Adoption Trauma And What It Can Look Like

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated May 3, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Adoption trauma may have a lifelong impact on children and adults. As caregivers, providing trauma-informed care to children adopted in any situation 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.  

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Experiencing adoption trauma?

Trauma after being removed from birth parents

Every November, the Children’s Bureau observes National Adoption Awareness Month 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 psychological trauma regardless of the quality or stability of the family environment 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 traumatic 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 in early life 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 support in place of adoption. 

A traumatic adoption may negatively impact a young brain structure 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 a traumatic event like neglect or abuse in their biological family members’ 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: 

  • Attachment 
  • Decision-making 
  • Future goals 
  • Cognitive development 
  • Behavior and Personality 
  • Habits and interests 
  • Sleep patterns 
  • Eating choices 
  • Social interactions 
  • Education 
  • 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.

Learning how early childhood trauma influences thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can help caretakers compassionately address concerns and conversations between adopted children and their adoptive families.

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 parent or primary caregiver met their needs. The attachment theory states that children who do not have their needs met may experience an insecure attachment style.

Many children can experience attachment issues without a safe person or place to identify during early development, resulting in the formation or continuation of unhealthy behaviors and attitudes. Lack of a secure attachment can manifest into disorders or different displays of early 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 problems, 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 for adoptive parents 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 more connected with your personality traits and family history. 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-separation 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 based on healthy and supportive attachments. Signs of a strong and psychologically aligned attachment in healthy 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 adopted children and adoptive family members

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 a licensed mental health professional 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.

Experiencing adoption trauma?

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. Multiple types of therapy and treatment options are available, like eye movement desensitization, which may alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories. 

Suppose the person experiencing trauma has difficulty leaving home or speaking face to face due to the traumatic events they experienced. 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. Research shows 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. 


Adoption trauma can affect a person’s bond with others and ability to cope no matter when the adoption occurred. Positive experiences with adoption may not always be enough for an adoptee to ensure mental health or healthy adjustments, particularly if they spent time living in institutional settings. Seeking counseling from a trauma-informed therapist may help families develop a comprehensive and compassionate connection while understanding the role of adoption in trauma.

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