Focus: Understanding the adopted child

Nina Hajittofi
Monday, September 2, 2019

Is there an invisible face of suffering when it comes to adoption? Nina Hajittofi explores the evidence for adoptees' hidden trauma and makes a powerful case for greater understanding of their experience and the need for more support from the professionals and family around them.

Society needs to learn that additional nurturing is required for traumatised children
Society needs to learn that additional nurturing is required for traumatised children

On the surface adoption seems to be a good solution. A child whose birth parents are unable or unwilling to bring up the child is given new parents who have been assessed and deemed capable of parenthood. It also provides a child to a childless couple, who otherwise would have a strong unfulfilled desire to be parents.

But are issues and emotional effects being stored up for the individual later? Is there a difference between those who knew they were adopted in their early years and those who discovered their adoption in later life?

Is it right that the needs of the birth and adoptive parents, social workers and lawyers take precedence over the immediate and long-term psychological impact on the child?

With these questions in mind, my research set out to establish how adoption, and its associated professionals, can better support the needs of the adopted child, particularly as it follows its educational journey.

This research was conducted by interviewing six participants, three who knew they were adopted from their early years (A1, A2, A3) and three who found out about their adoption in later life (B4, B5, B6).

Attachments – made and broken

Bowlby claims children come into the world and form only one attachment to the primary caregiver, usually the mother. Adoption takes the child away from the primary caregiver, thus breaking an attachment which he argues could have severe consequences on the child's mental health and behaviour in the future (Crowley, 2017). O'Neil (2009) argues that an unborn baby knows who its biological mother is as they have been growing inside their mother for nine months, recognising their voice and smell. Evidence shows a baby will calm as soon as it is put into their biological mother's arms which shows a new born baby can detect who is and who is not a biological parent, and therefore could be able to detect a broken attachment (Linden et al,. 2000).

Some children are moved into care homes multiple times before being adopted which could lead to further attachments being made and broken.

Policies – picking up on children's needs

There are clear adoption policies and procedures that have to be followed in order to adopt a child in the UK. However, policies within primary school relating to adoption are limited or non-existent. This could be linked to the absence-presence dilemma, which is the absence of something that is in fact present (Frelin & Grannäs, 2013). For example, adoption is present but does not feature in most school policies. This originates from a feminist idea that fundamental issues are avoided and not spoken about when they are clearly existing due to stigma and possible shame attached to them (Frelin & Grannäs, 2013).

Additionally, the framework for practitioners within the Early Years Foundation Stage (Department for Education, 2018) and National Curriculum (DfE, 2014) focuses on what practitioners must do, and on assessments and measuring children's ability. However, it does not focus on the practitioners themselves.

The EYFS framework highlights numerous contradictions. For example that nursery staff should be highly skilled and qualified, while the qualification they need is Level 2 or below (DfE, 2018). Research has shown that a Level 2 practitioner may lack skills and experience, and that raises the question of how they can pick up on the needs of children if they do not have the knowledge to do so (Thomlinson, 2013).

The ‘primal wound’

Verrier (2009) is a psychotherapist and an adoptive mother who defines children being separated from their mother as the ‘primal wound’. Her research has shown children adopted at birth, or as teenagers, display the same issues around separation, rejection, low self-esteem, loss and identity.

Schwartz (2013) argues that a child's first memory is at three-years-old, thereby suggesting a baby cannot remember a broken attachment with the primal mother.

If a child had lost a family member or had a new sibling, the school would have support ready and would expect behaviour to change as emotions can run high. So why is this support not available for children who have lost their primal mother?

Hafetz (2012) supports the ‘primal wound’ and states that even though there is no cognitive awareness of the trauma, infants at birth have the capability to record long-term memories. He argues that without the ability to make long term memories, infants learning and development would not be possible. Chamberlain (1998) supports this and argues that babies are not simple, unaware beings. Loss of the primal mother creates an impactful response which causes a long-term memory that can be triggered later in life by experiences.

