Understanding Adoption Trauma

Updated October 22, 2021

What Is Adoption Trauma?

Adoption trauma describes the trauma related to being separated from one’s family at birth. Before continuing, it’s important to note that adoption can be the healthiest option for many children. However, as babies are removed from their birth-givers, they experience the removal and separation in their bodies, and fear can be imprinted on their neurological systems. Like any other trauma, adoption trauma tends to be stored in the body and brain to create a sense of fear or unease.

Adoption can be harmful to a child’s developing brain—even if adoption is, ultimately, a safer option. A child who has been neglected or improperly cared for, for instance, may have a healthier life after being removed from their home but may still have experienced early trauma due to being removed from everything they know.

One study found that people who are adopted or who have their children removed tend to experience much higher rates of depression and PTSD and may continue to experience fear, pain, and loss throughout their lives. Society often fails to acknowledge the presence of adoption trauma that harms children, parents, and the world, thus failing to acknowledge significant and even debilitating pain in a large portion of the population affected by early trauma.

To help combat the hazards that accompany adoption and early trauma, many adoption allies and organizations have encouraged people to adopt trauma-informed adoption practices.

Trauma-Informed Adoption

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Trauma-informed adoption practices focus on the health and well-being of the child or children being adopted, rather than focusing on the comfort of the adoptive parents or placing most of the emphasis on the “success” or “joy” of adoption. Trauma-informed practices acknowledge early trauma’s impact on childhood development and health well into adulthood and take steps to address and effectively counteract that impact.

Trauma-informed adoption can mean a lot of things, but typically involves additional training for social workers, judges, and other professionals involved in the adoption process, as well as training parents of adoptive children on the ins and outs of early trauma, including how early trauma may influence their adoptive child’s ability to attach to their adoptive families, influence decisions to search for birth families later in life, and even influence cognitive development and personality development. Possessing a greater understanding of early trauma and how it influences thought processes and behaviors can help adoptive parents and adoption professionals address any behaviors or concerns that arise in an appropriate, compassionate manner.

Transracial Adoption And Mental Health

Transracial adoption has a long, storied, and often problematic history. While it may be somewhat common today to adopt children from other countries or different backgrounds, it has been argued that adopting children from other ethnicities was historically rooted in racist policies that felt that minority children were “better off” placed with white families than with their own families or other families of color. While the nature of transracial adoption has largely changed, there may still be some racism rooted in practice, even in seemingly well-meaning families. Why? Far too many children who are adopted transracially are expected to assimilate with their adoptive parents, rather than being allowed to grow up with the comforts and familiarity of people from similar backgrounds or cultures.

Although the epithet “I don’t see color” has often been used to justify the practice of placing a child with adoptive parents of another culture and failing to provide that child with the fullness of their cultural heritage, adoptive parents who do not make a point of encouraging diversity in their homes and communities and acknowledging differences are likely to have adoptive children who struggle with their racial or cultural identities. Children recognize race differences in infancy, as several studies have demonstrated, and notice that their adoptive parents look different from them, even if the differences are not acknowledged or discussed. The failure to acknowledge differences can make children feel as though they are being dismissed or ignored and can create an atmosphere of an emotionally unsafe home, which has been linked to mental health issues and early trauma.

Children of transracial adoption may also feel embarrassed by their background or detached from it. Children in this situation might find themselves straddling a confusing line of not being “enough” to qualify as one culture or ethnicity or another, which can lead to severely diminished self-esteem. A Latinx child who is raised by a white family, for instance, who has never lived in a diverse neighborhood or whose parents have never tried to include cultural heritage or traditions might find that they are considered not white by their siblings or peers, but too white to fit into Latinx groups. Over time, this can create a dissociative effect and make children feel like they do not have a place to belong.

For-Profit Adoption: What To Know

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There are different types of adoption agencies and adoption placements. Children can be adopted from foster care or maybe adopted through for-profit or non-profit adoption agencies. Although non-profit adoptions agencies are preferable to for-profit agencies, it is vital to recognize that even non-profits do generate income. It is what is done with the income that determines whether or not something qualifies for non-profit status.

What is the problem with a profitable adoption system? In a word: priorities. Children adopted from foster care are placed with families to reduce the number of children living in foster care facilities and improve attachment and quality of life. Children adopted from adoption agencies (for-profit or non-profit) are placed to receive the funds owed to the agency in question. The conflict of interest here is clear: placement of children should be focused on the welfare of the child in question rather than the sum being collected. In private adoption agencies or agencies that require funds to begin the adoption process, the priority is likely to be on the money to be collected rather than the child’s welfare.

Prioritizing money over a child’s welfare is potentially problematic for several reasons, not the least of which is the possibility of placing a child in a home that is not a good fit and applying pressure to both the child and the family to accept the placement, even if the parties involved are not comfortable.

For-profit systems are also problematic because they might negatively influence reunification efforts. If a child is reunified with their family of origin, the agency essentially loses out on money. This means that these institutions cannot and will not emphasize reunification efforts but will be actively campaigning or hoping for removal and subsequent placement with an adoptive family. Emphasizing placement and payment removes the possibility of engaging trauma-informed adoption practices and may even actively foster early trauma.

