Adoption trauma may have a lifelong impact on children and adults. As caregivers, providing trauma-informed care to an adopted child may offer some stability and compassion for them to foster life-long coping skills. There are several forms of adoption trauma, strategic solutions to support those experiencing it, and therapeutic interventions available.
What Is Adoption Trauma?
Every November, the Children’s Bureau observes National Adoption Awareness Month in order to increase awareness about issues related to adoption and highlight the need for adoptive families, especially teenagers. However, it’s always a good time to learn more about adoption trauma, especially if you have any involvement in the adoption process.
Adoption trauma can be described as the immense emotional distress related to the adverse childhood experiences associated with being separated from children’s birth families through adoption. Author Nancy Verrier refers to this separation trauma as the ‘primal wound.’ While adoption can be a positive experience for some families, babies, children, or teens removed from their birth parents may experience trauma regardless of the quality or stability of the home they are being brought into.
Separation trauma and any other emotions felt during the adoption may linger in their developing neurological systems, resulting in intense emotions, difficulty understanding their experience, and potential invalidation from adopted families.
There are different physical and psychological manifestations that adoption trauma may take in an adopted child or adolescent. Experiencing and healing from this type of trauma may be unique to the individual. Additionally, not all those who have been adopted may feel that their trauma impacts them immensely. Others might feel that it has caused severe emotional distress throughout their lives.
One study found that people who had experienced adoption experienced higher rates of depression throughout their lifetime. In some cases, untreated symptoms can last into adulthood. Many adoption advocates and allies have developed trauma-informed adoption services to mitigate this risk and encourage healthy adoption while reducing the potential impact of adoption trauma. Adoption activists may also aim for biological family reintegration efforts, and further family supports in place of adoption.
A traumatic adoption may negatively impact young brains even if the adopting family feels optimistic about the situation, makes all efforts to make it healthy, and tries to support the child. Even once settled with an adoptive family, a child may say they miss their own mother’s cooking, end up hiding in the fetal position at the first sign of conflict, or show symptoms of sexual abuse years after it occurred. Older adopted teens are likely to experience additional challenges if they experienced neglect or abuse in their biological family’s home or while in foster care.
If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788. You can also use the online chat.
Trauma-Informed Adoption Strategies
Trauma-informed adoption may focus on a child’s health and well-being while informing an adoptive parent of scientifically supported strategies to assist the child as they continue to bond and develop. Trauma-informed practices may acknowledge the early impact of adoption on childhood development and take steps to address it.
The parents who adopt a child with adoption trauma may work to allow the child to open up on their own time, understand that the child may not feel that they are their actual parents, and educate themselves on trauma and the impact it has on the mind and body. These methods may involve social workers, judges, and other professionals alongside the adoptive parents, calling attention to the range of experiences that those living with adoption trauma may go through.
Adoptive families may make efforts to learn about adoption’s impact on:
- Future goals
- Cognitive development
- Behavior and Personality
- Habits and interests
- Sleep patterns
- Eating choices
- Social interactions
- Relationships with their birth mother and father
After learning about trauma-informed adoption, parents and other key people in the adoption process may feel empowered in caring for the child in a way that is informed of what they might experience while understanding that they might not fully understand or feel what the child feels.
Attachment After Adoption: Acknowledging The Spectrum
Attachment is often defined as the framework from which children develop connections with others, which can also impact their mental health and relational abilities. Each person develops an attachment style as an infant or young child based on whether their needs were met by their parent or primary caregiver. The attachment theory states that children who do not have their needs met may experience an insecure attachment style.
Many children can experience attachment challenges without a safe person or place to identify during early development, resulting in the formation or continuation of unhealthy behaviors and attitudes. These can manifest into disorders or different displays of trauma down the line.
For example: In reactive attachment disorder (RAD), children may not form bonds with their primary caretakers like other children and experience a flood of stress hormones in the process. As a result, RAD can present a range of symptoms, including unusual social habits, absent or inappropriate emotional responses, or a lack of a bond with primary caregivers. Conversely, it can manifest as overly friendly or familiar behavior with strangers or hyperactivity.
Over time and without treatment, an insecure attachment or attachment disorder may lead to additional issues, such as difficulty in social situations, acting out, and risky or unsafe behaviors, such as emotional outbursts and impulsivity. Social skills training, individual therapy, and family therapy may help support healthy attachment and appropriate social behaviors with non-traumatized peers.
Transracial Adoption, Mental Health, And Attachment
Adoptive parents adopting a child who does not have the same race or birth culture may help ease adoption trauma by ensuring their children experience the fullness of their cultural heritage and complete transparency about their birth family. This process may reduce the impact of adoption trauma and create meaningful bonds for the child with their culture.
