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Is Adoption Trauma?

March 23, 2013

I met a man today and we struck up a casual conversation. He asked about the types of clients I see. I responded that I mostly work with kids who need help with attachment and trauma, as well as adoption. He responded, “Is adoption trauma?”

To be honest, that’s a difficult question to answer when engaged in a conversation with a stranger. The situation was such that I would continue to encounter this man on a regular basis and I wanted to remain friendly.

But, is adoption trauma?

Trauma: An overwhelming experience that has potential negative impacts on an individual in the moment and in the future. {From: Siegel, Daniel J. (2012-04-02). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) (p. 506). Norton. Kindle Edition.}

Babies can hear noises outside the womb by around 20 weeks gestation. They learn about the flavor of breast milk through the amniotic fluid. Their brains are neurochemically prepped to enter into the world that they were expecting. Newborn infants are completely helpless, 100% dependent on the care of their mother for survival. When their mother is absent- the mother they had heard for 20 weeks, the mother who they were expecting to taste- does that child experience a trauma?

Trauma is subjective. Two people can experience the same event and for one it will be traumatic and for the other it will not. We could both endure the same earthquake and I could be left with symptoms of PTSD while you could integrate that experience without difficulty. So, for me the earthquake was trauma and for you the earthquake wasn’t.

So, is adoption trauma?

For many adopted children and adults, it is. I have worked with children as young as four who are reeling from the traumatic grief of being separated from their mother. I have seen third graders sob uncontrollably, missing the mother she never knew. I have heard 11-year-old children adopted at birth describe a visceral feeling of being given away and second best. And I have worked with, and been friends with, adults adopted a birth who absolutely identify with having experienced a deep trauma at the moment they lost their biological mother. Luckily, my experiences with children grieving for their mothers is that they are brought to my office by attuned and loving adoptive parents who seek out a therapist who deeply understands the wounds in adoption. These children have had their wounds honored; their trauma is not minimized. There are many children whose loving and well-meaning parents are unaware of the trauma of adoption. There are too many therapists who are unaware of the trauma of adoption. And there are too many adopted children and adults whose difficulties are minimized, marginalized, labeled as “the angry adoptee.”

I am not anti-adoption. I hope this is obvious to my readers. My entire career is devoted to understanding adoption and helping those who are touched by adoption (over 60% of the population, by the way). We can support ethical adoptions and still acknowledge that adoption is trauma. Simply because it is not trauma to all doesn’t mean that it is not trauma.

I told the man I met that yes, adoption can be trauma. He then told me that he has two adopted children! We talked for a bit about their struggles. He was open to new thoughts and ideas, and acknowledged that one of his children seemed to have some difficulties related to adoption, despite the fact that he and his wife were present for his birth. He gladly accepted an invitation to attend Adoption Knowledge Affiliates and I equipped him with a booklist so he could begin exploring the thoughts of adoptees. He was grateful.


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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling. She is the founder of the Central Texas Attachment & Trauma Center.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2013 8:47 am

    I agree with all of this. My concern is that many of my colleagues see adoption as trauma but do not really get adoption. They don’t really differentiate between the trauma that is inherent in the early losses of adoption and the trauma that a child might experience before his adoption if he is living in an understaffed orphanage or she is moved from foster home to foster home. They lump all adoptees under one big umbrella and miss the differences in experience. Sometimes I feel caught between professional peers who either totally dismiss adoption grief or conflate it with pre-placement trauma. I guess in both cases what’s frustrating is the inability of some clinicians to trust the clients’ experience and listen hard for understanding.

    • March 25, 2013 8:52 am

      Dawn- I completely agree. There is much work to be done!! I hope that we will continue to see an increase in adoption related education, CEUs, and postgraduate certificates. I have a postgrad certificate in adoption, and while the program was wonderful, it did have a significant focus on foster care adoption- which of course emphasizes the pre-placement trauma and not the trauma that is inherent in the early losses of adoption.

    • March 30, 2013 7:53 am

      Dawn, excellent point! I am not counselor, just the aunt of a wonderful nephew who was adopted. He is doing just fine. I would bet a lot of children who have been adopted would be facing a lot more trauma living with birth parents who are unable to care for them or did not want to care for them in the first place.

      • March 30, 2013 1:52 pm

        Certainly most adopted people do fine! Luckily, the majority of people who experience a trauma – any kind of trauma – do go on to do wonderfully in life. Also, there are very few first parents who do not want to care for their children and certainly some who would have a very difficult time without significant help and support. It’s difficult to know which path will be more traumatic. Thanks for stopping by and being a part of this discussion, Carly!

      • May 10, 2013 11:49 pm

        …unless the adoption is unnecessary because the birth parents are coerced out of raising their children, since our culture advertises adoption as the “selfless” and “loving” thing to do. this happens more than you might think.

