Adoption: Trauma that Last a Life Time

Vicki M. Rummig

English 103

Instructor Steve Jaech

June 11, 1996

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

For many years adoption has been viewed as a perfect arrangement for all involved. What has not been taken into account are the emotional effects adoption has on all members involved, 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 addressed by mental health professionals in order to recognize and effectively treat symptoms of low self-esteem, lack of trust, and dissociation.

The adoptees’ trauma begins the moment she is separated from her birth mother. Some psychologists believe that an infant is not able to differentiate her mother until at least two months of age. At the same time they believe that the infant does not know she is her own entity (Kaplan, 1978). What do mental health professionals believe the infant thinks for these 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. Yet, she somehow 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 for 40 weeks (Verrier, 1993, chap. 2). When separated from the one thing to which she has connected, the infant will feel she has lost part of herself.

Many doctors and psychologists now understand that bonding doesn’t begin at birth, but is a continuum of physiological, psychological, and spiritual events which begin in utero and continue throughout the postnatal bonding period. When this natural evolution is interrupted by a postnatal separation from the biological mother, the resultant experience of abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds of these children, causing that which 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 from a person’s infancy can and will stay with them through life. An example of the subconscious effect of an early experience would be Marc. Marc was in an orphanage for 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 whenever he is 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 this issue of abandonment with her wherever she goes. It is no different from when a husband leaves a wife. She may remarry to a wonderful man, but will always wonder if her new husband is also going to leave her. She must work through the abandonment issue to regain trust. The 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 the 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 approximately 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. She is expected to leave the past behind and concentrate of 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 about her relinquishment and her birth mother. To attempt to fill in the gaps she will create fantasies 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 a mother could give her up, or abandon her. Adoptees may feel they must have been a bad baby or that the birth mother was an uncaring person. Other thoughts will occur, such as she was stolen from the birth mother, either by public authorities or her adoptive parents. Often children will fluctuate in their thoughts and fantasies depending on their perception of the adoptive parents at any given time. (Lifton, 1988 &1994; Verrier, 1993; Brodzinsky, Schechter & Henig, 1992; Reitz & Watson, 1992; Adopting Resources, 1995) She will generally outgrow believing her fantasies and begin to see them as just that, but a part of her will always wonder.

The “chosen” child story also has negative affects on a child for other reasons. The child may feel that she has to be perfect to live up to her “chosen” status. Her role model adoptees include Superman and Jesus. This is a hard image for the average child to live up to. She may either become the compliant “perfect” child or she may act out and misbehave to test the commitment of the adoptive parents. Either way, often times she is not being herself, but rather acting a part. This acting can be very emotionally draining and confusing, and may last until the early adult years and beyond. When the adoptee can not live up to her perfect “chosen” status, it will contribute to the feeling 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 beliefs, i.e., sending her away for residential treatment or openly wishing her to be more like themselves.

The adoptee is also aware of many ghosts that follow her through life. These ghosts include the person she would have been had she not been adopted, the ghost of the birth mother and birth father, and the ghost of the adoptive family’s child that would have been (Lifton, 1994, chap. 6). She may find herself trying to connect to her ghosts through her actions. Either being her 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 be her way of trying to connect with the image she has of her birth mother or may be that she does not feel worthy of the adoptive parents love. Adolescence is a confusing time for any child, but the adoptee has many more identity issues to deal with. She may also be testing the commitment of the adoptive parents, seeing if they will send her away for being bad.

A great many of these young people are in serious trouble with the law and are drug addicted. The girls show an added history of nymphomania and out-of- wedlock pregnancy, almost as if they were acting out the role of the “whore” mother. In fact, both sexes are experimenting with a series of identities that seem to be related to their fantasies about the biological parents. (Lifton, 1988, p. 45)

As the adoptee begins to become aware of her adoptee status she will notice the differences she has from her peers and other family members. I noticed in my family that I did not have the nose or ears of any of my adoptive family. 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 when first learning about genetics in school. The first lesson in heredity and genetics usually is regarding eye color. If the adoptees’ own eyes do not fall into the proper genetic pattern she is left with a distinct feeling of not belonging. There are many instances in growing up when she is again 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 that are noticed. A difference in personality or talents may further misplace the adoptee from her family. In talking with other adoptees, I have described this feeling as “feeling like my adoptive family is in a big circle but 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 shall 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. “One’s identity begins with the genes and family history...” (Reitz & Watson, 1992, p. 134)

Adoptees also lack the ability to see their physical characteristics as they will present themselves in the future. A natural born daughter would be able to tell how big she is going to 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 their genetic background.

Rachel says that families are a hall of mirrors, “Everyone but adoptees can look in and see themselves reflected. I didn’t know what it was like to be me. I felt like someone who looks into a mirror and sees no reflection. I felt lonely, not connected to anything, floating, like a ghost.” (Lifton, 1994, p. 68)

The adoptee will feel even more dissociated when conversations regarding other family members or peers births are brought up. She is missing the story of her birth parents meeting, her conception, her birth, and in some instances, some time after her birth. On the Adoptees Internet Mailing List one member described this feeling as the “floating cosmic blip.” It is often commented that the adoptee feels hatched not born or that they are some type of space alien. Non-adoptees take their own life story for granted, but the adoptee is acutely aware that theirs is missing. So now, not only does the adoptee feel dissociated from her adoptive family, but also from her peers, for she is different.

