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  • What characterizes good (adoptive) parents?


What characterizes good (adoptive) parents? A literature study


We performed a review of the literature based on a number of inclusion and exclusion criteria detailed in the report.

Ny forside Hva kjennetegner gode adoptivforeldre.jpg

We performed a review of the literature based on a number of inclusion and exclusion criteria detailed in the report.

Downloadable as PDF. In Norwegian. English Summary.

About this publication

  • Year: 2021
  • By: Norwegian Institute of Public Health
  • Authors Torgersen L, Bårdstu S, Haukedal CL .
  • ISBN (digital): 978-82-8406-169-6


Background and research question

In Norway and internationally, children released for adoption are, as a group, essentially children in care. Many of them have been the victims of neglect and many of them have major health challenges to contend with. This places great demands on the capacity and care-giving ability of adopters, not only while the adoptees are minors, but also from a life cycle perspective. In order to achieve well-founded and reliable assessment of prospective adopters, updated knowledge is needed of which factors are significant for prospective adopters’ ability to meet an adoptee’s care needs and how the various factors might influence care-giving ability over time. The Norwegian Directorate for Children, Youth and Family Affairs (Bufdir) has therefore commissioned the Norwegian Institute of Public Health to carry out an assessment of the criteria currently applied in assessing prospective adopters. The assessment of the criteria will be informed by a literature review of research literature to determine which characteristics in adoptive parents are significant for adoptee health and development. The report is a presentation of the findings of this literature review.


We performed a review of the literature based on a number of inclusion and exclusion criteria detailed in the report. This report presents and discusses the results of 146 identified studies that included study variables addressing both adoptive parents/adoptive families and adoptees where (1) adoptee variables were outcome variables, and (2) where parental stress was an outcome variable.

Sorting of the studies and organisation of the report

We sorted and presented the studies according to topics best aligned with the assessment criteria to which prospective adopters are subject. Each topic forms the basis for a sub-chapter sorted under four main topics. The first section, adoptive parents' resources and characteristics, includes studies describing adoptive parent and adoptive family demographic factors and characteristics. The second main section, family dynamics, includes studies dealing with parent-child relationships characterised by mutual influence. The third section, adoption-related topics, includes studies indicating the extent to which evidence exists that parental expectations, or parents’ way of talking to children about them being adopted, any experience of racism, or, more generally, concerning their cultural background, have implications for adoptee health and development. The fourth and last main section includes studies focusing on sibling adoption and adoption of older children, i.e. adoptions assumed to be more challenging and hence necessitating additional characteristics and resources in adoptive parents. Each sub-chapter contains a detailed presentation of the relevant studies and a summary and assessment of the extent to which the studies identified provide a basis for drawing conclusions on the relationship between parental characteristics and child development.


To sum up the conclusion of the review in each of the sub-chapters, we produced a table to answer the initial question: Do studies provide evidence that the given characteristic in adoptive parents or an adoptive family influence child health and development?


Do studies provide evidence for asserting that the following characteristics in adoptive parents or an adoptive family influence child health and development?




Insufficient studies

Parental resources and characteristics

Parental age




Socioeconomic status




Single parenthood




Same-sex parents




Personal conduct, substance abuse, and crime




Mental health




Attachment security




Marital relationship




Social networks and social support




Family dynamics

School-supportive behaviour




Family environment




Parenting style




Parental stress




Adoption-related topics

Cultural and ethnic socialisation




Openness and communication surrounding adoption




Parents' (realistic) expectations of child development and skills




Age of adoptee at time of adoption




Sibling adoption





The results of the literature review indicate that relevant studies are lacking in several fields. This is especially the case regarding the significance for children of how parents relate to their adopted child’s ethnicity and cultural background, and the extent to which they have realistic expectations of the child.  The literature review further indicates that the extent to which adoptive parents’ age, educational attainment, financial status and marital status have implications for child health and development is unclear. The literature review also suggests that children adopted at a higher age (usually more than five years old) tend to have to more severe difficulties at the time of adoption, but that age in itself is not necessarily a risk factor for the child's cognitive, psychological and relational development.

Moreover, we found that children appear to function better psychologically and cognitively in families where the parents perceive that they receive extensive social and institutional support; where the family environment is positive; and where the parents are highly supportive of the child’s literacy and schooling. However, the systematic review suggests that it cannot be excluded that other, co-varying child and parent characteristics might exist to better account for this relationship.

The results of the literature review indicate that the parents’ own attachment security, mental health, the quality of the parents’ marital/quasi-marital relationship and their parenting style are the most reliably established consequential factors for the child. The review suggests that certain aspects of parental personality have direct and indirect adverse impacts on the child. Parents with generally weak abilities to form stable, close and trusting relationships with other people, with a generalised tendency to react with hostility and aggression to those around them, and with pronounced depressive tendencies and negative emotions have a greater tendency to cause the child to develop in a negative direction. Parents with these characteristics tend also to display dysfunctional parenting strategies in response to the development of difficulties in the child. The studies do not serve to identify clearly whether negative development originates in the child’s influence on the parents or vice versa. The studies do suggest, however, that the characteristics identified above increase the probability that any mutually negative reinforcement will exacerbate difficulties affecting the child. The effect on the child is further intensified in a child genetically predisposed towards developing disorders, i.e. where the biological parents have a mental disorder and/or a tendency for reactive and aggressive behaviour.

Limitations of the systematic review

The majority of the studies are based on families with young children. Other factors may be significant when those children reach puberty and during adolescence. Children adopted internationally come from diverse countries with varying capacity to meet children’s basic needs pre-adoption. Systematic differences between children from different adoption countries may serve to account for the variations in the results between the studies. In recent years, there has also been an increasing tendency for adopted children to display severe disorders, especially in the case of international adoptions. This tendency means that many of the studies may not adequately encompass the challenges faced by future adoptive families entailed by substantial care-giving responsibilities, and where the child was adopted from countries other than those previously adopted from.

The way forward

The adoption project has several components, of which this systematic review of the literature is the first. The next report will present the results of a questionnaire-based survey of the adoptive parents' experiences from the adoption process, desire for post-adoption services, and the extent to which they feel they have received the help they needed for themselves and their adopted child(ren). We will also be making recommendations for criteria to inform future assessments of prospective adopters; how these need to be quantifiable, together with proposals for organisation of future post-adoption services for adoptive families.

Who is the report useful for?

The results of the literature review may also contribute to a better understanding of which parental characteristics are significant for parenting of children and adolescents beyond adoptive families as well. The adoptive family unit is essentially identical to any other family, the difference lying in the circumstances of “conception”. The knowledge presented in the report will consequently be applicable to any agency assessing the care-giving ability of families, such as within the child welfare service and approval of foster parents.

The report will also be of relevance to anyone interested in how parents and children generally influence each other. One challenge in research into how parents influence their children is that it is not possible to separate out similarities between parents and children attributable to their common genetics. It is also not possible to establish whether similarities between parents and children are the result of parental influence on the child or vice versa. Adoptive families differ from other families in that the children do not share genetic material with their adoptive parents. This means that studies of adoptive families are increasingly being used as a research design to investigate how parents and children exert influence on each other, since this eliminates the effect of the common genetics. Studies that include information about the child's biological parents also permit identification of the direction of the influence between parent and child. Our aim is therefore for this report to be read by researchers, practitioners and others seeking a greater understanding of how parents and children exert influence on one another.