Does “Adoption” Really Equal “Trauma”?

Yes.

To some people, this is old news (“The Primal Wound” came out in 1993.) To some, it’s a startlingly new concept. I’d argue, though, that “adoption as trauma” exists on a spectrum, as does trauma itself: some people recover well and easily, some people are forever wounded, and most are somewhere between.

A mainstream view is that adoption is a happy event: a child needing a family gets one. How, then, is adoption a trauma? That sounds so negative and scary, especially to an adoptive parent, and to an adoptee.

As an adoptive parent, I believe that adoption is all about gains and losses, joy and grief, a balance that shifts often throughout life. I also believe if we took a deep breath and viewed adoption as trauma—trauma that can be overcome, trauma that some people may experience to a small or large degree—we would be better able to help adopted children heal and grow healthy, sooner than later. I think we adoptive parents need to acknowledge trauma as part of adoption, not only for our children, but also for their first mothers (and fathers and grandparents as siblings).

I’m hardly the first to be aware of this, or to write about it. In candor, though, I’m just beginning to fully understand and accept it. Adoptive parents who have worked hard to bring a child into their lives through adoption don’t want to think that this action is in fact rooted in trauma.

I wrote in February about a yoga retreat I attended, all about healing from trauma, through yoga, writing, and nutrition. I shared a list of items that cause trauma, and I suggested that they all describe reasons children are placed for adoption.

Much research acknowledges that separation from one’s mother is trauma. Think Harlow and the baby monkeys; think Primal Wound. In the case where the separation is the result of neglect, abuse, or death, the trauma is intensified. The American Academy of Pediatrics wrote a report called “Helping Foster and Adoptive families Cope with Trauma.” Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy, a birth mother and powerful writer of the blog “Musings of the Lame,” wrote about the AAP report in her post “Assume There Is Adoption Trauma in Adoptees.”

We are hardwired to need and depend on our mothers for survival. If there is an end to that basic relationship, children suffer—even if they are infants, even if there is a new (loving, overjoyed) mother or mother-figure.

So it’s not only neglect or abuse that contribute to trauma, though please don’t minimize those challenges.

Adoption itself is trauma.

If we acknowledge that separation from one’s mother is a trauma, then we also must recognize that separation from one’s child is a trauma. When my granddaughter turned 6, I couldn’t help but think that was the age when her mother (along with her twin sister) arrived here in the US for adoption. I thought about their Ethiopian mother, and the loss of her 6-year-old twins.

Part of that thinking acknowledged the total lack of any counseling, follow-up, or therapy that is provided to many first mothers (and fathers, etc.), in the US but perhaps even more so around the globe. Providing equitable services to adoptive and to first parents must become a priority in adoption policy.

Some people, adoptees or otherwise, heal just fine from the trauma of separation. Some struggle with trust issues throughout their lives, and have a hard time beginning or ending relationships. Some are challenged with depression, anxiety, and more, throughout their lives. I want to stress that point: there is a spectrum of resilience among adopted people, and no doubt among first parents. The spectrum does not negate the need for equitable, timely services.

If adoptive parents could accept trauma as part of their newly adopted child’s reality, might they approach attachment and bonding differently? Might they see some of the post-honeymoon (the time after the adoptive placement) behaviors as grief, due to trauma? Even infants grieve.

What if pediatricians gave new adoptive parents brochures about trauma, as well as developmental checklists?

What if agencies had prospective families listen to experienced parents whose children have struggled, instead of the parents with the cute toddlers? What if agencies had adopted adults speak of their experiences around trust, stealing, lying, and depression, as well as identity and race? What if agencies acknowledged the need to provide equitable services to international first parents, to help them deal with their losses and grief?

What if we normalized trauma, as an inherent part of adoption? What if we accepted that possibility calmly, and gathered resources for our children?

I would have done a few things differently when raising my children, had I been more willing to consider trauma when they were little. Maybe I could have made their paths smoother.

