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Unique Features of Identity Development in Transnational Adoptions

Identity formation has been defined as the process by which an individual develops a coherent self-definition of one’s uniqueness (Erikson, 1968). Arnett (2000; 2014) proposed the concept of emerging adulthood (between ages 18 and 29) as the developmental stage of later adolescence at which an individual is both cognitively and psychologically best suited for identity formation. Emerging adults who had been adopted transnationally as children often struggle to articulate their ethnic identity as a dimension of their broader individual identity (Schwartz et al., 2013) because they have characteristics that do not fit into those of the majority (Adams & Marshall, 1996). Guided by ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1998), this mixed-method pilot study seeks to demonstrate how family environments, contact with birth parents, community context, and culture (Grotevant et al., 2000) influence the ethnic identity development of emerging adults who have been adopted transnationally. It employs the Multi-Group Ethnic Identity Measure (MEIM) proposed by Phinney et al. (1999) in order to investigate the influence of age at adoption, adoptive parental support of adoptee exploration of identity and cultural roots, and adoptee contact with birth parents upon the ethnic identity formation of eleven emerging adults who had been adopted from China. It then suggests that adoptive parental support of their child’s exploration of her birth culture is a positive influence, that contact with birth parents may be both a positive and a negative influence, and that belonging to an adoptee support group may not only be a positive influence but also may foster the formation of an identity as an ethnic adoptee in the adoptive country—in the case of this study’s participants, of being Chinese adoptees in America.