What Does Adoption Trauma Look Like?

April 5, 2024

When you hear “adoption,” an optimistic scenario often comes to mind. It sparks hope among children and helps foster a sense of family.

However, this is not always the case. Some adoptees experience the so-called adoption trauma. It’s a delicate situation that emerges from the intersection of loss, identity, and belonging. Did you know that among adopted children, mental health conditions are prevalent? Research indicated that adoptees reported suicide attempts at a rate approximately four times higher than non-adoptees.

In this blog, we’ll explore this phenomenon and help you identify its signs and symptoms. We’ll also look into its psychological impact and various approaches to healing.

adverse childhood experiences
Source: Roots Mental Wellness

Understanding Adoption Trauma

While adoption brings forth joy and new connections, some adoptees experience profound emotional challenges. This phenomenon is referred to as adoption trauma. This term captures the psychological distress arising from the adoption process and the life beyond that. 

This type of trauma stems from various factors. When an adoptee is separated from their birth parents, it can negatively affect their mental well-being. If they experienced neglect or abuse before adoption, it can further compound their emotional distress. The ongoing process of identity formation and belonging within the adoptive family is another important concern to consider.

The Mental Health Implications of Adoption Trauma

Trauma experienced during adoption extends well beyond the initial transition of the adoptee into their new family. Often, the process of adoption can have long-term mental health implications.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is one of the most common conditions linked to this type of trauma. Symptoms can include intrusive memories of past traumatic events, night terrors, and severe anxiety. It may also manifest physically, with symptoms including increased heart rate and sweating when reminded of these events.

Anxiety and Depression

Childhood trauma and depression are strongly linked. When a child gets adopted into another family, they may feel a deep sense of abandonment. They will feel lost — and the struggle to find identity and a sense of home can further aggravate their feelings. All this can lead to depressive symptoms, causing them to persistently feel sad, lose interest in things they previously enjoyed, isolate, and be excessively worried about their future.

Identity Issues

When children are separated from the environment they grew up in and reintroduced to a new family, they may feel confused about their identity. This often leads to low self-esteem. Apart from developing anxiety out of it, having an identity issue can also cause stress, social phobia, and even attention deficit disorder.

attachment issues
Source: Pexels.com

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Attachment Issues

Adoption trauma intersects significantly with other critical problems, such as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and attachment issues.

What are ACEs?

ACEs refer to a range of traumatic events or circumstances that someone encounters during childhood. These encompass physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction. Losing a parent — whether through divorce, death, or abandonment — is also considered an ACE.

One study shows that before getting adopted, nearly 7 in 10 adoptees have had at least four ACEs. Being in this situation can further complicate the transition to and integration with an adoptive family. As the adoptee deals with lasting scars from their ACEs, they also have to face the challenges that come with being adopted. 

All these experiences can impact their emotional and psychological development, influencing their behavior, academic performance, and mental health in the long run.

Attachment Issues in Adoptees

The attachment theory emphasizes how critical early interactions between children and their caregivers are. Consistent and attentive care forms secure attachments, which are vital for fostering a child’s feeling of security and ability to trust the world around them. 

When they get adopted, the process interrupts the development of these important attachments. And it’s particularly critical if the adoptee has gone through neglect, abuse, or numerous changes in caregivers before their adoption. This can lead to several attachment issues, including reactive attachment disorder (RAD) or disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED). 

Over time, these attachment issues can affect the adoptee’s interpersonal relationships, mental health, and overall quality of life. They may struggle to trust others, fear abandonment, and find it hard to manage their emotions.

Navigating Trauma Treatment Options

While adoption trauma is profoundly concerning, treatment is available. However, treating this condition entails a nuanced understanding of the specific challenges an adoptee faces. Here are some options.

Individual Therapy

Individual therapy sessions with an experienced psychologist offer a safe space for adoptees to explore their feelings and understand their experiences. Ultimately, the goal is to develop tailored coping strategies. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) are examples of therapeutic techniques that are effective in treating trauma symptoms.

Family Therapy

Adoption trauma affects family dynamics. Hence, family therapy is an essential component of the treatment plan. It helps adoptive families understand adoptees’ experiences, improve communication, and strengthen relationships. Family therapy can also address attachment issues.

Group Therapy

Participating in group therapy sessions with other adoptees can provide a sense of community and understanding. It allows individuals to share experiences, learn from others, and develop social skills in a supportive environment.

mental health
Source: Roots Mental Wellness

Trauma-Informed Care

Trauma-informed care is an overarching principle that healthcare experts employ when interacting with people with trauma. Apart from understanding the impact of trauma, professionals integrate their knowledge about trauma into the policies, procedures, and practices they adopt. This approach aims to avoid re-traumatization.

Attachment-Based Therapy

Attachment issues are at the core of adoptees' experiences. To help an adoptee rebuild secure, healthy attachments, professionals advise them to undergo attachment-based therapy. Here, therapists also use various techniques to enhance the attachment relationship between adoptees and their adoptive parents, facilitating emotional healing and fostering a sense of security and belonging.

Specialized Therapeutic Approaches

Other specialized approaches, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for emotion regulation and Therapeutic Parenting for adoptive parents, can also be effective. These approaches address specific aspects of adoption trauma — from managing intense emotions to adjusting parenting strategies to meet the adoptee’s specific emotional needs.

Healing and Support for Those Affected by Adoption Trauma

For people affected by adoption trauma, healing and support form the foundation of a better future. In particular, adoptive parents can help in addressing this issue. They are in the best position to recognize the early signs of adoption trauma and nurture a supporting environment for healing. 

Adoptive parents must strive to educate themselves about this phenomenon. They must also practice open communication and engage with professional support. They must understand how trauma treatment, including therapy, is crucial in helping affected people process their experiences and develop coping strategies.

In the thick of it all, adoptive parents must not neglect self-care. They need resilience to support their adopted child effectively and approach them compassionately.

trauma treatment
Source: Pexels.com

In Conclusion

Adoption sparks hope, but can have its own downsides. Adoption trauma — a phenomenon intertwined with loss, identity, and belonging — poses challenges for adoptees. It has mental health implications, including having a higher risk for anxiety and depression, among others. However, help is available. And some of the most effective treatment options include specialized approaches like trauma-informed care and attachment-based therapy.

Adoptive parents play a crucial role in their adopted child’s healing process. Coupled with professional guidance, an affected individual can eventually recover. At Roots Mental Wellness, we are dedicated to providing the compassionate support and professional services needed to navigate these challenges. Get in touch with us, and together, let’s begin the path toward recovery.

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Contributing Writer