Is Adoption Trauma?

Adoption: Trauma that Lasts a Lifetime

Original Article by Vicki M. Running June 11, 1996

I found this so profound and so true I am compelled to repost it.

They just cannot understand. The perfect child of Mr & Mrs Smith they adopted 15 years ago is now skipping school, talking back, is involved in a sexual relationship with her 20-year old addicted boyfriend. Until a year ago she had good grades, enjoyed spending time with her parents; she was the ideal child. They have sought treatment from a family therapist. Nevertheless, they cannot seem to get through to her. There have been no new stressors in the household. What is the problem?

For many years adoption had been viewed as the perfect arrangement for all involved. What has not been taken into account are the emotional effects adoptions has on all involved in the triad, and most specifically for the purpose of this paper, the adoptee. These effects or issues, can be managed as long as they are recognized and acknowledged. Adoptees’ psychological issues need to be address by mental health professionals in order to recognize and effectively treat the symptoms of low self esteem, lack of trust and disassociation.

The adoptees’ trauma beings the moment she is separated from her birth mother. Some psychologists believe that an infant is not able to differentiate her mother until 2 months of age. At the same time they believe that the infant does not know she is her own identity (Kaplan 1978). What do mental health professionals believe the infant thinks for those first two months? They will suggest that she is in some type of limbo, that she does not have the capacity to think or know until two months of age. But yet she knows to cry when she is uncomfortable and how to ingest her food. Psychologists will call this instinct, but we should also look at the possibility of the newborn instinctively knowing who her mother is, after all, they were connected for 40 weeks.

Since an infant does not see herself as a separate entity, we must believe that she sees herself as part of the person she was physically attached and bonded to to 40 weeks. (Verrier, 1993, Chap 2) When separated from the one thing to which she was connected, the infant will feel she has lost part of herself.

             “Many doctors and psychologists now understand that bonding does not  begin at birth, but is a continuum of physiological, psychological, and spiritual events that began in utero and continue through the postnatal bonding period. When this natural evolution is interrupted by postnatal separation from the biological mother, the resultant experience of abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds of these children, causing what I call the ‘Primal Wound’ (Verrier, 1993 p.1)”

When the adoptee is separated from her birth mother, she undergoes extensive trauma. She will not remember this trauma, but it will stay in her subconscious as she lived it (Verrier, 1993). An event in a persons infancy can and will stay throughout her life. An example of the subconscious effect of an early experience would be Marc. Marc was in an orphanage the first year of his life. Because of the lack of human touch, he would rock himself in his crib. Marc is now 42 years old and still rocks himself when watching television, listening to music or sitting on a park bench. He does not remember rocking himself as an infant, but this practice has stayed with him through his subconscious his entire life.

The adoptee will always carry the issue of abandonment with her wherever she goes. It is no different then when a husband leaves a wife. She may remarry a wonderful man, but will always wonder if her new husband is going to leave her. She must work through the abandonment issue to regain trust. That abandonment issue has to be acknowledged, before it can be resolved.

Even if the 'Primal Wound’ as described above was not a factor in the adoptees’ emotional well being, the knowledge of abandonment will always be there. She may have been told she was 'chosen’ by her adoptive parents but it will not be long until she figures out she was abandoned by the first set of parents. Julie P. responded to a question on the Adoptees Internet Mailing List (an Internet support group that consists of approx. 1000 members) about the feeling of being adopted. “No, I am not depressed, miserable, angry or negative…but I have always felt second best. Sure I was told that I was the (chosen) one, but first I was rejected.” Regardless of the circumstances, it will always feel like abandonment to her.

The adoptee is given very little information about her relinquishment. (In 45 states adoptees’ birth records are sealed for 99 years. (CMS 2010) She is expected to leave the past behind on concentrate on her present and future. Out of respect for the adoptive parents, she will often not ask questions or talk about her adoption if it is an uncomfortable subject in her home. She will wonder if her relinquishment and about her birth mother.  To attempt to fill in the gaps she will create of acceptable scenarios of the circumstances of her conception, birth and relinquishment, that she can emotionally handle.

As a small child, she will not understand how her mother could give her up, or abandon her. Adoptees may feel that they were a bad baby, or that the birth mother was an uncaring person. Other thoughts will occur, such as she was stolen from her birth mother, either by public authorities or by her adoptive parents. She will generally outgrow these fantasies, and begin to see them as just that, but a part of her will always wonder.

The 'chosen’ child also has a negative affect for other reasons. The child may feel that she has to be perfect to live up to her 'chosen’ status. She may either become the compliant 'perfect’ child or she may just act out and misbehave to test the commitment of the adoptive parents. Either way, often times she is not herself, but rather acting a part. This acting can be very draining and emotionally confusing, and may last into early adult years and beyond. When an adoptee cannot live up to her 'chosen’ status, it will contribute to the feeleings of low self esteem. This will be further exacerbated if the adoptive parents are not aware of the issue and their actions reinforce the adoptees’ belief, i.e. sending her away for residential treatment or openly wishing for her to be more like themselves. (Sounds familiar-CMS 2010))

The adoptee is also aware of the many ghosts that follow her though life. These ghosts include the person she would have been had she not been adopted, the ghost of her birth parents, and the ghost of the adoptive family’s child she would have been (Lifton 1994, chap. 6). She may find herself trying to reconnect to these ghosts through her actions. Either being the image of her birth family, living her life according to her fantasy birth family, or acting as her vision of the adoptive parent’s natural child.

When the adolescent adoptee acts out it may her way of trying to connect with the image she has of her birth mother or may feel she is not worth of her adoptive parents love. Adolescence is a confusing time for any child, but the adoptee has many more identity issues to deal with.

