This article may include details that are triggering to some. Not all adoptees will experience adoption trauma, but many do.
Traditionally, the adoption narrative has been presented as a completely positive, selfless, and happy experience for all members of the adoption triad. Adoption organizations promote the narrative as something that is born out of altruistic motives and ends with a positive outcome every time. However, as most affected by adoption know, this is not entirely true. Trauma can be evident in every part of adoption, even the parts that seem perfect.
Often, we think of a traumatic experience as an outright violent or terrifying experience that happens to someone. The common association between experiencing trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, has clouded the mental health field for decades. Traumatic experiences were, by definition, limited to a singular event both in a clinical setting and in general thought. Thus, other types of traumas outside of this mold were either ignored or viewed as nontraumatic. Adoption trauma, however, is a completely different line of thought.
To begin thinking about children experiencing adoption trauma, the definition of general trauma must be altered. Within the past two decades, this definition has expanded to include the idea that trauma can be experienced over time, rather than as a single traumatic event. Bessel A. van der Kolk, a leading psychiatric researcher seeking to redefine traumatic stress disorders, has written many texts about this type of trauma—including his book, The Body Keeps the Score (2016). Reading this text gives a very in-depth, easy-to-understand explanation of how trauma can affect the brain, the body, and the mind. Van der Kolk emphasizes the importance of recognizing that continued exposure to trauma can produce a similar yet very different experience to those diagnosed with PTSD.
According to the Trauma Stress Institute, complex trauma is defined as,
“experience of multiple, chronic and prolonged, developmentally adverse traumatic events, most often of an interpersonal nature…and early-life onset. These exposures often occur within the child’s caregiving system and include physical, emotional, and educational neglect and child maltreatment beginning in early childhood.”
If you’re an adoptee, think about how that definition could apply to your life. While it’s not an exact fit, it can be very intriguing.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network provides an easy-to-read and very relatable guide about complex trauma for children. Ensuring that child adoptees understand what adoption trauma is and normalizing it will be key as an adoptive parent.
It is not yet recognized as a legitimate diagnosis by most leading psychiatric organizations, yet, it continues to gain recognition by clinicians who see this type of symptomatology and behavior in their clients. Hopefully, it will become a legitimate diagnosis, and those affected by adoption trauma will receive adequate treatment and care.
Additionally, this concept is different from revictimization. The concept of revictimization means that once a person is a victim of trauma, he or she is more likely to fall victim to it or another traumatic experience again. While this may be true for some who have complex or developmental trauma, such as adoptees, their entire traumatic experience is based on prolonged exposure to a similar traumatic experience which is something completely different. For example, if a child was abused from ages 2 to 14, there may not be a single incident that could define her or his traumatic experience.
Specifically, developmental trauma—a more recently explored area of complex trauma—is more tailored to the experience of many adoptees. As emphasized in The Body Keeps the Score (2016), by definition, developmental trauma can begin in utero. It could be argued that this is occurring with adoption trauma. If there is maternal stress, or mental illness, or a lack of quality prenatal care, the baby is more than likely going to experience the same stress in regards to the effects of poor health or care. Even if the pregnancy goes smoothly, with little stress or complication, there can still be traces of loss embedded into the child’s mind from the beginning. When a child is separated from her biological mother, a sort of trauma occurs. The baby has lived nine months inside the mother’s womb and becomes used to her body and voice. When that baby is no longer connected to this entity, a void may open and can remain for a long while.
It should be recognized that the trauma a child adoptee may experience is much different than that of a birth parent or an adoptive family. Signs that indicate a child may be experiencing adoption trauma include having difficulties with control, rejection, loss, grief, shame, intimacy, and identity. These have been identified by a group of clinicians that work specifically with adopted children.
Adoption trauma can have a significant impact on the brain development of a child as well as his emotional development. Several regions of the brain associated with memory, communication, motor behavior, executive functioning, emotion regulation, learning and responding to social cues, and the fight-or-flight system can be negatively affected by trauma. A child’s cortisol levels can also be elevated due to the brain perceiving the environment as a constant stressor.
Essentially, this means that their fight-or-flight system is running nonstop rather than operating only in situations where it is necessary. As a result, children who have experienced trauma are more likely to internalize their feelings, have depression and anxiety, have trouble relating to others, and face issues navigating complex social situations. That child may find him or herself being in a state of constant hyperarousal or have poor impulse control and cannot inhibit impulsive behaviors. Important developmental milestones may also not be reached at the expected time.
Importantly, it must not be forgotten that adopted children grow up and become adults. The neurological, emotional effects of adoption trauma do not stop when a child transitions into adulthood. Internalizing thoughts and feelings is a large part of dealing with trauma of any sort, especially adoption trauma. This might lead many adoptees to ruminate about their adoption and ask questions such as:
- Why was I placed for adoption?
- Why did my birth family not want me?
- What is my heritage and the truth behind my adoption story?
- Why haven’t my birth parents reached out to me?
- Is there something wrong with me because I’m adopted?