Verrier (2009) expresses the most common fear for adoptees is being abandoned, which is the subjective emotion where adoptees feel left behind and undesired by their birth mother. Interestingly, Bowlby (1980) expressed there is a trend to suppose that a healthy normal person should get over a loss of a loved one, not only quickly but also completely.

This statement is certainly questionable, but it highlights that without time to mourn, feelings are denied and sent into the unconscious where they rule lives, sometimes causing self-destructive feelings and behaviour (Verrier, 2009). For example, Hafetz (2012) implies that an adopted child will learn they are loved, wanted and that their adoptive parents will never leave them. However, he indicates that emotional memories can activate fears that are the opposite. For example, an adopted child may know they are whole but feel something is missing or know they are loved but feel they are not. Unfortunately, Verrier (2009) suggests this can be a life-long struggle for adopted children.

Birth and adoptive parents

Verrier (2009) investigates the effect on children's development when birth parents are superseded and queries why there is a difference if the adoptive parents provide a caring and loving atmosphere which supports the child's development.

Winnicott (1992) suggests that at the start of life there is no such thing as a baby; instead there is ‘mother/baby’ which are a spiritual and emotional ‘one’ that comes from instinct, even while separated. This could imply that Winnicott considered this bond to only be established with the biological mother.

According to Verrier (2009) adoptees repeatedly said, ‘there is something missing inside of me’ (p48), which could be hinting at that deep emotional connection with their birth mother. Some researchers refer to a mother as any ‘mother-figure’ who takes on being the primary caregiver, proposing that a child is none the wiser about their mother being replaced (Hafetz, 2012).

This relates to the importance of the EYFS key worker system in nurseries, and problems arising from it disappearing when children move to school. Its continuation could prove beneficial, especially for adoptees who may need support spontaneously.

More needs to be understood about the bonding process of the adopted child

Winnicott (1966) implies that the birth mother is prepared for that bonding through instinct whereas an adoptive mother has to rely on what professionals tell her. This is not to advocate that adoptive parents are not suitable but highlights nature's signals that the biological mother is best for the child.

In some cases, children are abandoned and are in need of loving adoptive parents, but society needs to learn and understand that extra nurturing is needed for traumatised children (Verrier, 2009).

Strategies should come into play. It is important for birth parents to spend time with the baby before they give him or her away to be sure of their decision. Adoptive parents need to be understanding and social workers should highlight the importance of open adoptions and how this can benefit all parties involved.

The adoptive parents need to be supported by social services and told that their adoptive child may test their love. Over time, when the adoptee understands that they will not again be abandoned, the bond has a chance to develop. This could happen early on, later in life or never. The hope is that the adoptive parents do not give up (Dennis, 2014).

Lack of understanding in schools

Is adoption something to be avoided? Or if it cannot be avoided, what can early years settings and schools do differently? The attitude of practitioners and society is that there is no difference between biological and adoptive families (Pertman, 2011). However, Langton & Boy's research (2017), has proven that adoptees' educational achievement can be lower than other children which can cause children to be disruptive as they get agitated. This can be due to their early life traumas and complex needs and they therefore need extra support to focus and maintain interest in education.

If a child had lost a family member or had a new sibling, the school would have support ready and would expect behaviour to change as emotions can run high. So why is this support not available for children who have lost their primal mother?

Within schools, interventions are only requested for the naughty or acting-out child, while the well-behaved child is not seen to have any problems (Verrier, 2009). All children should be monitored and asked how they are feeling, especially if schools are aware of a previous trauma. Verrier (2009) suggested that one reason why the naughty child receives interventions is due to teachers and parents no longer being able to cope with the behaviour. This situation could cause the child to feel further rejection and therefore become more challenging as they carry on testing the teachers and parent's commitment to them (Langton & Boy, 2017).