Deanna Doss Schrodes is an adoptee, Christian pastor, and the writer behind “Adoptee Restoration.” Corie Skolnick is a therapist and author. Both Deanna and Corie are contributors to the excellent anthology, Adoption Reunion in the Social Media Age, edited by (adoptee, expat, writer) Laura Dennis. Deanna and Corie had a conversation via Deanna’s blog, about the subject of adoption and trauma, and it’s well worth reading and contemplating (“Ask a Therapist: How Is Trauma Part of Adoption?“).

It’s coincidental that Claudia, Deanna, Corie, and I should be writing about adoption and trauma. As I noted at the start of this post, we are hardly the first to consider it.

Still, here we have agreement among a birth/first mother, an adopted adult, a therapist, and an adoptive parent on a significant adoption issue: adoption is a trauma. Imagine what would happen if more of us talked together about challenging adoption issues.

Tremendous fights and fractures are occurring in the world of adoption right now, in terms of policy and of whose voices are being heard. Adoptive parents and prospective parents continue to dominate. It’s rare we (adopted adults. first parents, adoptive parents) all sing from the same song sheet, and there are lots of people with lots of microphones singing many different tunes. Still.

Acknowledging that adoption is trauma, understanding that trauma manifests differently in different people and over time, and allocating resources for treatment and support: that would be a positive step toward healing.

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57 thoughts on “Does “Adoption” Really Equal “Trauma”?

  1. Well said, thank you so much, Maureen. The persistent anxiety I felt/feel as an adoptee, the constant and intense fight-or-flight responses to even minor struggles, and agoraphobia.. It all goes back to the original trauma of separation at birth. Your insights and understanding about this issue are appreciated!

  2. Pingback: Romanticizing Adoption Is a Disservice to Children and Families | Light of Day Stories

  3. Pingback: I didn’t need my biological mother–I just needed a mother | Advocating for Adoption Reform

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  5. Sophelia I couldn’t agree more – Adoption is not the solution to abortion – the best analogy I can think of is that both should be safe, legal and RARE – adoption is about finding families for children, not about finding children for families. As an adoptee, I am glad to see that this awareness is becoming more widespread. Gaining an understanding these overused adaptive behaviors in myself made me a better parent, spouse, and helped me feel more at home in my own skin. Going to battle with the closed adoption system to find my roots has stoked the fires of unrest about the institution of adoption and the burden on the adoptee of filling everyone else’s needs – we pay a heavy price for it, and we are expected to be grateful.

    Honestly, there were many times that I would have preferred to have been aborted, given the challenges we have to face – and if you met me you would probably think that I had it all together. Most of us don’t discuss these difficulties with the general public because society still wants the Happy Ending adoption story and can’t handle the truth of higher substance abuse, mental illness and suicide among the adoptee population, which can be directly attributed to the psychological, neurological and sociological impact of separation, abandonment and adaptation to completely alien surroundings – no matter how well-intended.

    • Pluto, how well put that is! Couldn’t agree more. We adoptees have so many hard struggles most non-adoptees are unaware of. Many of us don’t deal with substance abuse, psychiatric problems, suicidal impulses or become mass murderers but there are times when it is all too hard, even for those of us who live in a country like mine where records are open and have been for decades. Sure we pay the price and it is a heavy one, which we go on paying. As you say most people would be unaware of that, because most of us are good at holding it all together and don’t discuss it with non-adoptees unless we have a high level of trust.

    • Indeed… a social worker told me that I should tell my son (who was 8 when we met him) that everything he has been through was “so he could be with you”. It made me feel physically ill.

  6. I hope this isn’t an out of bounds comment, I certainly don’t want to start a big abortion debate, but I just want to say how much I wish people would stop talking about adoption like “the better choice”, as though there are no negative consequences to that decision. “Adoption not Abortion” stickers really upset me.

    • Are you saying that it’s better to be dead than to go through struggles? I don’t understand how abortion could be the better choice. Adopted children can heal and have happy lives. Aborted children don’t have that chance. If we choose to abort people just because we know that they will have heart ache and struggles, we may as well abort the entire human race.

