She's Adopted

They just didn't tell her

Our names are part of our identity

on June 5, 2013

For adoptees, knowing the name their parents gave them at birth can have a permanent positive impact on their personal identity.

The adoption social worker Deborah Collins , recalls working with a family who was adopting a little boy and was able to find out the story behind the child’s birth name from his birth family.

As it turned out, several names had been handed down from many generations and from both sides of the extended family. The birth family wished to tell the adoptive family about the significance of the names, and it comforted them to know that the adoptive family incorporated those names into the child’s adoptive name.

As a result, the boy’s first and last names fully reflect his personal journey and relationship with both his birth and adoptive families, thus supporting and contributing to his growing sense of self.


I’ve also known adult adoptees who uncovered the history of their birth name later in life. Some even reclaimed their birth name as adults, not to offend their adoptive family but to salvage a key part of their identity in a meaningful way.

Historically, surnames and family names were handed down to subsequent generations, like a legacy, so individuals could tell the world who they were and that they belonged to a certain “clan.”

For adoptees, knowing their birth name holds a lot of significance:

  • They know that someone took the time and cared enough to name them.
  • They may feel more connected to their birth family.
  • They may be able to identify their heritage or search for their birth family later in life.
  • And, knowing their birth name helps them develop their overall identity.

So, what about changing a child’s name after an adoption?

The short answer is: Changing a child’s name is a big deal.

From a child’s perspective, a shared last name is one of the differences between being a foster child and an adopted child. Giving a child a new and shared last name can offer him or her a genuine sense of belonging.

On the flip side, children may experience identity problems with a change in their first name, as indicated by pediatrician and psychotherapist Dr. Vera Fahlberg, author of A Child’s Journey through Placement.

What should adoptive parents consider if they want to rename their adopted child?

  • Depending on age, does the child recognize and identify with his or her first name?
  • Does the child have an opinion about his or her name?
  • What about changing or adding on to the child’s middle name instead of changing his or her first name?
  • Does the child’s given name or new first name have a negative connotation that may result in bullying from peers?
  • Is there a special tradition or cultural identity that’s important to maintain or pass on?
  • Is the decision to change the name based on the child’s best interests or your own?

Our names are part of our identity, which we continue to develop throughout our lives. For an adopted child, knowing his or her birth name and family history is just one step toward self-discovery. Although a name change — first, middle, or last — may modify an adopted child’s identity, it should never deny it.


About the author: Deborah Collins, adopted as a child, has seven names and knows firsthand that adding and changing names can go hand in hand with adding more purpose and meaning to a person’s name and his or her identity.

One response to “Our names are part of our identity

  1. Dana says:

    I think the name-change thing is creepy. Last name, sure, but first and middle? It’s just another way for the adopters to deny that they did not have their own child. It comes off as very possessive too. The mom is not going to be allowed to do anything else for her child once she signs the relinquishment. And no one cares that she gave the child life–they repeat over and over that “biology doesn’t matter.” They ought to at least give her this. It could potentially make reunion easier later too, if both the adoptee and the original parents want that.

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