A review of recent literature (Family Studies 2015, International Journal of Behavior Development 2010, University of Minnesota 2008) has shown that adopted children are more vulnerable to a host of psychological and school-related problems compared to their non-adopted peers, and that the rate of referral of adopted children to mental-health facilities is far above what would be expected given their representation in the general population. Our understanding of the basis for these problems remains unclear. This article will trace evolving adoption practices and offer some insights into the problems facing helping professionals who work with adopted children, and the children themselves.
The past 30 years have seen major changes in infant adoption practices. Parents who adopted children born between 1940 and the early 1980s in the United States grew up in a world in which adoption agencies and the general public strongly believed that maintaining absolute secrecy and cutting off all connection with the child’s birth family were essential for protecting the child’s emotional well-being (Carp, 1998; Herman, 2008). By the 1960s, however, some adult adoptees stepped forth from their shadows of shame, sentiments that commonly plague the mind of the adopted child for having been given away at birth, to state publicly that the secrets and relinquishment designed to protect them had instead harmed them.
Although some people continued to argue in favor of traditional confidential adoption practices, a large body of literature began to document the deleterious impacts of secrecy and cutoffs in adoption practices developed (Hollinger, Baran, Pannor, Appell, & Modell, 2004; Rosenberg & Groze, 1997). As a result, by the 1970s some agencies began to experiment with offering expectant parents who were considering adoption the opportunity to meet their baby’s prospective adoptive parents. Today, although some remain skeptical about the feasibility of open adoption (Brown, Ryan, & Pushkal, 2008), adoptions in which biological and adoptive parents exchange identifying information and have some form of contact with each other, are the norm (Vandivere, Malm, & Radel, 2009). This is a change from the days when confidential adoption was the only option available and biological and adoptive parents had no choice but to accept total secrecy, anonymity, and separation, regardless of whether this was what they wanted for themselves or their child.
Today’s open adoptions vary widely. Some involve minimal disclosure of identifying information exchanged through an intermediary (typically an agency or attorney). Others include full disclosure of all identifying information and ongoing contact via face-to-face visits (Grotevant & McRoy, 1998, Brodzinsky, D. 2006).
The array of options between these approaches is vast and have paralleled changes in the larger society. Single parenthood has lost much of its former stigma, and children born outside of marriage are no longer labeled “bastards” or “illegitimate” (Collins, 2009). In addition, science has amply demonstrated the lifesaving importance of knowing one’s genetic heritage to prevent and cure diseases.
Effect of Relinquishment Trauma on Brain Development
A recent and growing body of research into children’s brain development is shedding new light on the ways that early adverse experiences, including adoption changes the structure and electrochemical activity of the brain and the resulting emotional and behavioral functioning of the child. Research is shifting the way that professionals view and treat children who have experienced trauma by providing biological explanations for what had traditionally been described in psychological, emotional, and behavioral terms.
In fact, a growing body of literature suggests that any child separated from its birth mother can have a traumatic effect. For many people, this is old news (“The Primal Wound” 1993). To some, it’s a startlingly new concept. The mainstream view is that adoption is a happy event: a child needing a family gets one and the child being “loved” in a traditional way will be sufficient for healthy development. How, then, is adoption a trauma? Scientific research now reveals that as early as the second trimester, the human fetus is capable of auditory processing and in fact, is capable of processing rejection in utero. Another words, what mother experience, babies also experience. The most influential of these were maternal experiences that passed biochemically through the umbilical cord by means of a group of chemicals called catecholamines, if the baby’s birth mother was under stress, the fetus would have been flooded with these stress hormones which have been shown to, in turn, affect emotions. Scientists theorize that these chemical stressors cross the placenta and “frighten” the developing nervous system (Gerhardt 2004). If it happens often enough, the fetus actually gets used to feeling chronically “stressed.”
At birth, it must be recognized that the far greater trauma often times occurs in the way in which the mind and body of the newborn is incapable of processing the loss of the biological, life giving figure. The physiological response to the loss of the person responsible for giving life is the release of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol, which prepares the body to take urgent action – the ‘fight or flight’ response. A certain amount of stress is normal for all children, but in this case prolonged exposure to inconsistent care giving and reaction to the unfamiliar voice, heartbeat and innate care-giving that a biological mother is programmed to provide results in a negative impact on the physiology of the brain (Woolgar, 2013). This can disrupt the child’s sense of security, safety, and sense of themselves and alters the way they see and respond to people and situations in their lives (Siegel 2014).
Far beyond any cognitive awareness, this experience is stored deep within the cells of the body, routinely leading to states of anxiety and depression for the adopted child later in life. These changes are adaption’s to chronic stress.
The failure of society and the therapeutic community and others to acknowledge relinquishment traumatization diminishes the capacity to treat it. When traumas occur, there is a critical period of time afterward during which humans require understanding, acknowledgment, and compassion in order for shock to subside and healing to begin. Unacknowledged traumas create distrust in babies, and this significantly impedes the bonding and healing process.
It should be noted that most adoptees adapt just fine from the trauma of separation, but some struggle with trust issues throughout their lives, and have a hard time beginning or ending relationships. Figures vary, but the literature suggests that between 18-30% of adoptees are challenged with depression, anxiety, and more, throughout their lives (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 2005, Psychiatric Times 2006) and some require intensive, long term, residential care. For almost a decade, Calo Programs has been facilitating ground breaking and proprietary therapy specifically designed for young people experiencing the effects of early childhood stress and developmental trauma. There is hope. Research is revealing a spectrum of resilience among adopted people who benefit from neurobiological interventions in a safe and nurturing environment. It will take time, patience, and intensive therapeutic support to address and overcome them, but as “Parenting a Child Who Has Experienced Trauma” (Hughes 2016), states: “Parenting a child who has experienced trauma may require a shift from seeing a ‘bad kid’ to a kid who has had bad things happen to him.”
How can Professionals Help a Child Recover and Heal?
- The key is to see behaviors as survival strategies and not interpret/analyze as “bad” behaviors. Allow this view to generate compassion and patience for the client where the professional can then remain objective.
- Do not to expect to immediately learn about all the trauma the youth has gone through. Some of the trauma’s effects may not become apparent for months or even years. Often, most of a client’s trauma occurs during the preverbal stage and thus doesn’t respond well to traditional, verbal based interventions.
- When traumatic stress is stored in the lower part of the brain and body, cognitive/behavioral modification interventions are only minimally effective and may reinforce shame.
- More effective, but counter intuitive interventions are highly relational and include empathy, understanding and compassion to help heal the shame that goes along with relinquishment.
- Work hard to understand the perspective from all ends of the adoption triangle and how the disruption in care giving affects the child.
- Read the literature from researchers and authors like Nancy Verrier, David Brodzinsky Sherrie Eldridge, Dan Hughes and Heather Forbes.
- Attend a training through hospitals, school programs, therapeutic, and private agencies.
- Consider becoming an Adoption Competent Therapist; Adoption Competent vs Regular Therapist
- Take the long view. The trauma didn’t happen overnight and the healing won’t either.