      • No roulene, that’s not what I meant at all. I think comparing abortion and adoption is an apple to oranges situation that is unhelpful and diminishing to both choices. For example, if a woman is unwilling to carry a pregnancy to term because she relies on medication for her physical or mental health that would harm a fetus, adoption is not going to solve her dilemma. I have seen adopted children being used in anti-choice PR, wearing badges saying “my mother chose life”. No child should be a political prop, and “adoption not abortion” campaigns do just that.

        I don’t see abortion as “being dead”, rather as “never existing”. I am aware that others hold different views and I think it would be inappropriate to debate that here. I mention it only to clarify that no, I am not advocating the euthanasia of traumatised people! Speaking personally, I am not suicidal and I cannot imagine taking my life. However, I have felt for as long as I remember and probably will always feel that it would have been better if I hadn’t been born. I’m sorry I didn’t make the distinction clear.

      • I realize that some people can see abortion as ending a situation. Not me. It is ending a life. If your mother had chosen abortion for you, you would have been killed before you took your first breath. Stopping a beating heart is killing. Aren’t you glad that she chose not to end your life? I am not downplaying the trauma of adoption but, all people will have heartache. Yes some more than others but that doesn’t make their lives less important. If you protect a person from all pain and suffering, you also protect them from all the joy and triumphs.

  7. Alex most things in adoption are harder than I can make it sound! It takes a whole blog post or a chapter of a book or even a whole book to really tell it how it is. There is no one story, no valid story, all stories have validity and are told by the teller with a different viewpoint and experience from the next, even if it appears that they are telling about the same events. There can never be too many people speaking out, being activists for adoption truth and change. People who come from a place of trauma and loss can sometimes be good at that, it depends on how they have been supported. Sometimes non-adoptees are very good at promoting change if they feel strongly enough about justice. Good luck with whatever adoption changes you are promoting!

  8. I look back on my son’s face in the adoption photo we were sent . We could only think how beautiful he was. I look at those photos now and realize he was completely traumatized. He never has that look now – it is not him. But back then his mother had just died. Before dying she placed him in a orphanage. She knew he would be traumatized but she was wise. Most of her family have since died. I’m embarrassed by my initial reaction to his photo. Every day of his life I see how trauma affected him. He once lost control of everything he knew – and he tries to control his world so that won’t happen again. He has a long journey in front of him . We keep in good contact with his remaining family. They have always wanted us to adopt the last living child- but because of potential trauma in an older child adoption we have resisted, thinking it best for him that he stay with the extended family. Now almost all the adults are gone. I will never know if we made the right choice .

  9. “What if agencies had prospective families listen to experienced parents whose children have struggled, instead of the parents with the cute toddlers? What if agencies had adopted adults speak of their experiences around trust, stealing, lying, and depression, as well as identity and race? What if agencies acknowledged the need to provide equitable services to international first parents, to help them deal with their losses and grief?”

    I would add – “What if agencies honestly explained to mothers considering placing a child for adoption the very real possibility of trauma to both themselves and their child?”

    • Have heard of such attempts by agencies to use adopted adults but the struggle against the myths and misconceptions was hard to deal with and very disempowering. Many adoptees struggle with the concept of being educators for a system which traumatised, abused and disempowered them to begin with. It takes a strong survivor to be ready to take on such a role and many will know nothing of stealing, lying, depression because they didn’t experience them. Once honesty and true care for mothers and children becomes part of American adoption agencies concerns the adoption industry will have been transformed, perhaps into a non-profit making set-up.

      • I am not American but I don’t think the Americans have the monopoly on this kind of thinking. Everyone thinks it is “for profit” that generates this. It is not. It exists in not-for-profit agencies too.

        I would NEVER have the responsibility fall on the adoptees’ shoulders. I think the agencies have an obligation to educate themselves in an objective not a pro-adoption manner. I like what some one said above.

        “This is the shift in thinking I envision would need to happen:
        Current prevailing thought – Adoption is necessary & good, and if we have a problem with it, there must be something wrong with us. Treatment priorities are geared toward preserving acceptance of the institution of adoption at all costs, even to the health & well-being of children.