Attachment Issues After Adoption

Attachment is frequently overlooked in children outside of mental health facilities. Attachment is the framework from which children develop, including their mental health and relational abilities. Without a safe person or place to attach to, many children may develop issues with attachment. They cannot do so without therapy or other intervention that teaches appropriate and healthy attachment practices or habits.

Perhaps the most significant condition that can develop in response to attachment issues is Reactive Attachment Disorder. Children do not form bonds with their primary caretakers in this disorder, whether due to emotional or physical neglect, inconsistent care, or absent caregivers. Reactive Attachment Disorder presents with unusual social habits, absent or inappropriate emotional responses, a lack of attachment to primary caregivers, and overly friendly or familiar behavior with strangers. Over time and without treatment, RAD can lead to additional issues, such as difficulty in social situations, acting out, and even hazardous behavior, including emotional outbursts and issues with impulsivity.

Other attachment disorders present similar concerns. One of the most significant issues with attachment disorders is the potential harm they pose to the child; when children do not attach to caregivers appropriately, they are at risk of being abducted and abused because they do not recognize social cues and safe spaces and may go off with strangers willingly and without recognizing the possible dangers of leaving a caregiver behind. These disorders can be treated with social skills training, individual therapy, and family therapy to support healthy attachment and appropriate social behaviors.

Practical Solutions For Mental Health Following Adoption

Not everyone in the adoption community will have access to or a desire for therapy. People who have been adopted may search for support in their own networks before they search of therapy or other interventions. These individuals can still support their mental health and improve symptoms of early trauma, attachment issues, and identity issues through three important avenues: building community, fostering identity, and practicing attachment strategies.

Although support groups are frequently regarded as a necessity for specific mental health conditions and issues, support groups can be enormously helpful for people who have been adopted. Local support groups and meetings can connect you with others who might have had experiences similar to your own. Online groups can pinpoint more specific post-adoption issues, such as difficulty with racial identity and feelings of guilt for looking for birth families. Recognizing that you are not alone in how you feel can alleviate much of the guilt and shame that can accompany the emotions surrounding adoption and offer a sense of belonging that may be difficult to find elsewhere.

Fostering a sense of identity is another way to improve your mental health following adoption. This can be done in several ways. One of the most significant ways to do this is by exploring your wants and needs. Many children, adopted or not, look to parents for a sense of identity and a sense of likes and dislikes. To help foster a sense of identity, adoptive children can begin exploring their wants and needs apart from the wants and needs of birth or adoptive families. Reconnecting with any bypassed or lost cultural habits or traditions can also help encourage a sense of identity.

Practicing attachment strategies can help alleviate feelings of isolation and social difficulty. Children learn how to interact with others based on their attachments to and relationships with their families—a process can be thoroughly interrupted throughout the adoption process. These skills can be learned and practiced without the help of a mental health professional (though professional help may eventually be encouraged). Safe relationships are often the best way to practice, but you can also practice forming attachments and cultivating new relationships as you learn.

Practical Solutions for Mental Health Following Adoption: Adoptive Parents

People who adopt may also experience the need for additional support and mental health practices following adoption. Although much of the focus is placed on the child who has been adopted, the effects of adoption on adopters cannot be overstated. This is true of transracial adoption and adoption in general. 

Transracial adoption support can be difficult to find because, although transracial adoption is no longer a taboo subject, it is still not common to have numerous ethnicities and races within a single family unit, with fewer than one third of adoptions qualifying as transracial. Families of transracial adoption may find themselves experiencing some social isolation, or a lack of support and understanding To help combat the hazards that accompany adoption and early trauma, many adoption allies and organizations have encouraged people to adopt trauma-informed adoption practices. from their families, friends, and immediate communities. 

Connecting with other transracial adoption families via online support groups or in-person get-togethers can help those who have adopted children outside of their own race feel better equipped to parent and offer love and support to their children. It can also offer insight into dealing with some of the common concerns that arise in transracial adoption, including offering adequate exposure to a child’s biological background and culture, and adoption in general, including discussions regarding adoption, relationships with birth parents, and the role that adoption plays in family dynamics and communication efforts.  

Education groups and organizations can also offer enormous amounts of insight into transracial and other adoptions. While adoptive parents are often showered with a plethora of adulation, it often stops there, with little education and information being delivered past adoption. Information on how to appropriately care for different hair textures and skin colors is often a great place to start for adoptive parents who feel overwhelmed or uncertain in their roles as parents. 

Offering Support To Those Who Have Been Adopted

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One of the most powerful forms of support is just that: support. Rather than trying to change the thoughts or feelings of someone who has been adopted, simply offer unconditional understanding and support. Far too many children have been “othered” their entire lives, frequently in the name of being supportive or helpful. Parents, siblings, and friends of adoptees should practice listening without trying to judge, change, or influence the thoughts and behaviors of the adoptee.

Providing access to help can also be one of the best ways to help someone adopted. Help might come in the form of therapy, like the therapy services offered by BetterHelp. It might also come in the form of support groups or early childhood intervention services. Access to help can even come in the form of accommodations at school or family counseling to support healthy attachment habits and practices.

Offering support to adoptees means placing the emphasis and focus on the person being adopted. While adoptive parents may have struggles of their own, most of the weight of adoption falls on the adoptive child. Recognizing trauma-informed adoption can be a simple and useful step forward in supporting adoptees.


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