Adoption and Relinquishment Trauma
Many adoptees report feeling symptoms of adoption and relinquishment trauma as a result of being separated from their first mothers. Other adults who were adopted say they suffered no ill effects from the experience.
The fact is, we all go through things in different ways, and what may be traumatic for one person, isn’t for another. If you’re wondering whether you should seek therapy for issues related to your adoption, it may help to understand what relinquishment trauma is, and why some adoptees seem to struggle with it while others don’t.
Some people call it “adoption trauma”. Nancy Verrier popularized the term “The Primal Wound” in her classic adoption book of the same name, in which she described the lasting psychological impact of a child being separated from their first mother.
Even if the child is a newborn, it is believed that this separation—or what’s legally described as the birth mom relinquishing her child for adoption—creates a lasting imprint on the developing brain and body, leading to difficulties later in life, regardless of how the subject of adoption is handled in the adoptive family while the child is growing up.
I like using the word relinquishment because it pinpoints the devastating event that has this effect on the adoptee: separation from the birth mother. After all, adoption itself doesn’t cause the trauma—it’s just the legal process that follows it. So let’s explore some of the key points to consider when asking yourself whether you’re experiencing adoption or relinquishment trauma.
The Uniqueness of Adoption and Trauma
First let’s remember that, just as individuals have different personalities, not all adoptive families are the same. Some adopted children grow up feeling deeply connected, seen, and supported by their adoptive parents, which may help them to resolve the seven core adoption issues of loss, rejection, guilt/shame, grief, identity, intimacy, and control/mastery during childhood.
Other adoptees may grow up feeling misunderstood, or out of place in their families and in the wider world. Perhaps because the parents harbor some fears or insecurities of their own, or maybe it’s just that there aren’t any inherited personality traits helping parent and child click with each other. When the parent-child relationship is a poor fit in this way, it’s nobody’s fault. In most cases, the parents are doing the best they can with the tools they have.
Still, when the child is struggling to grieve the loss of their first mother, learn to trust people, and feel safe in the world, the truth is they don’t always receive the support needed to make the adjustment. Trans-racial adoptive families often struggle to help the adoptee bridge the gap between their own and their child’s ethnic, racial or national origin—creating yet another level of identity confusion and alienation.
Trauma and the Unique Individual
It’s also important to understand that symptoms of trauma can look different from person to person. Often, when trauma is portrayed in movies, the most severe effects tend to steal the focus. After all, this is what makes for compelling storytelling. But there’s a whole spectrum of severity, and many different ways trauma manifests itself. So some survivors may not recognize themselves in those dramatic portrayals. Instead, they might just think of themselves as overly-sensitive, outsiders, neurotic, impulsive, or unlucky in love.
It’s common for adopted children to get these messages from the adults in their lives who assume that the symptoms are just quirks of the child’s personality. They don’t understand that they are the very real emotional aftermath of what happened to them. It’s a very difficult and unfortunate set of circumstances to grow up in.
But it’s also exactly where a seed of hope can be found: just imagine what it feels like for an adoptee to finally realize that what they thought was a painful part of their personality is in fact just a symptom that can be healed! What an incredible relief! I’ll return to this hopeful point at the conclusion of this post.
Adoption and Loss
It is said that there’s no adoption without loss. Although on the surface, it often appears to be a heartwarming win-win for everyone—parents get the child they’ve been dreaming of, and a child finds a much-needed loving home. Even if all signs point to this being the best choice for all members of the adoption triad—adoptee, adoptive parents and birth parents—the devastating separation of mother and child remains an undeniable fact.
In the 1970’s, when I was adopted, it was widely believed that newborns were completely unaffected by this transition. Since then, research has taught us that newborns can tell within hours of birth, by differences in sounds and scents, when their first mother is no longer there. We’ve also learned that the newborn brain is programmed for survival in two significant ways.