        More enlightened view – Adoption in & of itself is harmful, and there is nothing wrong with those who recognize that fact. We will be better equipped to serve vulnerable children. Priorities will be geared toward family preservation to protect children from the unnecessary trauma of adoption. The cost to this action will result in fewer overall adoptions, which is a GOOD thing for children.

        Success for children (or society) should never be measured in how many adoptions were completed, but in how many adoptions were prevented by saving their families.”

  10. Reblogged this on Red Thread Broken and commented:
    I’m continuously looking for this paradigm shift – when adoptive parents, adoption agencies, and the mainstream media/society will finally accept and legitimize the trauma, pain, and challenges adoptees face. If we really strive to do what is best for adoptees, the perpetuation of a purely rosy, happy scenario in which adoptees must be grateful needs to come to an end. Our pain should not be shamed or condemned. Our narratives, wherever we fall on the spectrum of grief to happiness, must be respected.

  11. Yes, u r certainly right. I remember how sad my 5 month old newly adopted infant looked for so many months (and failed to grow for awhile) and how he looked longingly out windows. On the other hand, I kind of feel like their is a disturbing new trend of APs absolutely emerging their lives in trauma so that they are kind of showing off about it so very publicly – to the point where they might be binge-intervening and hurting their child. Or confusing a very life history thing with trauma (like making a mess in the bathroom or toilet without realizing it, for example, and not because of trauma or behavioral issues). I find it disturbing, like hey, look at my traumatized child and all the potentially detrimental and mindful things I am doing to deal with it (cookie, now please)! Just goes to show how much we all need to learn and the lack of sensible guidance out there. It’s never easy in Adoption Land, for sure, and it’s become quite the judgy-mcjudgy affair, but all this to say that yes, never minimize your child’s history, heart, and mind.

    • That is so tragic and such a disturbing trend. While being mindful on grief, trauma and loss and what to do about it, the most important thing is to give adoptees as normal a life as possible.

  12. One way to eliminate a small portion of the adoption stigma-trauma would be for someone to legistate a Federal and State law that mandated the infant to keep its biological birth name. In this manner the adoptee has a base to start exploring their ethnicity. As adoption stands now in the US, infants have no rights. Even as citizens of the United States, adoptees to know who they really are. We have adopted adults in our family, and after years and years of counseling have decided that even under the best of conditions, being raised by a medical doctor and school teacher,, infant-stranger-adoption is an unethical practice. Hopefully a day will come when Federal and State laws will include an infants right to keep their biological family name, and the romantic words “adoption parents”, will be changed to “caregivers.”
    Most of the trauma is hidden, subliminally, and or is passive aggressive.

  13. This is the shift in thinking I envision would need to happen:
    Current prevailing thought – Adoption is necessary & good, and if we have a problem with it, there must be something wrong with us. Treatment priorities are geared toward preserving acceptance of the institution of adoption at all costs, even to the health & well-being of children.

    More enlightened view – Adoption in & of itself is harmful, and there is nothing wrong with those who recognize that fact. We will be better equipped to serve vulnerable children. Priorities will be geared toward family preservation to protect children from the unnecessary trauma of adoption. The cost to this action will result in fewer overall adoptions, which is a GOOD thing for children.

    Success for children (or society) should never be measured in how many adoptions were completed, but in how many adoptions were prevented by saving their families.

  14. I love this post, and I appreciate you so much for writing it.

    The moment that adoptive parents acknowledge the trauma, the next logical place is that they have to deal with the reality that they took part in some way — even if with the best of intentions, APs will have to examine their motives (“We chose you!” “Our family was incomplete without you”) and face the possibility that they have to change where their coming from. Change the language that they use.

    I think this is the reason for the resistance, because if infertility or loss was not processed BEFORE adopting, an adoptive mom will have to look at her adoptee in a new light — and acknowledge painful realities. In many cases it may very well be true that the APs were the child’s VERY LAST CHANCE at having a family. If so, so be it. However, taking off the entitled-to-a-child rose-colored glasses can be painful.