It has been scientifically suggested that many children can recognize race differences in infancy. Failure to acknowledge these differences may make children experiencing adoption feel dismissed, ignored, invalidated, or unsafe in their heritage and personal experiences. They might wonder why their family is different or have urges to connect with others who understand them better.
Specific experts and authors on this topic have written about how being “colorblind to race” can harm racial minorities. It may result in ignoring, putting aside, or disregarding the importance of culture and ancestral connection to many. Additionally, it may disregard the variance of experiences that racial minorities can have that non-racial minorities may not.
These emotions could be tied to mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, isolation, and adoption trauma. Speaking to a licensed therapist or seeking family therapy may be supportive. Additionally, seeking cultural immersion activities and regular acknowledgment of special events, holidays, and elements of one’s heritage may also benefit a child in transracial adoption. Adoptive caregivers can also implement the following strategies if applicable to their adopted child:
- Learning how to do and maintain afro-textured hairstyles
- Knowing which products to use on their skin and hair
- Discussing racism from an early age
- Find mentors of your child’s race to support them, such as a therapist, teacher, or adoption specialist
- Embrace new traditions
- Talk to adults from your child’s race or cultural heritage, if they are open to the subject
- Live in a diverse area where the child can meet others of their race, ethnicity, or culture
- If they are from another country, visit that country often and immerse them in the culture and language there
Practical Strategies To Support Mental Health Following Adoption
People who have experienced adoption may seek support from involved agencies, support groups, or entities before therapy or other interventions are sought.
Doing this can improve adoptee issues and address identity issues in three key ways:
- Building a sense of community
- Fostering genuine identity and empathy
- Practicing healthy attachments
Trauma support groups may be helpful for people experiencing adoption or coping with adoption trauma later in their development. Local support groups and meetings can connect you with others who might have had similar experiences. Online groups can also pinpoint more specific post-adoption issues, such as difficulty with racial identity and emotions surrounding searching for birth families.
Following adoption, fostering a sense of identity may improve your mental health. Exploring genuine wants and needs and learning about your ancestral heritage may help you feel connected with your personality and self. Many children may also look to their parents for a sense of identity. Reconnecting with bypassed or lost cultural habits and traditions can help encourage a sense of self separate from one’s parents, allowing adoptees to feel empowered in their personal stories and cultures.
Practicing healthy attachment strategies could also help alleviate feelings of isolation and social difficulty. Children often learn how to interact with others based on their attachments and family relationships. The formation of these bonds can get interrupted during the adoption process, which is why adult adoptees may consider forming relationships constructed based on healthy and supportive attachments. Signs of a strong and psychologically aligned attachment in relationships include:
- Effective communication skills
- Feelings of genuine connection between the participants of the relationship
- The presence of and empowerment to form healthy boundaries
- Feelings of trust between participants of the relationship
Mental Health For Adoptive Families
A finalized adoption doesn’t signify a fairy tale ending for families. People who adopt may seek additional support and mental health services following their adoption. The adoption process can be challenging for caretakers regardless of any favorable circumstances.
Ways to mitigate potential feelings of disconnection or isolation include connecting with other families via online support groups or in-person get-togethers, informing oneself of different strategies to overcome this stage, or speaking with licensed mental health professionals or a family therapist.
Many support groups can offer insight into common concerns, including adequate exposure to a child’s biological parents, discussions revealing the adoption, and the role the adoption can play in family dynamics or community development.
Counseling For Adopted Persons And Adoptive Families
Providing unconditional support to someone experiencing adoption issues may help the person feel seen and validated in their experience. This support may include listening without judgment, showing compassion, or helping a child receive professional care. Licensed therapists can provide resources to help navigate adoption complications and trauma.
Suppose the person experiencing trauma has difficulty leaving home or speaking face to face. In that case, online therapy can be a more approachable and available form of support than in-person therapeutic environments. One study explored how online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) affected symptoms of depression and anxiety, such as those that can be present in those experiencing adoption-related trauma. Researchers found that participants experienced significant reductions in symptoms over time, leading them to conclude that online therapy can produce “sustained and clinically meaningful improvements.”.
If you’re interested in learning more about the therapy options for an adopted person or adoptive family, consider signing up through a platform like BetterHelp, which offers a vast database of counselors specializing in various issues, including adoption and family conflict.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Below are a few frequently asked questions about adoption.
Is being adopted considered trauma?
What does adoption trauma look like?
Can you get PTSD from being adopted?
Why does being adopted hurt so much?
What problems can adopted adults have?
How do you heal adoption trauma?
What does adoption trauma mean?
Is adoption traumatic for adoptees?
What is adopted child syndrome?
Can you have trauma from being adopted as a baby?
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