Adoption-Related Complex Trauma

Also called Cumulative Trauma – The research is definitive. Adopted kids are not only traumatized by the original separation from their parents, they may also have been traumatized by the events that led to them being put up for adoption. In addition to that, foster care itself is considered an adverse childhood experience.

I recently wrote a blog titled “It’s Simply NOT the Same.” Though the traumas may originate similarly, the outcomes are not the same because just like any other person, no two adoptees are exactly alike. That should not prevent any of us from trying to understand that adoptees carry wounds, even if the adoptee is unaware that the wounds are deep within them.

It is not uncommon for an adopted person and/or the adoptive family to seek mental health services due to the effect of the adoptee experiencing traumatic events. Unfortunately, for psychology and psychiatry clinicians, adoption related training is rare. In my all things adoption group, the advice is often to seek out an adoption competent therapist for good reason.

“What does an adopted baby know ? She knows her mother, she knows her loss, sadness and hurt, she knows that those who hold her today may be gone tomorrow and that she will be the only one left to pick up the pieces that no one seems to think are broken.”
~ Karl Stenske, 2012

The reasons a child is put up for adoption or relinquished are many – an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy, often compounded or driven by a lack of financial resources (poverty) or no familial support to care for a child. Becoming a single parent may simply seem too daunting to an unwed expectant mother. Sadly, for some, a chronic/terminal illness or certain diseases may lead the mother to believe she cannot provide proper care for her baby. Certainly, prolonged substance addiction and/or severe mental health issues (which may be related to addiction) can cause parental rights to be forcefully terminated by child welfare authorities. Adoptees who come out of the child welfare system (legal termination of parental rights by a court of law) cannot legally be returned to their birth families due to safety or other reasons that are considered serious.

Adoption is not always a success. Disruptions and dissolutions do sometimes occur.

Disruptions can happen after the adoption has been finalized when the adoptive parents then experience difficulties with their adopted child. The adoptive parents may have difficulty finding support and the resources they require to deal with the issues that come up.

Risk factors leading to a higher rate of disruptions are: older age when adopted, existing emotional and behavioral issues, having a strong attachment to their birth mother, having been a victim of pre-adoption sexual abuse, suffering from a lack of social support from relatives causing the adoption to occur, unrealistic expectations surrounding the adoption and the child on the part of hopeful adoptive parents, and a lack of adequate preparation and ongoing support for the adoptive family prior to and after the placement.

A devastating occurrence is a dissolution or breakdown. This applies to an adoption in which the legal relationship between the adoptive parents and the adoptive child is severed, either voluntary or involuntarily. Usually this will result in the entry or re-entry of the child into the foster care system, or less commonly a second chance adoption, or even the private transfer of the child from the adoptive parents to a non-vetted receiving parent.

Adoption has been subject to both positive and negative assumptions related to the practice and this is of no surprise to anyone who has studied the practice of adoption for a period of time.

There are 6 main assumptions about the practice of adoption –

[1] Adoption is a joyous event for all involved – known as the Unicorns and Rainbows Fantasy in adoption centric communities; [2] adoption parallels genetic birth experience and a biological family life – which close observation and mixed families (who have both biological and adopted children often belie); [3] once adopted, all of the child’s problems disappear and there will be no additional challenges – rarely true – and often attachment or bonding fail to occur; [4] creating a family through adoption is “false,” only biological families are “real” – this goes too far in making a case because many adults create chosen families – the truth is as regards children, family is those persons we grow up with – believing we are related to them – in my case, both of my parents were adopted and all of my “relations” growing up were non-genetic and non-biological but I have a life history with them and continue to have contact with aunts, an uncle and cousins I obtained through my parents’ adoptions; [5] the adoptive life is better than the biological life the child had or would have had – never a known assumption – more accurately, the adoptee’s life is different than that child would have had, if they had not been adopted; and, [6] closed adoptions are in the best interest of the child – this one was promoted with the intention of shielding adoptive parents from original parents who regretted the surrender, from the child who might yearn for their original family and often in some cases to shield a person operating unscrupulously, such as the baby thief Georgia Tann who sold ill-gotten children. Popular media has reinforced both the positive and the negative messages about adoption and many myths and stereotypes regarding adoptive families and birth parents are believed in society as a whole.

The term “adoption-related complex trauma” is rarely used in discussing symptoms and behaviors. It is more common to see terms such as “developmental trauma” or “complex trauma” to describe the psychological effects found within the adopted population.