    I appreciate you looking at these albeit painful truths.

    Warmly,
    Laura

  15. Reblogged this on I Give You The Verbs and commented:
    A friend of mine (and fellow adoptee) posted this article on her Facebook page recently. Some good stuff to chew on here regarding adoption and trauma. The more discussion around this topic there is, the more compassionate understanding of each other we can come to.

  16. Hello, I’m an adoptee and a blogger. I would also love to repost this piece on my blog.
    So much that people don’t understand – this kind of post can be helpful to those with ears to hear.
    Annette

  17. As an AP, I have been actively trying to sit in stillness with this truth for some time. My family was created as the result of my child and her birthparents’ crisis. I have been struggling to have this conversation with friends and loved ones lately. Thank you for writing this. This will help tremendously.

  18. “We are hardwired to need and depend on our mothers for survival. If there is an end to that basic relationship, children suffer—even if they are infants, even if there is a new (loving, overjoyed) mother or mother-figure” I would say especially if they are infants! If at last the trauma of mother-loss and adoption is being recognised and something is being done about supporting those who need it then we have at last made some progress.

    http://eagoodlife.wordpress.com

  19. Years and (too many) years ago when I was a very young therapist I went to a conference primarily to see Irvin Yalom speak. He was already one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, existential thinkers of modern therapy. On a break, my friend and I noticed that he was sitting alone at a table. She walked right up to him and said simply, “Dr. Yalom, I am so impressed by you!” He smiled, rose, and touched his heart when he said to her, “Thank you. Isn’t that exactly what we are all longing to hear?”

    Maureen, I am so impressed by you!

    Dr. Yalom also said this that day, “Every person must choose how much truth he can stand.” The beauty of your writing is that it makes truth so much easier to bear.

  20. I think many adoptive parents of long-standing struggle with protecting their children’s privacy when thinking about whether to discuss trauma openly. The catch-22 here is that when some adult adoptees are old enough to speak for themselves and want to talk about their own experience with the trauma inherent in adoption, they are often quickly dismissed as “angry” or “damaged” outriders; what they have to say is too easily discounted by many PAPs and APs of younger children.

    • It is the role of good parents to protect the privacy of children and especially not to display images of adoptees on blogs etc or to discuss their trauma. The adoptee will do that if they wish later and it is their story to tell or keep private. Dismissing what adoptees say is all too easy and those aparents of young adoptees have not lived through decades of being aparents so they do not have the experience to qualify them to have an informed opinion. PAP’s can dismiss anything they like it is their prerogative but they may regret it later as we so often see amongst experienced aparents of older adoptees. Those who dismiss that there are things to get angry about in adoption are in blinkers! Yes, adoption causes trauma and damage, but I’ve yet to know a group of people who know better how to become survivors, to exhibit courage and bravery. I know hundreds and hundreds of adoptees and those are the qualities they all exhibit – maybe some adopters should learn when to take credit for helping to raise people with such guts and determination.

      • That’s harder than you make it sound, though.

        “Good parents protect their children’s privacy”. Agreed. I want to be a good parent. But I also want to be a good citizen of a complicated world, and the kind of good parent who makes things better.

        One of the problems in this world, that I know about from firsthand experience, is the trauma inflicted on apparently healthy young babies when they are removed from their existing support system for adoption.

        As the adopting parent, I have more power to affect the dialogue by speaking openly about that problem–compared to my child’s first family, and compared to my child (whose story made from these same facts may not be the story I assemble, to the same conclusion, as well).

        So which of those roles, and when, is in the lead? APs who recognize symptoms of trauma in our children, while they are children, face the options of a) maintain privacy at the expense of transparency, or b) divulge our observations to people in the position to learn from our struggles.

        Sometimes we can do both, but it’s not as simple as ‘let PAPs dismiss adoptees’. First, the people paying the highest price for an inequity shouldn’t be burdened with the entire task of explaining the inequity from their viewpoint; it’s one more blow to expect adoptees to change the behavior of the folks funding the system.