You’ll notice that some of these questions are focused on self-blame and try to come up with an explanation of why the adoption took place. Considering that adoption trauma is created out of something adoptees have no control over, the overwhelming feeling that there is inherently something wrong with them is not far-fetched. Adoptees are, most of the time, left with no explanation as to why they were placed for adoption, leaving them to grasp for answers—something that is not always possible.
What children are not often able to verbalize becomes apparent to them as they get older, indicating the trauma most likely has not been processed. Think about it, an average 7-year-old would find it difficult to understand the legality of adoption or the reason she or he was placed for adoption, especially if the story is complex or involves traumatic elements.
In a world where adoption is seen as such a positive thing, adopted children can feel lost while trying to assimilate to a family that they know they’re not biologically related to; they struggle to develop their own identity. Dealing with an identity conflict is a traumatic experience in itself as trying to create a self-image with no family history to start with usually is challenging enough. Transracial and transnational adoptees have an added layer of complexity to creating an identity as they have to find a way to incorporate both their racial or ethnic background and the influence they have from their adoptive family. Here lies the root of many facets of adoption anxiety—the unknown outweighs the known.
Usually emerging in late childhood or adolescence, adoptees also face challenges expressing how they truly feel about their adoption journey. For so long we have been expected to be grateful that we were given a better life than what we could have had if we weren’t “given up” for adoption. With this mindset, it is nearly impossible for adoptees to express feelings of sadness, frustration, confusion, or grief, over their adoption story and journey. It places a level of guilt and shame on the adoptee and creates a wall that is often hard to break down.
From my experience, I grew up in an environment that was very much focused on the positive adoption narrative. My adoptive parents really couldn’t understand why I was so focused on finding my birth family; after all, they had been told I was a “blank slate” when I came to them. All they needed to do was provide me with a loving family and good life—which they did—and I would turn out fine. While these things are important to provide for a child, it’s not always enough. Adoptees need the security to be curious and vulnerable about their adoption alongside others (their adoptive parents and family) that are willing to listen and hear what they are saying. Trust me, having your feelings validated by those you value most can make a world of difference when processing adoption trauma.
As a researcher, I have dedicated the past two years to studying how childhood trauma can affect the brain—specifically in older age. I am currently conducting a study where older adults are asked to think back to discriminatory or traumatic events that happened in different periods of their life: childhood, young adulthood, middle adulthood, and older adulthood. Per previous research, childhood trauma is not limited to only affecting the child during a young age—it can follow him or her in ways that are both subtle and not. Although I am still in the data collection and analysis phase of the study, we are hypothesizing that the more a person experiences trauma, the more likely she is to have impaired cognitive functioning at an older age. We expect to see these results in our study further corroborating already published research on the topic.
I can’t help but think of my own adoption trauma experience and wonder what effect it will have on my life as I age.
So, if children can get adoption trauma, what solution is there to the problem?
Do we put every adopted child in therapy from a young age?
Do we advocate for adoptee rights in terms of obtaining important historical documents such as his original birth certificate, family history, etc.?
Do we continue to research the effects of adoption trauma on children as they grow?
While the answer to these questions can be debated, there is one clear problem that needs to be acknowledged and taken care of by the adoption community: changing the overtly positive narrative of adoption.
Welcoming all types of stories and experiences from adoptees is the only way that children who have experienced adoption trauma can change. Letting children know that their reaction to adoption is perfectly normal, especially in such an abnormal situation, allows them to feel comfortable sharing their inner commentary. We must acknowledge that children have deeper emotions than we often realize and must give them the space to express those, even if it’s painful. Putting the focus on the adoptee, rather than predominantly focusing on the effects of adoption on birth and adoptive families, is a necessity to help combat adoption trauma from childhood. Providing adoptees with their family history and adoption documents is also a change that could eliminate some facets of adoption trauma completely. When provided with information, there is little room for speculation about one’s own history.
By the end of this article, I hope that no matter your place in or outside of the adoption triad, you are able to understand the effect adoption can have on children. They may be young, but that doesn’t make their emotions any less existent or valid. For adoptive parents, incorporating time for listening and conversations about adoption is a wonderful way to help your child navigate through the complex emotions that come with being adopted.
My name is Morgan Bailee Boggess, and I am originally from Owensboro, KY, (where I was raised) and was adopted from Henderson, KY. I currently live in Lexington, KY, with my fiance, our Yorkie (Heidi), turtle (Sheldon), and a variety of saltwater fish. Beginning in 2016, I sought out and met most of my biological family. At the end of my searching, I discovered that I have, in total, 8 brothers and sisters, 20 nieces and nephews, and one godson. I graduated from Georgetown College in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and am currently working towards getting my master’s in Social Work (MSW) with plans to get my Ph.D. in Clinical Neuropsychology a few years after that. I am a psychometrist and clinical research assistant at Sanders-Brown Center on Aging at the University of Kentucky. My research focus is looking at how forms of complex trauma (particularly intergenerational) affects the cognition in older adults. In my spare time, I write and read spoken word poetry at events to help benefit local nonprofits. I am also involved with several national diversity organizations and serve on the Board of Directors for Adoptees Connect, Inc.