Why Adoption Always Begins With Trauma

Written by Erin Bouchard

Adoption is often talked about as a win-win-win situation. A child wins a new home. A family wins a child. A birth parent wins by making the ultimate sacrifice for their child’s good. Adoptive parents are praised and adoptees are made to feel gratitude for being rescued. 

This narrative makes us feel good inside. As adoptive parents, we like being the hero.

However, when our child starts to misbehave or act out we’re often left trying to figure out where all the sunshine and roses went. We’re left drowning and with nowhere to turn for help.

The problem with this narrative is that when adoptees are only allowed to feel gratitude they can’t grieve the loss that they have experienced. And while every adoptee’s story is different, they all have one thing in common. That commonality is loss.

Loss of family.

Loss of familiarity.

Loss of school.

Loss of friends.

And none of them could/can grow up in the way that most of their friends get to – being raised by the people they are biologically connected to.

Removal from their family of origin represents two big things:

  1. They lose the biological connection that all babies have with their mothers.

Per Psychological Science*, “The evidence from psychological research is clear: When children are separated from their parents, it can have traumatic repercussions for kids’ lives down the line. Variations in qualities of mother–infant relationships among humans thus appear to have deep biological roots in the form of their capacity to shape children’s psychological and biological responses to their environment — effects that extend into adulthood.” 

Severing that biological tie – that connection – at any age, has lasting impacts for our kids. Yes, at the time of severance, but also as they grow. For each new stage and each new development is the first time without their birth families. Each milestone, each should-be celebration is tainted with the loss.

  1. They lose the ability to grow up in the typical way that their peers do. Their lives will forever be different.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why coming into foster care and being adopted is traumatic for our kids. I know it represents loss.

They lose their biological families.

They lose their schools.

They lose their homes.

They lose what feels familiar and normal to them.

But they also lose the ability to grow up in what is the ’typical’ way. Their lives from that moment on, look and feel and are different from those of their friends, cousins, sometimes even siblings.

They lose the ability to have a typical childhood.

They lose the ability to be raised by those who are biologically connected to them.

And even if…

  • they love their adopted family
  • they are grateful to be part of their adopted family
  • they needed to be removed from their biological family for safety concerns
  • they are happy to be adopted,

They have lost something that we can never, ever give them back. They will forever have a biological connection to their biological family. A biological tie was severed. And I don’t think that’s talked about enough.

That kind of loss can’t be outgrown.

They can’t simply move on.

It must be grieved.

It must be talked about.

Can our children overcome the trauma that they have experienced? Absolutely.

Will they be impacted by the trauma for the rest of their lives? Also, yes. It may feel like an ocean swallowing them whole right now, but it will change into a river of grief that ebbs and flows with them as they grow.

Our jobs as parents isn’t to protect them or take away all their pain. It’s to guide them through it. It’s to teach them skills to cope with their loss.

In doing so, we’ll raise kids into adults who overcome their trauma, instead of kids into adults who are overcome by their trauma. In order to do that, we must be aware and acknowledge the trauma that adoption causes.

*Hofer, Myron. ‘How Mother-child Separation Causes Neurobiological Vulnerability Into Adulthood’. https://www.psychologicalscience.org, June 20, 2018.

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