This highlights lack of awareness of the meanings behind adoptees' behaviour; teachers and parents often produce what the adoptee was first afraid of, the abandonment by being sent out of class or moved homes (Verrier, 2009).

If adoptees' behaviour was seen by teachers as attempts to escape pain, rather than deliberate aggravation, then teachers may be able to better recognise signs of trauma and try to help children integrate in a positive way (Verrier, 2009). This could be through play therapy, art or talking to someone the child trusts. Similarly, Crowley (2017) suggests that teachers should know their students and acknowledge their feelings and background, rather than criticising their behaviour.

But how does a practitioner know when a child is showing unwanted behaviour due to trauma or just behaving badly? Should children not all be treated the same? Additionally, Becker's (1963) labelling theory states how the behaviour of children may be influenced by the terms used to classify them, so this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, I would argue that adoption is not a label, like deviant or foolish, it is a fact and schools should be aware of it. It is a fact that could have an effect on behaviour and educational attainment, which requires support if needed (Langton & Boy, 2017).

Levels of support

I asked the participants if their adoptive parents were honest about their adoption and whether they shared this with the school. The data revealed that there was no official requirement to tell schools about adoption. and that that schools have no policies in place (Frelin & Grannäs, 2013). The participants' answers were mixed; some parents were honest about their children's adoption and some were not‥

I asked participants if they feel it should be important to tell the school if a child is adopted:

‘Yes… I know from my profession that many adopted children can have many medical issues or traumas which could affect performance’ – (A3)

‘Yes, I feel like it should be important for settings to know… in case the child starts experiencing any issues that could be related to their adoption’ – (B5)

The majority of the participants said the school should know if a child is adopted, as a precaution, in case the child needed some extra support, rather than being sent out of class or punished for behaviour that could be linked to ‘asking for help’.

This is supported by Langton & Boy's (2017) research which stated that adoptee's educational achievement can be lower than other children, therefore there is a potential need for support during school to improve their educational achievement. However, if schools do not know children are adopted, they may instead be labelled as educationally challenged when in fact that behaviour is not being understood.

Similarly, Verrier (2009) argues that while a child who is grieving a parent is given extra support and latitude, this is not available to children starting to understand that their birth mother gave them up. This does not seem fair or justified and highlights the need for a school policy that includes the needs of an adopted child.

However, some participants voiced their concern about telling settings a child is adopted; for example:

‘I am not sure it needs to be an official document. I would be afraid a child would be treated differently’ – (A2)

‘However, children are getting labelled in today's society which can portray negative connotations’ – (A3)

Interestingly, these comments about a child being labelled were only mentioned by the early years adoptees, whereas all the adoptees who found out later in life said ‘it is extremely important’ to tell the settings. The ability to grasp the concept of adoption for a school child can be challenging and can have an affect on their behaviour. This chimes with Verrier (2009) who stated that if teachers were aware and saw adoptees behaviour as an escape from pain, rather than provocation to the class, they may be able to recognise signs of trauma. Again, emphasising the need for school polices to understand adoption as a trauma and support accordingly (Crowley, 2017).

The narratives revealed that 100 per cent of the participants agreed that they would advise parents to get support for their adopted children:

‘Yes… should be mandatory for all parties to understand the focus is on the child’ – (A2)

‘Yes, 100 per cent would advise parents to get support’ – (B6)

These quotes clearly show that current adoptees think it important to seek support for adoptees. This supports the EYFS key worker system (DfE, 2018), while flagging up the potentially negative impact of this disappearing as children move into the National Curriculum. This could emphasise the need for school policy to enable children to access a similar support network within school if needed. The majority of the participants received no support or had any contact with professionals throughout their adoption, unless they found it themselves as an adult. One participant said:

‘Early intervention would make all the difference.

All could have been different if my parents were counselled on how they could have supported me. And if counselling was offered to me to help me cope’ – (A2)

This quote clearly states the desire for her parents and society to understand her and to give her the support that she needs. The hardship is that adoptees do not always know they need support or help, they just suffer in silence thinking it is normal.

