Behavioral and Emotional Issues in Adopted Children

Adopted children like all children, have individualized behaviors and needs. The behaviors learned and shaped in institutionalized living (or in foster homes in their country), as well as those which result due to a major disruption in life, may require special attention. Each adopted child and family benefits from individualized assessment and support from psychology, education, therapy and social workers. Behavioral strategies used for biological children may not be appropriate for a child with a history of childhood trauma and adoption.

Types of behavioral and emotional issues

Children who are adopted may have behavioral issues such as violent tantrums and/or sensory self-stimulation in times of either stress or excitement, oppositional behaviors, aggression, depression and anxiety. Cultural differences may also affect a child’s behavior in ways that are not easily understood by their family. Research shows that children coming from institutional settings may have a difficult time understanding emotions in others, which can lead to missed social cues. Learned behaviors which were adaptive in an orphanage environment can be maladaptive post adoption. Many children suffer from trauma as a result of experiences before abandonment and/or experiences from their orphanage setting. These may include exposure to physical/emotional neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse, and violence. Understanding the causes of behavior issues post adoption is critical for helping the child and family through this period of adjustment.


Attachment is the process by which infants learn to connect and then later develop reciprocal affectionate and binding relationships. Attachment influences the way in which a child relates to the world and forms relationships throughout their life. Infants develop secure attachment when their needs are met, and trust develops. When the infant's needs are not met, disordered attachment may result.  The first several years of life are the most vulnerable time for the development of attachment. There is a spectrum of attachment, ranging from securely attached to insecurely attached, to poorly attached. Difficulties with attachment can not only result in difficulty forming relationships but can also impact self-regulation, impulse control, reactivity, and the ability to understand emotions and respond appropriately.

It is important to understand the process of attachment and the ways to facilitate healthy attachment after adoption. For families that we work with prior to the adoption, this is an important topic that is discussed prior to bringing their child home, and a focus of post adoption visits for all families. Techniques to promote attachment are reviewed. Developing a healthy attachment relationship takes time, patience, and understanding of attachment formation. Attachment related issues are particularly common for the older child.  Many of these children will benefit from therapy/counseling to help treat these issues.