discovery (aged 3 and older) reported comparatively higher levels of distress that increased with later ages of discovery.”