The terms complex trauma and complex post-traumatic stress disorder have been used to describe the experience of multiple and/or chronic and prolonged, developmentally adverse traumatic events, most often of an personal nature such as sexual, physical, verbal abuse or of a societal nature such as war or community violence. These exposures often have occurred within the child’s caregiving environment and may include physical, emotional and/or other forms of neglect and maltreatment that begin early in childhood. In the case of infant adoptions, the trauma is non-verbal but stored in the body of that baby – not conscious but recorded.

Some of this content has been sourced from a long dissertation titled Treatment Considerations For Adoption-related Complex Trauma. Anyone interested is encouraged to read more at the link.

Adoption Can’t Give This

Dr Nelson, in his book – Healing the Split, suggests the ideal gestation, birth and infancy circumstances for healthy development in a child. This goes beyond the obvious and unavoidable trauma of separating an infant from their natural mother or any emotional distress that mother feels while pregnant and planning to surrender her baby to adoption.

Here is what he suggests – some of the best pregnancy, birth and infant care advice I have already encountered during my own last two pregnancies and baby care days, beginning in the early 2000s.

In pregnancy, this mother might be treated as special by her own loving selfobjects, so that she finds it easy to maintain a placid inner state. Her pregnancy would allow her extra time to meditate regularly and through this practice she establishes an unspoken communion with her unborn fetus with the subconscious residues of her own early life experiences resolved.

As the time of her child’s birth nears, the mother rehearses breathing and pelvic exercise to facilitate her natural delivery. As the child enters the world, he is welcomed into a softly lit room, the predominant feature of which is his mother’s warm skin and breast as she gently bathes and massages him.

The synapses that are rapidly proliferating within his still unfinished brain form a physical supporting grid for a psychic self that is primed to accept soothing, is ready to trust and can intuit a sense of belongingness.

As the newborn’s psyche begins to construct holographic patterns of the consensual world, his empathic parents instinctively anticipate his needs, neither overstimulating him nor leaving him wanting. Wordless harmonies resonate between him and his caretakers and condition his own fundamental vibrational patterns. These harmonies are periodically broken by inevitable frustrations and deprivations but timely reunions with empathic parents quickly restore synchronous patterns within his psychic field.

As the child grows into a toddler, empathic mirroring enlivens his tentative explorations of a world apart from mother, followed by just a little extra soothing that directs his psychic energies along navigable neural pathways. This compensates for his inborn exaggerated stress reaction and enables him to incorporate his mother’s self within his own without fear of engulfment. His self-secure mother joyfully encourages his wary independence and offers a fresh measure of support during what is a particularly lengthy rapprochement period. This insures that his slowly forming self-boundaries can withstand the social challenges that this unusual child will later endure.

As the child learns to communicate, his parents take pains to be consistent in their rewards and punishments. When he is excited and hyperaroused, they set firm limits on his behavior and they teach him to cope with this and similar altered states of consciousness by monitoring his breathing and concentrating on his inner awareness, especially his feelings. They teach him to ask for a massage and also to give one back. Both calm a turbulent arousal. Kindly, they teach him to laugh at them, and at himself.

Dr Nelson believes that as many as half of all permanently disabling psychotic altered states of consciousness could be prevented or diverted into a favorable life pathway if given the right start in life.

Emotional Detachment in Surrenders

It is completely understandable to me that when a woman in the midst of pregnancy has already decided to surrender her baby to adoption, that she would also choose to wall off her heart from the child growing in her womb.  Here is one such story . . .

It took me almost 10 years to come out of the fog. The biggest reason is that I had emotionally detached from the situation even during pregnancy.

Last year I had a complete mental breakdown because I suddenly started having flashbacks from being raped at 6 years old and I didn’t even know it happened until I began reliving it. This sudden onset of PTSD was a catalyst for turning my emotions back on and finally feeling grief about the adoption. I’d forgotten most of the events of my life, and the things I remembered were pretty numb.

I’m insanely lucky to have chosen adoptive parents who have actually kept the adoption open. With all of these personal changes, I’ve been trying to open myself up to my first daughter and actually connect with her.

A lot of people suppress their trauma. The hurt from adoption cuts both ways – mother and child. Unless you have no emotions, and it is the emotional pain of separation that causes detachment, you could not let a child you brought into this world be raised by someone else without suffering from guilt, shame or self-blame.

Here is another story –

I gave birth 2 weeks ago. And I had made an adoption plan, with a good friend. Baby is currently with her and I have 2 more weeks to change my mind. But when I had the baby I felt no emotional attachment to her. I didn’t feel like she was mine. I haven’t had any regrets yet. She is with an amazing family that I know without a doubt I will have contact with for her entire life.

She asks other women who have experienced this if they later had regrets.

One replied –  I felt the same way when my daughter was born. Like when the doctor gave her to me, I thought, “why are you handing me her baby?”

