Guide to Adoption Trauma: Definition, Signs, and Tips for Coping
For many children and families, adoption is an overwhelmingly positive experience. However, adoption still involves loss and trauma, regardless of how happy and loving an adoptive family is to their new family member. Adoption experts believe that adoption causes trauma in all situations, even when a child is adopted as an infant and doesn’t have a memory of their birth parents.
What is Adoption Trauma?
According to Better Help, “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.”
Separation from biological parents can cause mental and physical health effects that linger long after the child has settled in with their adoptive family. Some people who are adopted struggle to pinpoint their trauma, especially if they are unaware that they are not living with their birth parents.
Adoption trauma (also known as relinquishment trauma or developmental trauma) differs from person to person. For some people who have been adopted, their trauma symptoms are minimal. Others who are adopted have trauma symptoms that severely impact their lives.
In many situations (especially when children are adopted at a later age), adoption trauma is piled on top of other types of trauma linked to a less-than-ideal living situation before the adoption took place. Babies and children who witness domestic violence, substance abuse, severe economic distress, and other traumatic events may have a harder time living with adoption trauma than those who were adopted as infants.
Even if a child does not remember their birth parents, it’s important for adoptive parents to consider that a child is bonded with their birth mother before they’re even born. Babies get to know their birth mother’s heartbeat and voice while they’re still in the womb. No matter how loving and supportive their adoptive parents, babies experience trauma when the person they got to know in-utero is not a part of their support network post-birth. Known as fetal trauma, babies know when they’re being cared for by someone other than their birth mother. While babies and children may not be able to p ut words to the struggles that come with fetal trauma, it can cause mental and physical health problems as they grow older.
Impact of Adoption Trauma on Adoptees and Parents
When a family chooses to adopt a child, they typically go through extensive education on how they can best create a healthy environment for everyone involved in the adoption. No matter how hard a family works to creative a positive situation for their new family member, adoption trauma still has an effect both on the child being adopted and the family as a whole.
Adoption trauma can affect many parts of an adopted child’s life, including:
- Social interactions with family, friends, and teachers
- Attachment with caregivers
- Cognitive development
- Eating patterns
- Ability to make decisions within their best interests
- Goal development
Since adoption trauma affects people differently, not all adopted children will exhibit problems in these areas. Some children may become hyper-focused on goals in an effort to feel worthy, while others may struggle to set goals.
In addition to differences in the areas listed above, children who are adopted are more likely to experience PTSD, anxiety, and depression at some point in their lives when compared to children who did not experience adoption.
Trauma-informed adoption services are key in supporting both children and families throughout the adoption process. If a child is seemingly moving from a difficult home environment to a more positive environment, it can be hard for adoptive parents to understand the child’s struggles to adjust. Often, past trauma does not reveal itself until a child feels safe and supported. This can mean that a child suddenly begins feeling the effects of past trauma after they’re in their new home. No matter how positive the change may seem, children often struggle with missing their biological parents, trusting their family to accept them, and relying on past coping strategies when faced with stress or difficulty.
When adoptive parents are informed about how adoption trauma will affect their child, they’re better able to help the child thrive. No matter what issues (or lack thereof) a child who has experienced adoption may have, it’s important for adoptive parents to remember that no matter how much they love, support, and provide for their new child, adoption trauma will still exist.
Signs and Symptoms of Adoption Trauma
If you’re an adoptive parent, or you’re a person who has experienced adoption, it’s smart to be aware of the signs and symptoms of adoption trauma. As mentioned, all children who go through an adoption experience adoption trauma to some degree, but the severity of symptoms can differ.
Signs and symptoms of adoption trauma may include:
- Academic difficulty
- Struggles relating to peers and making friends
- Difficulty protecting self (may find it easier to interact with and relate to peers who do not treat them well)
- High levels of reactivity, both verbally and physically
- Risk-taking behavior
- Emotional dysregulation (may become withdrawn or fearful after difficult situations)
- Easily overstimulated (especially to sound and touch)
- Learned helplessness (an inability in their ability to solve problems and advocate for themselves)
- Low self-esteem and self-worth
- Separation anxiety
- Difficulty with transitions (going from home to school, going from recess to class)
Some children who experience adoption go through stunted emotional growth, often at the age that the adoption (or previous trauma) occurred. This can result in many of the above symptoms.
Effects of Adoption Trauma on Mental Health
Many people who experience adoption find that they struggle with a sense of self-esteem related to identity issues. They may struggle with feelings of self-worth, especially if they struggle to understand why they aren’t with their birth parents. Genetics can also be a factor in the development of mental health problems if their birth parents’ mental health struggles were a factor in the adoption process. Knowledge of genetic mental health issues can allow adoptive families to take proactive steps to support the mental health of their child, but it can be difficult to create an effective preventative medicine routine without access to the biological parent’s health history.
In addition to self-esteem problems, people who experience adoption are more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder than people who have not experienced adoption. Diagnoses of oppositional defiant disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and anxiety problems are also more likely in adopted children. Sadly, people who have been adopted are four times more likely to attempt suicide.
Children who are adopted by a family of another race may struggle with additional issues compared to children who are adopted by families of the same race. Children in transracial adoptions sometimes feel like they aren’t sure how to fit in, as they don’t feel quite at home with their adoptive family or their birth family.
Tips for Coping with Adoption Trauma
Thankfully, there are many ways to cope with adoption trauma that can help both an adopted child and their adoptive family live healthy, happy lives.
Children and adoptive families alike often find a sense of comfort in support groups. Even if solutions to problems aren’t found during support group meetings, knowing that there are other people dealing with similar issues can help the adoption process feel less isolating.
Children, adoptive parents, and biological parents can all benefit from working with a therapist trained in adoption trauma. People who experience adoption are twice as likely to seek the help of a therapist than people who have not been adopted. Therapists who work with adopted children (and adults who were adopted as children) often focus on building self-esteem, developing secure attachment, and working through identity issues.
It’s important to remember that all children are different, and needs can change over time. Continually checking in with children and listening to their feelings around their adoption can go a long way in helping them become well-adjusted adults.
Supporting Adoptees and Adoption Parents
If you’re an adoptee or an adoptive parent, there are plenty of resources in place to support you as you work through adoption trauma:
- Child Welfare Information Gateway
- Considering Adoption
- American Adoptions
- Adoption Services
If your child is struggling with issues related to adoption trauma, the following resources may be helpful:
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder Resource Center
- Depression in Children and Teens
- Child Anxiety Support
- Anxiety Disorder in Divorce and Child Custody Cases