This is where society is failing the adopted community, as knowledge is so desperately lacking. This is supported by Verrier (2009) who states that society needs to increase its knowledge. This section acknowledges the need for greater support for adopted children in the hope of reducing any long-term emotional effects.

Weighing the long-term emotional effects

The narratives revealed long-term emotional effects as the most common theme; for example:

‘I have strong trust issues with my parents and friends. I struggle to know people will want to stay in my life. I fear people will abandon me’ – (A1)

This quote suggests that this early years adoptee feels they are experiencing effects from their adoption which could disrupt their everyday life and relationships with people close to them.

The three early years adoptees stated they felt abandonment issues and interestingly all the adoptees who found out later in life said they felt they were abandoned and rejected:

‘Attachment, rejection, abandonment and separation issues… I have always suffered with making and keeping relationships with friends and partners’ – (B4)

Similarly, in the interview I asked adoptees who found out later in life if their long-term emotional effects were present before they knew they were adopted, and surprisingly two confirmed some effects were definitely evident:

‘I feel like my anxieties were there as I started to pick up on certain things … I was tall and my parents were short’ – (B5)

‘As young as five I knew something was missing. I felt unsure of my place within the family… I was suspicious’ – (B4)

This could suggest that despite not knowing they were adopted, deep down they sub-consciously sensed the loss of an attachment with their birth mother, which could support Bowlby's attachment theory (1980). Similarly, this supports O'Neil's (2009) argument that babies know who their biological mother is, which could explain why some adoptees found it difficult to bond with their adoptive family.

However, Participant B6 did not think her emotional effects were present before she found out, although she believes that finding out she was adopted caused her emotional effects which have stuck with her for more than 30 years and states her family relationship ‘was never based on truth’.

Another early years' participant said:

‘I feel adoption has had such a big effect on me that most people do not even consider… they just think it is the best thing for the child’ – (A1)

Many of the comments suggested that adoptees felt they were expected by society to feel grateful for their adoption. However, this is where some adoptees may argue:

‘People can lose sight that we are people with real emotions… we are not a product to be handed over or repress’ – (A2)

Interestingly, for some adoptees these feelings changed when they had their own children which could indicate forgiveness of the broken bond with their birth mother as they now have their own parental bond;

‘I was now directly related to someone’ – (A2)

Or it caused the opposite emotion and heightened the feeling of rejection as the new mother could not understand why or how their birth mother could have given them up when they feel such a deep and powerful love for their child (Verrier, 2009). One quote stated:

‘Finally made me realise what real love is’ – (B5)

Evidently the adoption process, and adoption in general, is an emotively heightened process in which the emotional development and wellbeing of both adoptees and adopters are neglected. Therefore, more time needs to be given to gaining the appropriate knowledge to help all involved.

Adoptive parents – creating a connection

The final theme in the narratives was around adopted parents and the relationships between early years adoptees and those who found out about their adoption later in life. I asked these participants what their relationship was like with their adoptive parents as they were growing up. One answer was:

‘I really struggled to connect and bond with my mum… always argued. There was no connection. My parents would tell me I never used to tell them anything… I would challenge them with bad behaviour’ – (A1)

This quote indicates a challenging relationship but perhaps a relationship that both parents and child wanted to establish. She says, ‘we clashed’ and ‘struggled to connect, and bond’ implying that she wanted to have that bond but was unsure why it was not happening. This is highlighted by Verrier (2009) whose research implies that an adoptee will attach to the adopted parents, but the quality of the attachment may be different. Similarly, behaviour difficulties and clashing are common among the young adoptees:

The emotional development of adoptees and adopters is different in every case

‘I battled with my adoptive mum’ - (A2)

‘I never felt a connection. I never wanted to give them any affection or allow them into my personal space’ – (A3)

These quotes demonstrate that bonding is difficult to establish and that may be due to the adoptees waiting and testing to see if this new attachment is going to last, waiting to see if these parents will also abandon them like their birth parents. This is emphasised by Dennis (2014) who goes on to say this can happen early on or later in life, but that hopefully the adoptive parents will understand this. This is where a policy would support adoptive parents to ensure they get the help and guidance they need. Understanding research into adoptee behaviour would equip them better and help them in their relationship with their adoptive child and how to support them.

