The part of adoption nobody told me about…

Posted in Adoption Option by

I will admit, when we first headed down the adoption path, I was naive and in emotional pain from a long and grief riddled infertility journey and I just wanted a baby. I just wanted a child, I just wanted to be a mother and forget the pain and the grief of the previous 7 years.

But as I have matured into my role as a mother via adoption, there are less and less stars in my eyes and I have grown and matured in this roll, I see things a little differently. Perhaps I see things more realistically and there is one part of this journey I was totally unprepared for. One part of this journey I feel that is not discussed by anyone. Not the social workers who screen adoptive parents and birth parents and not other adoptive parents either. And I understand why, nobody wants to dwell on the negative but the fact remains it is there and I wish I had been better prepared for it.

What am I talking about?

I’m talking about the trauma caused by the severing of the emotional bonds between a birth mother and her child. I’m talking about the long term effects that trauma will have on the child. I’ve seen it now, first hand, in both my children. And I’ve seen it in varying degrees in all of my friends adopted children too.

It is very much a real thing and shouldn’t be avoided or ignored.

Yesterday we met with the educational psychologist who did Ava’s assessments last week. She was the ideal candidate for us having done her theses on the long term effects of trauma and attachment post placement. When we’d had our initial interview with her, she had immediately flagged Ava’s birth as a potential problem. Ava was born silently. She did not cry, or squall the way most new born’s do, she came into the world dead silent and staring. She did not cry for more than 24 hours post birth, she remained purple for nearly an entire day post birth due to the lack of crying. On the second or third day, our social worker called us to say we had to wash her hair or do something that would make her cry for her lung development. She was silent. What we didn’t realize at the time, is that she was probably deathly afraid. I’ve realized you cannot downplay the effects of the severing of that bond between her and her birth mother.

Walter and I decided to go ahead with her assessment after reading this article a few weeks ago: Study Finds Adopted Children Do Worse In School, Despite Having “Better” Parents. 

We told Tina, the educational psychologist about it and she conferred, agreeing with the general sentiment and saying if there is no attachment, there can be no learning. She also explained to us that every adopted child will manifest varying signs and symptoms of rejection/abandonment spectrum. And Ava is no exception. Even though being abandoned was not the case with either of my children, and most of the adopted kids I know, that perception remains with me for most of their lives.

What came out broke my heart yesterday, while Ava does not have attachment issues and she is fully bonded to Walter and I, she is fearful of rejection and being abandoned and will over compensate for this, constantly looking for approval and acceptance fro the people around her, sometimes not in the most appropriate ways. She will tell tall, imaginative tales to make herself seem likable and interesting, she will over attach to easily to people, for example, 5 minutes after meeting Tina, she asked if she could sit on her lap. She lavishes affection and love on the people around her, sometimes even waking either Walter or I up in the middle of the night, just to tell us she loves us. She tells me about 100 times a day she loves me, at the most random times. While she comes across as a confident child she is not, she is lacking in self esteem and fearful of being rejected of abandoned by the people in her life.

And interestingly, we went through something similar after Hannah was placed. We spent a few months in OT with Hannah post placement as her signs of fear and trauma were much more exaggerated, clearly she was operating higher up on the spectrum Tina poke of.

And this is normal for adopted children. I know adopted children who cry in animated movies over a baby bird being left by it’s parents, needing constant reassurance thereafter that mom or dad will not leave them, I know adopted children who have all kinds of sensory issues, after my discussions with Tina, I realized that I didn’t know an adopted child who was not emotionally affected or physically manifesting the trauma of placement in varying degrees, some as extreme as selective mutism.

Am I saying don’t adopt? Hell no. As long as we live, there will be children who need loving families and birth parents who need assistance.

But what I am saying is be aware. I wish I had been.

October 28, 2015
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53 Comments

  • Reply Janine Preesaman

    Dear Sharon, thank you so much for this article. I have n adopted daughter who is no 6 years old and is a happy and well adapted child very much attached to me. Yet I am fully expecting that at some point we are going to have to deal with the rejection issue as she was an abandoned baby. I am also a single parent.