        More importantly, though, APs have an obligation, in my opinion, to tell the truth ‘that I wish someone had told me’–we paid for a corrupt system, we benefitted from it, and it’s at least somewhat on our shoulders to make future participants uncomfortable by revealing what we wish we’d known. I can’t stop anyone from adopting a child who already HAS a family–but I sure can afflict her comfort about the simple, charitable nature of what she’s doing.

      • I think adoption blogs go a long way in encouraging adoption. I m very open and honest in my blog and my child’s legacy is that of the people whom stated that have been drawn to adoption as a result of reading my blog. I am Very proud of sharing our story( most are similar), and will encourage my children to be proud of the legacy they helped create in saving other children from living lives in orphanages. Their past is not a deep dark secret to be hidden. Frankly first adoption found me anxious and following all the rules: cocooning, only me feeding etc.. a lot of anxiety all around. When I let loose of all that both the first and second adoption, things went smoothly lots less anxiety for that child. Both my children are happy and adjusted. I see some of my AP friends blaming every odd behavior on trauma, I do not agree. I find these same parents to be very anxious and honestly somewhat dramatic. Trauma exists yes, it is how you handle it.

  21. It’s so important that we APs both understand what happened (my child survived trauma & there may be scars) and help our children to ‘get it’. I will never forget a conversation I had with my then-12-year-old. She’d recently been to a counselor, who told her that the anxiety that seems so disruptive now is a reflex that saved her life when she needed it.

    We were lying facedown on a boulder, looking through our field glasses at dawn in the Lamar Valley (eastern edge of Yellowstone). We’d been on this camping trip, the goal of which was to see wolves in the wild, 5 days already.She grabbed my hand and pointed my finger at something. I told her the truth: I would never have seen that motion, but let’s take some pictures. She replied that something tugged her that way, and she can’t seem to stop looking. I told her then what I believe: Through her life, therapists may label this as ‘hypervigilance’ and people who love her may not understand her urgency about ‘watching’, but ‘watching’ is a superpower, properly channeled.

    The pictures had wolves in them. I never saw them at the scene. She keeps one above her desk. We are more than the sum of our trauma, yet often our losses shape us in ways we only benefit from understanding and reflecting on.

  22. This is spot on. THANK YOU! As an adult adoptee raising an adopted daughter, I am VERY aware of our traumas. Adoption is an emotional balancing act that ebbs and flows throughout our lives regardless of our place in the “adoption triad.” The word trauma is so uncomfortable for so many people – I look forward to a time when we can ALL acknowledge the trauma of adoption as truth. Once that happens, we can help our children and first mothers deal their pain and loss during the various phases of their lives. To me, it makes Mothering an adoptive child that much more special.

  23. Excellent post, Maureen. One thing I think we should also consider in this discussion is having fewer adoptions in the first place. Putting band aids on after the fact is good, but preventing the trauma in the first place is better. Family preservation is superior, and we adoptive parents have to accept the fact that adoption is a worse option in most cases (severe abuse and neglect aside).

    • Thank you.

      I agree fully about family preservation always being the primary goal.
      Yesterday, in fact, I tweeted this:

      Light of Day Stories ‏@LightOfDayStory 18h
      For effective child welfare policy, we need to create a culture of family preservation, not a culture of adoption. Say No to @BEBCampaign

  24. Wow, well said. It’s so refreshing to hear it put this way. Yes, if only trauma could be acknowledged calmly and matter-of-factly. If only prospective parents heard this stuff more often they would be much better prepared for what their future child will face (instead of feeling so much confusion and guilt). I remember so vividly my little sister’s face when she woke up at the airport surrounded by all these strange (white!) faces…she was clearly traumatized. An event that was so joyous for us was terrifying for her.

  25. Well said, Maureen. I remember when our first child came home. The child was so shut down–no smiling, no laughing–just staring at us. I kept telling my husband that I thought the child was grieving and sad. I told our SW, too. They both thought I was too worried. I did understand that this was a sadness, a grieving for the foster mom and what was. Both our kids have anxiety even now as teens. You are so correct about adoption, trauma and separating from first moms. Thanks for writing this.

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