International Adoption: Looking to Belong Miles Away from Home


Belonging is a feeling of closeness, togetherness, “fitting in,” or feeling like a significant member of a group. Belonging is closely connected to a person’s identity and who they believe they are and how they are connected to others. Under the word “belonging” in the Merriam Webster dictionary the example of the word used in a sentence is as follows: “Her adoptive family gave the young girl a sense of belonging that she had never felt before.” Isn’t that the feeling that all parents want their children to have? Whether children join a family through adoption, foster care, or biologically parents want them to feel like they belong. But there is more to helping children feel like they belong than simply loving them and providing them a home. A person’s identity is closely connected to whether they feel like they belong.

Identity is formed through the combination of a person’s customs, traditions, values, beliefs and language. Identity development is a process that occurs over a person’s lifetime, beginning during childhood, peaking during adolescence and then continuing into adulthood. It is a journey of self-exploration, which integrates how a person self-identifies, how others define them and how culture/society defines them. According to psychologist Erik Erikson, “Identity can provide a person with direction and purpose, which in turn lays the groundwork for adult psychosocial development.”

Children who are adopted internationally tend to have a harder time forming their identity and feeling like they belong. They have ties in many different places such as their birth culture, birth family, adopted family, and their new culture. Parents are responsible for providing opportunities for their children to explore their identity and how they fit into society.

Below are a few ways parents can support their internationally adopted child to form a good cultural identity:

  1. Incorporate the child’s birth culture into your family’s daily life – Learn to cook traditional recipes and have your child help with selecting, cooking and tasting new foods. Listen to cultural music. Dress in traditional outfits for special occasions. Integrate cultural décor and art into your home. Hang pictures on the wall from your trips to the country.
  2. Engage in cultural activities as a family – Celebrate your child’s birth culture by attending cultural events or heritage festivals. Create new traditions surrounding holidays specific to your child’s birth culture. For example, if your child was born in China, participate in activities celebrating Chinese New Year. Another way to celebrate a child’s birth culture is to cheer on their birth country during the Olympics or other international competitions.
  3. Connect with people of the same ethnicity/culture as your adopted child – Your child needs role models from their birth culture. Children should have the opportunity to interact with and develop close relationships with people who share similar backgrounds, ethnicities and culture. Parents can provide opportunities by hosting a foreign exchange student, missionaries or connecting their child with a pen pal. Many high schools and colleges recognize that identity formation happens during adolescence and adulthood, so they have groups, student unions or associations on campus which provides opportunities for students of similar backgrounds to connect.
  4. Embrace and celebrate differences –Parents need to have an open dialog with their child and provide them with strategies and language to deal with racism and discrimination. Provide your child with positive self-talk which celebrate their differences.

By incorporating your child’s culture into your family, you can help your child understand that they are special and loved. It can also open up opportunities to foster attachment with your adopted child. Since children adopted internationally are a unique sort of immigrant who immigrate alone, finding a place where they belong may be a lifetime journey. Adoptees may continue to ask themselves, “where do I belong?” but parents can provide a good foundation for identity formation by starting early and embracing and celebrating their child and their child’s culture from the moment their child joins their family.

Angela Simpson is an adoptive parent, social worker and adoption advocate. Angela is MLJ Adoptions’ Support Services Specialist and works with families throughout their adoption process. Angela and her husband have two sons and have just recently added a daughter to their family through adoption.