    October 28, 2015 at 10:17 am
  • Reply nunu5

    Very interesting , I hope there is a solution. My dad was adopted and had a major heart attack at age 50 and I knew a friends father who was adopted that had a severe heart condition young. I have always wondered if adopted children have long term health implications.

    October 28, 2015 at 10:18 am
  • Reply Jessie

    it’s heart breaking when all we want to do is take away all their pain. I know with Aiden my dad would often say when he was a baby that I need to be careful and watch Aiden has he will have abandonment issues, I always thought he was crazy because how could a baby know, Aiden doesn’t know of Darell but somehow they do. I have noticed it now more then ever, Aiden says things like “mommy you going to leave and never come back” or he sometimes has complete panic attacks when Bradley goes any where with out him. He cannot be without one of us, even at parties we always have to stay in his view and if we not he will find us and not leave us the rest of the party. I don’t know if you can compare adoption and abandonment, I don’t know enough about it but Aiden being abandoned has seemingly left him with the same issues. We also seeing a psychologist with Aiden to try help him work through it.

    October 28, 2015 at 10:20 am
  • Reply Maryna

    Sharon, I don’t want to downplay the issue here, but maybe it will be reassuring if I mention that both my kids are also forever terrified that I might leave them, especially so when they were toddlers. Up till about 4, my girl would be panicky (she would even become ill) whenever we started packing holiday suitcases. She would try and climb into a suitcase and beg us to take her with – as if we would ever as much as consider not taking her! Also, on his first day at a new nursery school (after going to daycare all his life), my little nephew (he was 4) spent all day crying. When my sis-in-law asked him about it later in the afternoon, he said he thought she was not coming back for him.

    I’m saying that a lot of kids have issues on this spectrum, although it would make sense for adopted children to struggle even more. I think no parents could ever reassure their children too much that they are loved and wanted.

    All the best to you for finding the wisdom on how to deal with this difficult issue.

    October 28, 2015 at 10:21 am
  • Reply Amelia Meyer

    My daughter’s biological mom died very suddenly. My daughter doesn’t know the details, but I recognise a lot of these behaviours in her – really friendly and affectionate to just about anyone, telling me she loves me a million times a day, demanding of herself, wanting to please and impress us, as her parents. Thanks for this, I understand things a little better now. xxx

    October 28, 2015 at 10:21 am
  • Reply catjuggles

    Thinking of you all Sharon. And know that you are the best mom for them. You will deal with this as we moms do however we can. I can go into how we deal with ADHD but the principle is the same – treat as best you can. Lots of love

    October 28, 2015 at 10:27 am
  • Reply Tina Pieterse

    Its so scary how much the bond between a mom and child means in terms of the child’s development. I see so many children with attachment issues on a daily basis and my heart aches for them. Your girls are so lucky to have you and Walter. They should indeed educate parents who want to adopt.

    October 28, 2015 at 10:42 am
  • Reply Fertile Minds

    Its heartbreaking as a adoptive mom to experience this and as you know we have. J still battles to say goodbye to Daddy every morning when he goes to work. He needs ten high fives, a hug, a kiss, a sharp…..and then even that is not enough and there are tears. I am glad that we are now armed with information on how to build his self esteem and reassure him that we will not leave him.

    Lotsa love my friend! xxx

    October 28, 2015 at 10:43 am
  • Reply Straight hair Mama

    As a Mom of 2 children that we adopted, I now know this to be true. What I’m loving as they get older is I can talk about it with my 10 year old. She has always been very fearful of my leaving at night. But I can chat it through with her, we talk about how she feels that she was “abandoned” or “not good enough” for her biological parents and how I might do the same. As difficult as these conversations as for us as parents (I find they bring up our own insecurities) they are so helpful to have.

    October 28, 2015 at 11:15 am
  • Reply karabo

    interesting read Sharon. what you mentioned about your daughter asking to sit on someones lap is whats happening currently with our daughter. she did attachment therapy with me, and it help a bit. once she is older ( now 3 years), we will do it again. my daughter never wants to be away from us, she gets teary sometime at drop off! it breaks my heart to know that our kids experience that.