Adoptees are faced 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 to not mourn the loss of this family member she has never known. She will often be chastised when asking questions of her birth family from her adoptive family.

Not all of these issues affect adoptees to the same extent. Some may spend a lifetime dwelling on it, others may not even appear to notice. This would be true of any group of people that lived through trauma, such as Vietnam War Veterans. It should be noted that adoptees are over represented in residential treatment centers.

The number of Adoptees in the adolescent and young-adult clinics and residential treatment centers is strikingly high. Doctors from the Yale Psychiatric Institute and other hospitals that take very sick adolescents have told me they are discovering that from one-quarter to one-third of the patients are adopted. (Lifton, 1988, p.45)

In recent years there have been more works written on the subject. In 1978 Sorosky, Baran, and Pannor wrote the Adoption Triangle. This was one of the first written books that spoke specifically of the psychological issues of adoption. In one reference book written for psychologist 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. We offer our approach both as one sample of the current state of the practice art and as a way to generate hypotheses. Little, definitive, formal research findings are available, we have cited them; we believe, however, that findings from practice are valid field research. The clinician’s skills in observing recurrent themes and patterns resemble those of the formal researcher who looks for patterns in statistical data. Both clinicians and researchers must then interpret their findings. (preface)

In the early 1960s Dr. Marshall Schechter, child psychiatrist, was challenged by social workers when he first made the observation that there were a disproportionate number of adoptees in his clinic ( as cited in Lifton, 1988, p. 44). He later teamed up with Brodzinsky to research the psychology of adoption and to write various books (1990, 1992) on the subject.

There are many books written by members of the triad (refers to the three sides in adoption; adoptive parents, birth parents, and adoptees) that are geared toward their triad peers. (Lifton, 1988 and 1994; Verrier, 1993). These are an excellent resource for triad members to begin to explore the issues of adoption. Although they are not written with psychologists in mind, they would be a good first step for mental health professionals to begin to also understand adoption.

In researching basic child psychology books, if adoption is mentioned, it is in the following context: “It should be obvious that neither I or anybody else knows enough about the psychology of adoption to offer any firm advice.” (Church, 1973)

Although there are both more studies and writings on the subject, mental health professionals remain ignorant of adoptees’ issues. Thomas Danner, PhD, a local family counselor, discussed some of his educational experiences and views on adoptees issues (personal communication, May 17, 1996). He stated he had not given the adoptees issues any prior thought. When presented with some of the repercussions of adoption, he was in agreement that these things could play into the emotional well being of the adoptee. He was open in disclosing that he had little knowledge of adoption issues and was willing to accept the ideas this paper has to present.

Betty Jean Lifton, PhD, Adoption Counselor/Author and adoptee, also commented on the subject (personal communication, May 20, 1996). When asked what lead to her studying adoption issues. Her reply was: ‘Are you an adoptee...then you know.’ This illustrates how most of the research done on adoption issues has been raised by someone who has been touched by adoption. It is easy to understand how someone who has not lived it, 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 disservice to their adopted 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 alternate treatments for their adopted patients.

College and university professors need to begin teaching the special issues and treatments unique to adoption, just has they teach unique approaches to dealing with sexual abuse, divorce of parents, Attention Deficit Disorder, and the many other problems youth are faced with today. The subject must also be included in the college text books or the students must utilize the reference books written on adoption (Reitz & Watson, 1992; Brodzinsky & Schechter, 1990).

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 treat the least disturbing problem and thus they fail to get to the core issue of adoption. Parents who called me have taken their child--usually an adolescent adopted at birth--from therapist to therapist, without ever having come upon one who is knowledgeable about adoption. The child now has become what Kirschner calls a “secondhand patient.” Therapists who do not see adoption as a core issue cannot reach the child. The Adoptee remains isolated and continues to act out... (Lifton, 1988, p. 273)

After realizing all the different issues adoption holds for their daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Smith received a referral for an adoption specialist in their area. They are now attending family counseling and making some progress toward their daughter’s recovery through open communication and understanding of the trauma she still experiences.

Works Referenced

  • Adopting Resources (1995) Common clinical issures [sic] among adoptees. [Online]. Available: World Wide Web,
  • Brodzinsky, D. M., & Schechter, M. D. (1990). The Psychology of Adoption NY:Oxford University Press, Inc.
  • Brodzinsky, D. M., Schechter, M. D., & Henig, R. M. (1992) Being adopted: The lifelong search for self. NY:Doubleday.
  • Church, J. (1973) Understanding your child from birth to three. NY: Random House.
  • Kaplan, L. J., (1978) Oneness and separateness: From infant to individual. NY: Simon & Schuster.
  • Lifton, B. J., (1988). Lost and Found: The adoption experience. (2nd ed.). NY: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc.
  • Lifton, B. J., (1994) Journey of the adopted self: A quest for wholeness. NY: Basic Books/HarpersCollins Publishers, Inc.
  • Reitz, M. & Watson, K., (1992) Adoption and the family system. NY: Guildford Publications.
  • Sorosky, A. D., Baran, A., & Pannor, R., (1978) The adoption triangle. NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday
  • Verrier, N. N. , (1993). The Primal Wound: Understanding the adopted child. Baltimore, MD: Gateway Press, Inc.

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