First, because human babies are so utterly helpless, they intuitively know that connection to the mother is absolutely crucial to their very survival. That’s why after relinquishment, the mother’s absence triggers intense distress that floods the baby’s nervous system with brain chemicals related to the fight or flight response. At such an early age, this can set the scene for the development of a brain that’s more easily triggered into a state of anxiety, difficulty concentrating, or depression.
Second, the brain is poised to learn from every single experience right from the very beginning. And so when a child is separated from the birth mother, sensing danger, they learn right away that they must avoid repeating this abandonment experience at all costs—a very tricky set-up for future relationships.
The Difficulty of Expressing Adoption/Relinquishment Trauma
When a child is relinquished by their first mother, they are usually far too young to have words for what they’re experiencing. When a person is overwhelmed with fear and loss so early in life, they don’t have the mental capacity to understand what’s happening, and so they may not be able to make sense of their trauma triggers once they’re older.
Nevertheless, the brain chemistry, false beliefs and defensive habits become ingrained, and so begins a lifetime of beliefs and behaviors designed for survival, necessary to get one’s needs met while growing up, but with the potential to backfire on us as we become adults. As a result, many adoptees struggle with relationships because they’re at once desperate to stay connected to the people in their lives, and terrified of intimacy. They feel lonely, pressured to compromise themselves in relationships to avoid rejection, and have difficulty trusting.
Often, the end of a relationship or other loss proves too hard to recover from without help. Some struggle with control and impulses, and develop habits that help them feel better in the moment, even though they they’re harmful in the long term. Other adoptees will replay past painful experiences over and over in their heads, unable to let go of them. Many adoptees begin when they’re very young to engage in fantasy lives where they imagine being with their birth families in an idealized alternate reality, often referred to as the Ghost Kingdom.
Our goal is to get a better understanding of how those habits developed, and adapt new ones for the reality we find ourselves in here and now—namely that we’re no longer helpless children, dependent on the care of others. True human connection is essential for wellbeing all our lives, but problems arise when the state of emergency our brains are stuck in no longer reflects reality.
Healing from Adoption/Relinquishment Trauma
This may sound like an obvious point, but the tricky thing about trauma is that the facts we understand in words are out of sync with the emotions we still feel, based on the old stories we unconsciously tell ourselves. It’s like a message that just repeats and repeats on a loop, having the same old negative effect on our emotions, until we make the decision to take action and change the recording.
That’s why using mindfulness practices like meditation and breathing techniques, coupled with art therapy works so well. These approaches tap into the part of the mind and body that stores the emotional memory, the nuances of our life stories that can’t be expressed in words. In this way, we can use both sides of our brains—the verbal fact-oriented side and the emotional image-oriented side—in the healing process, and get them back in sync with each other.
If you identify with some of what you’ve read here, you may indeed be suffering from symptoms of adoption or relinquishment trauma. However, it’s less important whether you choose to label yourself this way, and more important to ask—how are these symptoms affecting my quality of life?
- Relationship struggles
- Feeling worried, angry, or on edge
- Feeling down, hopeless, lonely, or unlovable
- Leaning a bit too hard into habits that aren’t so good for you
- Feeling paralyzed when considering searching for your birth family
If you’re experiencing these common adoption or relinquishment trauma issues, you are not alone and you are not broken. People recover from these difficulties every day. The key thing to remember is that the issues you’re suffering from are not the same as your identity.
They are habits and beliefs that stem from a traumatic event that happened so early in your life that it’s very difficult to tease them apart from your true personality. However, they are not YOU. The real, happier, calmer, more confident and connected you lies beneath the adoption and relinquishment trauama issues. With courage and a bit of hard work, that YOU is 100% within your reach!
I’ve been in that dark place, believing that I was too fundamentally flawed to ever be happy in a relationship, that I’d never be strong enough to assert myself and take risks in my life. With the help of therapy, I’ve created a fulfilling life with a wonderful husband and a rewarding career that suits my needs, and gives me the opportunity to pursue my dreams.
I’ve worked with many individuals over the decades who have found this same recovery through therapy. I can say without a doubt that if you’re willing to work at it, you can absolutely get there—and I’d love to help you do it!