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Self-Awareness and Self-Esteem in Adopted Children

The basis for self-esteem comes from the child’s initial experiences being cared for and loved. If the child’s needs are consistently met, they feel valued and worthwhile. Unfortunately, many adopted children do not have this early experience.

As they get older (typically late elementary school) and start to notice that they are “different” from their friends because they are adopted, they wonder why their parents gave them away and whether something is wrong with them.

This becomes even more pronounced if they experience learning challenges and repeatedly fail at tasks they are supposed to master. This can cause their self esteem to take a real hit and they start to feel they are worthless and incapable of being good at anything.

Children are very aware of being “different” – whether it is from not looking like your parents or being pulled out of class for speech therapy. As early as second and third grades, children can start feeling hopeless about school, if they can’t read aloud in class or complete the math worksheets.

It’s very important for parents to foster self-awareness and self-esteem in children.

Acceptance of being adopted is a lifelong process. Open and age-appropriate communication about different ways families are formed and always talking about birth parents in compassionate and positive language will help. Meeting other adoptive families will let the child see that many families are formed by adoption.  Another way to normalize adoption is by talking about famous people who are adopted (for example Apple founder Steve Jobs, actor Jamie Foxx, football player Colin Kaepernick, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, South African anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela).

A child struggling with learning challenges may feel profoundly worthless and despair that they may never finish school/college, live independently, etc. There are several things parents can do to help with this, including:

  1. Don’t dismiss or minimize your child’s feelings of worthlessness. Acknowledge the pain, even if you don’t agree with the outcome they foresee.
  2. Teach the child age-appropriate ways to acknowledge why they are having these challenges. For an elementary school child, it is enough to say her brain works differently, and that while some people may be good at math, others are good at art or sports. For older children, explain dyslexia or ADHD or whatever challenge they are facing.
  3. Regularly meet other adoptive families.
  4. Talk about famous people who have succeeded in spite of or because of their learning difference (Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, actor Will Smith, singer Justin Timberlake, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles).
  5. Find one area the child excels in, which is special to them. Talk it up and praise them honestly for achievement in that arena.
  6. Encourage your child to face challenges, rather than sheltering them from difficulty. Children gain self-esteem from facing challenges and making the effort, even if they’re not successful.
  7. Tell them stories of your own challenges or those of family members and friends who have faced adversity and overcome it.
  8. Embrace your child’s interests and don’t dismiss them as trivial or not academically useful. Their self-esteem will be boosted if you show genuine interest in what catches their interest.

Parents have the primary responsibility for nurturing the emotional well-being of their children. Some private schools for learning-disabled kids focus on teaching skills of self-advocacy, resilience, etc., in addition to academic remediation as needed.


  1. “Self esteem and adoption” (pactadopt.org)
  2. “Tips to build self esteem and confidence” (parentsplace,jfcs.org)

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