As the adoptee begins to become aware of her adoptive status she will notice the difference she has from her peers and other family members. I noticed in my family I do not have the face shape, nose, mouth or ears of anyone in my adoptive family. Frankly with the exception of eye color, I stand out like a sore thumb. (CMS 2010) This is normal for an adoptee and can make her feel left out or misplaced in her family. A particularly tough time for the adoptee is learning about genetics for the first time in school. The first lesson in heredity and genetics is usually regarding eye color. If the adoptees eyes do not fall within the proper genetic pattern as her adoptive family, the adoptee can be left with a feeling of not belonging. There are many instances when growing up when again she is faced with the knowledge that she is different; when asked about family history by a doctor, when asked if she has a sister because the inquirer knows someone who looks just like her, when asked about ethnic background; in regular day to day conversations.

Physical differences are not the only ones noticed. Differences in personality or talents may be further misplace the adoptee from her adoptive family. In talking with other adoptees, I have described this feeling as “seeing my adoptive family is in a big circle, and I am on the outside looking in.”

With the adoptee not having a role model who resembles her physically or psychologically, it is more difficult to define where her life will lead. She may come from a biologically artistic family, but adopted into a scientific family. She may not only feel the need to follow in her adoptive family’s footsteps, attending similar colleges, choosing similar careers, but she did not have the artistic role model to show her that way of life. This further complicates the identity formation of the adoptee. “Ones identity begins with genes and family history…” (Reitz & Watson, 1992, p. 34)

Adoptees also lack the ability to see their physical characteristics as they will present themselves in the future. A natural born daughter will be able to tell how tall she will be, if she will have a tendency to be overweight, or if she is going to go grey early in life; but the adoptee is denied this genetic role model and will not know these things until she reaches that stage in life herself. This adds to the curiosity of wanting to know her genetic background.  (I myself and 5'6", and my daughter is 5'10", but neither of us have any comparison to judge this by..CMS)

          'Rachel’ says that families are a hall of mirrors, “Everyone but adoptees can look in and see themselves reflected. I don’t know what it’s like to be me. I feel like someone who looks into a mirror and see no reflection. I felt lonely, unconnected, floating, like a ghost.”

The adoptee will feel even more dissociated when conversations with family members or peer births are brought up. She is missing the story of her birth parents meeting, her conception, her birth, and her time after birth. One the Aoptees Internet Mailing List, one member described this as a feeling of “floating cosmic blip”. It is often commented that the adopteed feels 'hatched’ not 'born’. Non-Adoptees take their own life story for granted, but the adoptee is acutely aware that her is missing. So now, not only does the adoptee feel dissociated from her adoptive family, but from her peers as well.

Adoptees are faces with a feeling of loss and grief that they are not allowed, by society, to actively mourn. “With adoption, the child experiences a loss (like divorce or death) of an unknown person, and doesn’t know why.” (Adopting Resources, 1995) She is aware that family members are lost to her, but is expected not to mourn the loss of this family member she has never known. “Adoption Loss is the only trauma in the world where the victims are expected by the whole of society to be grateful” - The Reverend Keith C. Griffith, MBE

Not all of these issues affect adoptees to the same extent. Some may spend a lifetime dwelling on it, others may appear not to be affected at all. This would be true of any group of people living through a traumatic event, such as war veterans. It should be noted that adoptees are over represented in residential treatment centers.

 In recent years there have been more works written on the subject. In 1978 Sorosky, Baran and Pannor wrote on the Adoption Triage. This was one of the first books written specifically on the psychological issues of adoption. In one reference book written for psychology by Reitz and Watson (1992) it was  noted:

       “Despite the proliferation in recent decades of the literature on both family therapy and adoption, there has been little focus on the treatment of families involved in adoption.”

There are many books written by members of the Triad: the three sides of adoption; adoptive parents, birth parents and adoptees; that are geared toward their triad peers. These are an excellent resource for triad members to begin to explore the issues of adoption. In researching basic psychology books, if adoption is mentioned, it is in the following context: “It should be obvious that neither I or anybody else know enough about the psychology of adoption to offer any firm advice.” (Church, 1973)

Betty Jean Lifton PhD, Adoption Counselor/Author/Adoptee, also commented on the subject. When asked what lead to her studying adoption issues, her reply was: “Are you an adoptee….then you know.” It is easy to understand when someone who has not lived, would not give the subject much thought. Mental health professionals need to be made to give the subject some thought or they will be doing a great disservice to their adoptive patients.

The first step to communicating the psychological effects of adoption to mental health professionals is to educate the public in general. There have been more recent books, movies and such on adoption but they fail to acknowledge the special issues. Through accurate media representation, the general population can receive information needed to better understand the adopted person. In turn the mental health professionals can begin to study the subject and explore alternative treatments for their adopted patients.

Adoptive parents must also be aware of these special issues so they can find a counselor who is trained to deal with them. Too often, counselors of adopted children are not aware that special issues exist and they attempt to deal with the least disturbing problem and thus the fail to get to the core issue of adoption. Parents, as mine did (CMS 2010) took me from therapist to therapist, without ever having come upon one who is knowledgeable about the scars of adoption. Thus these children or adolescents become “secondhand patients. Therapists who do not see adoption as the core issue cannot reach the child. The Adoptee remains isolated and continues to act out…(Lifton, 1988, p. 273)

And what happened to Mr. & Mrs. Smith and their daughter? They received a referral for an adoption specialist. They are now attending family counseling and making some progress towards their daughter’s recovery through open communication and understanding of the trauma that she still experiences each day. One could only wish the same for all the other adoptees out there, child, adolescent and adult.