      • May 11, 2013 8:07 am

        Unfortunately, you are right. It would be nice to think this doesn’t happen in 2013, but I know it does.

  2. March 25, 2013 11:31 am

    Thank you for this article!

    -Melissa (both a therapist and adult adoptee)

  3. March 27, 2013 12:58 pm

    interesting article… as an adoptive parent and also as someone who works with foster children in a therapeutic setting. thanks.

  4. July 14, 2013 11:27 am

    How different would this truama be for a baby separated from a surrogate mother

    • July 14, 2013 11:34 am

      Great question…I would imagine that the trauma would be similar. Babies come into the world with expectations. A baby expects that the surrogate is the one who will care for them. There are likely some differences, but I’m not sure I’m able to really speak to this intelligently without just a lot of guessing and supposing.

  5. September 25, 2013 3:26 pm

    Thank you for this. As an adoptive mom and an adoption/foster care worker I encounter a lot of disillusionment around the idea of adoption. Not in those who I encounter professionally (thank God) but more in those around me and my family. They don’t seem to understand that adoption is loss and that my children are not “lucky” to have us. We are blessed to have them but don’t sugar coat the fact that they will at some point, more than likely, deal with grief related to their adoptions.

  6. Frances permalink
    November 28, 2013 12:01 am

    I was adopted at 3 days old and placed in an unfit home with an abusive adoptive mother. I don’t know if I can differentiate the trauma I experienced when separated from my biological mother and the trauma that ensued thereafter. But I do understand the visceral experience of always ‘knowing’ that my adoptive mother was not my real mother.

  7. July 30, 2014 4:43 pm

    My husband is 45 and he has ver been able to get any info….. Every year around his birthday he has severe issues with his questions about his past….. definitely see the trauma.

  8. July 30, 2014 11:09 pm

    carlyschuma-I wonder if you have any idea how insulting your comment is to first parents. In the US 9 out of 10 voluntary infant adoptions are coerced to fulfill the desires of infertile couples desperate to be parents. They will pay any price for a womb wet infant that makes them parents. Because of the demand, adoption agencies use every dirty trick in the book to get babies for the paying customer. The trauma to the child is NEVER addressed. Most woman that relinquish want to parent and with the smallest encouragement and support would be fabulous parents. No kids are not saved by adoptive parents in voluntary infant adoption. Their mothers were just played for the desires of the paying customer.

  9. July 31, 2014 7:01 pm

    Prior to reuniting with my birth family I often wished to be dead. Adopted life leaves much to be desired and, of course, those desires will never be met. Dating – that beautiful person who is so similar – might actually be your sibling. Those who are not adopted don’t even have a clue as to the impact. Adoption is a trauma that never stops hurting.

  10. vicki elsbree permalink
    July 31, 2014 7:34 pm

    The grief is real the bonding that happens after birth does not always happen . They need to be held by the birth mother. When the experience this they can go on to bond with others easily. A baby that is sent to the nursery and is only held by the adoptive family misses out on the important time. A lot of adoptive parents are very fearful of the baby rejecting them and feel threatened by the birth mother . I am an adoptee foster mother and work in labor and delivery I see this played out very often.

  11. August 15, 2014 10:02 am

    Being adopted is lifelong trauma for me. I am 51 and still suffer everyday. As I child I used to tell my self, “Family is for other people, but not for me”. I chanted that in my head when I saw families together. I was not saved or rescued. i had a family all along. I found them 4 years ago, and the trauma is so great, we cannot connect. The natural bonds have been destroyed. No one thinks about the children, even though everyone pretends its all about us.

  12. Erin permalink
    August 21, 2014 6:27 pm

    Great article. As an adoptive Mama, I often wonder what the trauma will be for our daughter, adopted at birth. Her first mom held her, lived on her and had lots of time with her, we have a book of photos from her adoption journey, we remain in contact with her first mom…I only hope I can be in tune with the trauma that might be present to help her in whatever way she needs. Such an important, yet often ignored topic.

  13. Abbie permalink
    August 18, 2015 10:40 am

    Im an adoptee who grew up in a home with my mom, dad and two siblings. I love them very much, but…when i was really young i remember feeling a deep sadness I carried that was just always there. It doesnt mean I never felt happiness or enjoyed life or have good experiences. Its just it was always there like a backpack, sometimes i would feel it less sometimes alot more. As I got a little older my birthparents esp my birthmom was on my mind and heart, I would wonder about her, and felt like there was a unseen connection between me and my bmom and bdad that hard to explain. Around time of my bday as i got older i would and still do experience a deep grief sometimes it has been moderate, sometimes worse. I hope and pray she knows i will always love her and shes in my heart….

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