Another response was this –  It’s emotional numbing/detachment. It’s a trauma response to try and protect yourself from the pain of losing her forever. It will catch up to you, HARD, and it can cause a lifetime of trauma for you if it’s not dealt with quickly. Your daughter only wants you, and being given up will traumatize her for life. I beg you to reconsider. And this suggestion – try parenting her, with no contact with the hopeful adoptive parents for the next two weeks.

And there is this very sad story – I had some severe anger issues and no support which would have made it dangerous for him to stay with me. I begged my mom to adopt him until I was older but she refused. In my case, the adoptive parents weren’t total strangers, they were long time friends of the family. It’s my truth though, and I hate that that whole part of my life ever happened. I hate that I was convinced not to get an abortion. I hate who I was and everyone that had abandoned me back then. And if my son hates me too, then I deserve it.

Bottom line – You don’t just give your child away and not regret it.  It may take years or decades. Emotional detachment often catches up to you with the painful truth.

Dissociative Identity Disorder

Another adoptee told story –

I have known since I was 3 that I was adopted. My adopted mom and I were extremely close and she never hid anything from me (that I know of) and always answered my questions about my bio mom and bio family.

I’ve met my bio mom twice, over two days, in less than ideal circumstances, over 10 years ago now. I have sorta tried to forge a relationship with her (especially after my adopted mom passed away) but each time I pull back afraid of it and chicken out. We are friends on Facebook. My bio mom grew up in foster care and doesn’t know her own family outside of her siblings (who I know nothing about.) My bio dad was killed when I was still REALLY young.

I don’t have any family other than my bio mom (who I have yet to forge a relationship with) and my adopted family (which really is only my adopted dad), my adopted siblings are trash, who make it very clear they are bio related and I’m “just adopted.”

I’ve been dealing with A LOT of issues since becoming a teenager, issues no one could ever figure out cuz I didn’t have an abusive childhood or anything. No one, not a single person, until I was 30 years old, ever connected my issues with adoption. Not a single one. In fact, if it was brought up, it was dismissed just as quickly cuz I was adopted at birth, so surely I couldn’t be suffering any separation trauma, my bio mom never even held me, so I couldn’t possibly ever have any trauma from being separated from her. (I’ve had doctor’s literally say that.)

At 30, after almost killing myself during the height of my own Pregnancy and Postpartum Depression, I finally wound up with a therapist that saw it. She saw what no one else had seen. It was the first session with her, and I won’t forget what she said, ever: “it’s not at all surprising you are dealing with these feelings and emotions from giving birth, many adoptees experience extreme emotional distress when they give birth. It’s normal.” (I also had the compounding factor of my adopted mom, who again, I was super close with, passing away 2 weeks to the day before I gave birth.)

I have been diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder but my doctor’s were resistant to the diagnosis for a while since I didn’t have any early-childhood abuse. Now I’m wondering if the “abuse” they were looking for was there, they just didn’t see it as adoption trauma.

YES – adoption causes real trauma as well as lifelong mental and emotional challenges.  That is why so many with any background in adoption are working towards some major reforms.

Surrogacy Is A Separation

I have known of two cases of surrogacy directly.  Both utilized donor eggs.  One was a mother who was being treated for cancer.  She did die when the twins were about 2 years old and the father, who was directly their genetic father, remarried.  The other one is a family member.  The wife takes a lot of drugs to manage her mental health issues.  They had a lot of failures but did eventually succeed and the little boy is now 5 year old and I am happy for my brother in law that he could be a father.

I didn’t question the practice at all until I began to discover my own genetic roots (both of my parents were adopted).  As part of that journey, I began to learn a lot of things about infant development. No matter how you spin it, babies are being separated from the woman they’ve shared a home with for 9 months. The woman whose body nurtured and cradled them. They know her scent, her heartbeat. That’s who they know. And they are born and handed to someone who smells different, some stranger they don’t know.

There have also been cases where a surrogate mother became so bonded with the infant in her womb that it took a court case to separate them and contracts between a couple and a surrogate are much more explicit now about what is being done and for whom.

It hasn’t been all that long since The Handmaid’s Tale was making current news and the forcing of women to complete a pregnancy they don’t want for the purpose of handing their baby over to a prospective adoptive couple, often with undertones of evangelical Christianity seeking to convert the world to their philosophies, is very real even now.

One woman commenting on this situation admitted, “I seriously considered being a gestational carrier (their baby in my body, not my biological child) and when I learned about adoption trauma I knew I could never do it. How awful to take a baby from their only life connection. It’s cruel. It only serves to gratify the adults’ needs.”