    With love and caring, nothing is impossible. All the best to you and Walter! You are a loving family

    October 28, 2015 at 11:43 am
  • Reply denise

    Jaden manifests his fear of rejection/abandonment as anger and aggression… I’ll get you before you get me.

    It’s heartbreaking to watch, and experience. He has created a wall around himself – anyone that gets too close gets bullied out. He has no close friends or attachments, as his mother he makes it hard for even me to accept his behaviour sometimes. But I tell him that there is nothing he can do to me or anyone else that will make me leave, and boy, does he test that statement!

    I often wonder how or if he will ever get over the damage done in the first 15 months of his life? Parenting adopted children comes with its own special set of challenges, but, we wouldn’t have been chosen if we weren’t meant to guide them.

    October 28, 2015 at 1:04 pm
  • Reply Heather

    Powerful post, Sharon.

    October 28, 2015 at 2:43 pm
  • Reply moonstormer

    I grew up with family friends where the kids were adopted and experienced all sorts of issues. While the abandonment issues were talked about at the time, the treatments and vocabulary weren’t as advanced as they are now. Such a sad predicament, and I suppose one that can’t be avoided although it can be worked through, I hope. *biggest hugs*

    October 28, 2015 at 3:04 pm
  • Reply Sue

    Sharon , you and Walter are such awesome parents to your 2 beautiful girls. I am glad that you are open to counseling for your girls’ benefit and healing

    October 28, 2015 at 9:57 pm
  • Reply Pandora

    We recently went down a similar road as you, but for a different reason. My daughter was assessed by a play therapist, and we got some very interesting feedback and advice. A lot of her behavior and even some things she says can be attributed to the fact that she is adopted. Although I was aware that adoptees may have abandonment issues, I did not think they appeared till kids were older.

    Nowadays we tell our kids they are adopted from the beginning, and I totally agree with this, but at the same time, we really are asking them to deal with a lot. Most adults don’t even understand it. And although they nod and smile when we tell them these things, I think there is a lot going on behind that smile. The questions change, and sometimes come out of the blue, so we know they are thinking about it. They also have to deal with other people’s questions, or hurtful comments their classmates may make. It’s tough being different at this age. So while on the surface they are happy and confident etc, there is that underlying thing that they don’t quite understand yet. I still totally believe that telling kids they are adopted from an early age is right; I think the trauma of them finding out later, especially by accident, could have far more serious consequences. In any case, for many of us keeping it a secret is not an option.

    I know you say you would have liked to be prepared, but having had some time to think about this, I don’t think it would have helped much if I had been more aware. We all have issues; it’s a part of life. We can learn to live with them, or we may need help to get to that point. We may never even know what incident in our early lives caused the issues. The thing is, if I believe that adopted children suffer this trauma of separation / abandonment, then I have to believe that this becomes a part of them. You can’t prevent it. Not all the love in the world can prevent it, sadly. So even if I had been more prepared, I don’t think it would have made a difference. Rather, I myself may have overcompensated, and may even have done more damage unintentionally.
    Lots of kids have issues, some really heartbreaking ones, for a multitude of reason. Maybe as adoptive parents we actually have a slight edge because we can put a name and reason to this.

    For myself and my daughter, I found play therapy very helpful. It allows them to express things they may not understand, and it gives you a lot of insight. They can also teach you how to deal with things. Sometimes we feel we are doing and saying the right thing, but they put a totally different spin on it. For instance, my daughter is very attached to stuff, toys, clothes etc. You could easily see this as being selfish. You can ask her why she is being so selfish, but she can’t answer that question. She does not know why, and so she starts to believe she is selfish. However, if you give her time to come to terms with it, she is then willing to give away things she no longer needs. She even makes piles, deciding who gets what. But I have to let her do it in her own time. She is not selfish; she just does not like to be separated from familiar things.

    Lastly, thank you for sharing this. We are so lucky in this day and age that there is the opportunity to share and connect with others in similar situations, so that we don’t feel so isolated, and think we are the only ones going through tough times.

    October 29, 2015 at 9:42 am
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