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ADHD, Adoption, and Me!

mother and child and - ADHD?When I was researching my book, Adoption Reunions, I learned that adoptees were overrepresented in U.S. psychological treatment facilities by (according to some estimates)  four to one (Nancy Gibbs, Time magazine, October 9, 1989).

Bummer. … Guess who’s adopted?

Growing up adopted

I spent most of my life trying to figure out what impact being adopted had on me. (Besides, that is, being at greater risk for cracking up). I knew from an early age that I was adopted. Which is good, ’cause otherwise, when the kids shouted, “nyah, nyah, you were adopted!” in the schoolyard, I would have thought that they were the crazy ones.

I began my chapter, “Growing up Adopted,” with this:

“At age 15, I began to realize that I had been melancholy most of my life.” Ok, ok, before you get too bummed out, I wrote my book over 15 years, and many therapy sessions, ago. I’m happy now. Honest. Read Zoë’s Pet Peeves: Stifle Yourself! if you don’t believe me.

No alien to loss

Back then, I chalked up my sadness to the losses of adoption. You know, little things, like: my ancestry, medical history, and the right to meet my own mother. I didn’t even have a birth story. I concluded, in lieu of any actual evidence, that I was an alien. Who wouldn’t be depressed?

Depression … dysthymia … ADHD

I’ve since learned that it wasn’t depression that I suffered, but dysthymia. And how did I stumble upon this term? While researching ADHD.

Double bummer. Guess who has ADHD?

I was starting to feel greedy: adoption and ADHD.

But I’m not the only one who’s greedy. Turns out up to 20-30% of us adoptees have ADD as well, as opposed to a measly 3-5% or so of ADDers in the total North American population.

“So what’s up with that?” I wondered. “How did I get so lucky?” I’d already fought for the right to meet my own mother, had been labelled “illegitimate” by Canada’s adoption legislation, and had suffered the embarrassment of hearing my adoptive mom say, “I don’t know,” when asked by the family doctor if whatchamacallit runs in the family. Now, I get to tell my friends that I have ADHD and put up with dumb-ass responses like, “But you’re not a 12-year-old girl!” No shit, Sherlock.

Adoption / ADHD connection

Guess I’m on a new quest: finding the connection between being adopted and ADHD.

First, I thought of the obvious. I mean, what unwanted pregnancy wasn’t caused by impulsivity? So, it’s inherited, right? Our birth parents were, er, shall we say, impulsive, and passed on their propensity for acting first and thinking later, to us?

It’s not that straight-forward. First, there’s no consensus over whether ADHD is inherited or caused by environmental factors (and hugely exacerbated by being adopted).

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not looking for someone to blame. I’m trying to understand the factors that influence me so I can make my life better.

While most researchers agree that ADHD is inherited, one best-selling author throws a fly in the ointment by suggesting that environment plays a more prominent role. Right from in utero onward, that is.

And, according to Gabor Maté, MD, author of Scattered Minds, for adoptees, the in utero environment is pretty messed up.

Early environmental stressors on an adoptee

Maté points out that any mom who has to give her baby up for adoption, is by definition, a stressed mother. Fair enough. But for the baby, this means that for nine months you’re awash in high levels of stress hormones, “… a negative influence on [the baby’s] developing [brain] even before birth.” (Scattered, p. 52).

Okay, so we’re off to a bad start. What next?

Next, we’re taken away from our birth mothers.

In one study, four-month-old monkeys who were separated from their birth mothers for only six days suffered major alterations of dopamine and other neurotransmitter systems. (Scattered, p. 82).

Alright, so we’re not monkeys (except for the niggling detail that “climbing trees” is one of the diagnostics for ADD, but we’ll try to overlook that for the moment …). But isn’t a wonky level of dopamine and norepinephrine (both important neurotransmitters) associated with ADHD brains? Yes, according to my research.

So let’s recap: we’ve suffered a cortisol-soaked womb, a stress-related alteration of crucial neurotransmitters, and now – ta-da! We arrive at our unwitting adoptive parents’ homes. Hi, Mom and Dad. You’re in for a spectacular ride!

Brittle bonding and the adoptee

According to research (including my own, and personal experience), the familial bonding process for an adoptee can be, shall we say, a tad slower than normal. And in some cases, it doesn’t take place at all.

And guess what? According to Maté, the skill of attention that begins during the initial stages of brain growth can only continue optimally if there’s a secure attachment relationship with the primary caregiver. (Scattered, p. 125).

Ok. I think I’m starting to see the adoption / ADHD connection.

Whether through genetics or environment (or a combination of both), it’s obvious I come by my ADHD honestly. I’ve decided that no matter how I got it, I’m stuck with it.

I might as well make the best of it. I’m looking on the bright side: material for another book! Please stand by for a book launch near you …

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ADHD, Adoption, and Me!

Zoë Kessler, BA, B.Ed.

Zoë Kessler is an award-winning author, journalist, and speaker specializing in women and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD / ADD).

A frequent contributor to ADDitude Magazine, Kessler has also created video, standup comedy, and guest blogs on ADHD and Marriage covering ADHD-related topics.

Zoë, an internationally recognized ADHD expert, has been interviewed on radio and featured in magazine articles, documentaries, and books on the topic of women and ADHD across North America.

Her newly-released memoir ADHD According to Zoë - The Real Deal on relationships, Finding Your Focus & Finding Your Keys (New Harbinger Publications, 2013) about life with ADHD is now available.

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APA Reference
Kessler, Z. (2019). ADHD, Adoption, and Me!. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Mar 2019
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