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Adoption Struggles: Why Isn’t Love Enough?

She was adopted at birth and taken straight home from the hospital.   She didn’t experience any trauma or neglect.  How is it possible that she is such a terror at home?  How can she be diagnosed with an attachment disorder?”

“We thought love would be enough to overcome all the years of hurt and pain he experienced.  He was finally in a home where he wasn’t being abused.  How come he seems to push us away and provokes us to the point of rejecting him?”

“How could that mother do such a thing?  When things got rough, she just gave up?  She put her adopted son on a plane back to Russia all by himself?  That’s terrible!”

Chances are, you’ve had these thoughts or heard others voice these concerns when confronted with news stories or personal accounts related to adoptions gone wrong.  Most of us know people who have been involved in the adoption “triad” (adoptive parent, adopted child, birth parent).  While only 2% of Americans are adopted, several studies have revealed that compared to the general population, adoptees are over-represented in the mental health field, criminal justice system, and substance abuse programs.  Why is that?  What’s going on here?

While this is a question that requires a complex set of answers, I’d like to take time to explain one main reason that is often overlooked.  Most people can understand that an adopted child who experienced severe trauma and/or neglect before adoption will have a difficult journey.  Love may not truly be enough to heal those wounds.  However, what we may struggle to understand is why children adopted at birth have any residual issues and exhibit behaviors that could be quite severe (such as lying, stealing, hoarding, gorging, and aggression).

We all like to think of adoption on the optimistic side of things: a child in need is given a home with a couple that has been longing to have a family.  And while this is certainly true, let’s take a moment to look at things from the adoptee’s point of view. Maybe then we can begin to understand what’s going on.  At the very heart of the matter, adoption is loss.  Adoptees have lost the opportunity to grow up in their biological family, know their birth parents/siblings, and sometimes, to be raised within their own culture and race.

While they are too young to have any explicit memories (visual images they can recall in their mind) of their birth mother, neuroscientists have now discovered that even before we are born, we are storing memories in our brains in what is called implicit memory.  So even if adoptees are never told they are adopted or are told when they are older, at the most primal, innate level, many adoptees know it and experience it as a loss and a feeling of abandonment.  In her book, The Primal Wound, Nancy Verrier, states, “The adoptee was there.  The child actually experienced being left alone by the biological mother and being handed over to strangers.  That he may have been only a few days or a few minutes old makes no difference.  He shared a 40-week experience with a person with whom he probably bonded in utero, a person to whom he is biologically, genetically, historically and, perhaps even more importantly, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually connected.”

As a result of adoptees experiencing such a profound loss, many report lifelong struggles with feelings of rejection and abandonment.  They may often fear that their adoptive parents or others will eventually leave them.  These fears can also lead to feelings of shame.  Adoptees conclude that they are no good and not worthy of being loved.  As you can imagine, living with these thoughts and beliefs make it difficult to attach and bond to anyone.  They may subconsciously engage in behaviors that encourage others to reject them, which then confirms what they believe about themselves that they are no good and unlovable.

Given this background, parenting adopted children can be very challenging.  When parents discipline by threatening to remove rewards or giving consequences (both of which are necessary and important parenting tools), it often backfires with adoptees.  They tend to feel more shame and rejection, which just leads to more misbehavior. However, with the help of adoption professionals and counselors, many have learned how to parent in such a way that the adoptees grow and heal from their wounds, resulting in true attachment and bonding within the families.  I have been privileged to walk alongside many adoptive parents over the years.  The course I teach has been a catalyst for change for both parents and adoptees, bringing them further along on their journeys toward happiness and healing.


Eldridge, Sherri, Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wished Their Adoptive Parents Knew

Forbes, Heather T., Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control: A Love-Based Approach to Helping Attachment-Challenged Children With Severe Behaviors

Siegel, Daniel J. and Tina Payne Bryson, The Whole-Brain Child

Smith, Susan Livingston & Dr. Jeanne Howard, Promoting Successful Adoptions: Practice with Troubled Families

Verrier, Nancy, The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child

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