The relationships differed with the adoptees who found out later on in life as most EY adoptees would state their parents ‘gave them everything they needed’ (A1) and it was the adoptee who had to take their time to allow the bond to form. For example:

‘It was not a loving one. We were not close. I did not know why’ - (B5)

‘I had a good relationship with my dad but not my mother. They did not show affection to me. I felt very alone’ – (B6)

These quotes show that these adoptees are confused about why their relationship was not close, even before they knew they were adopted. After they knew, adoptees seemed too afraid to ask their adoptive parents about their adoption or they found out after they had passed away. But this could imply that their bond was not established. This could support O'Neil (2009) who argues that an unborn baby knows who its biological mother is and therefore, even though these adoptees were not told, they sensed they were adopted deep within them. Similarly, it could have been a wrong match made by the adoption agency. These adopted parents may have met the assessment checks, to provide safety and security for a child but what about loving and caring for them? This could be where the adoption service is failing. However this could be difficult to try and measure if adopted parents are able to offer a loving and caring relationship with a child.

In contrast to this there is a substantial amount of support and guidance for children involved in distressing experiences such as loss of a family member, abuse and/or neglect. I feel it needs to be understood that the adopted child may sometimes undergo a similar amount of trauma, despite it not being so obvious on the surface.

The narratives revealed that adoptees who were told later in life feel their long-term emotional effects could have been different if they had known they were adopted earlier. This supports the idea of having a policy that supports adoption services and adopted parents to be honest about the process with their children as it at least builds a relationship on trust.

Despite not being able to have a larger sample size, the data that was collected has provided insight and suggests there is a link between adoption and long-term effects. It also indicated that even if a child is not told they are adopted, somehow they still experience similar, or the same emotional effects, as children who were told in the early years. This could suggest that children's unconscious mind remembers the abandonment of the primal mother even when they have no conscious memory (Verrier, 2009).

Some adopted children may feel unsure of their place in the family

Further work focused on encouraging new adoptive families and professionals to be open about their children's adoption and allowing them to receive the support they may need would also be beneficial. Sharing this information enables the child to accept the truth of what's happened and could allow them to choose to create a new bond with their adoptive family rather than trying to build a relationship that for both sides does not seem to be working effectively, perhaps due to guilt from the adoptive parents or an unconscious feeling from the adoptee.

Similarly, the research highlighted that adoptees feel strongly about needing more support than they were given in order to help reduce the emotional effects of adoption. It cannot be emphasised enough that professionals spanning adoption agencies, school teachers and birth and adoptive parents all need a greater understanding of what the adoptee may be experiencing and need to be willing to give the support that is greatly needed.

From evaluating current UK legislation and policies like the National Curriculum (DfE, 2014) and the EYFS (DfE, 2018), it is evident that there is little guidance relating to the adopted child to support professionals and adoptive parents.

It is interesting that there is however a large amount of support and guidance for children involved in other traumas like loss of a family member, abuse and/or malnourishment. It needs to be understood that the adopted child undergoes a similar amount of trauma, despite it not being so obvious on the surface.

There needs to be more interest in helping adopted children feel understood and valued and to allow more focus on their emotional, social and mental development. Current legislation such as the Equality Act (2010) and the Children's Act (2004) state that children should be treated and respected as an individual and that the welfare of the child is paramount to every professional's responsibility.

Adopted children are owed this support so that they can be understood and can move forward without suffering silently from these evident long-term emotional effects.

Key points

  • There needs to be recognition that the adopted child's voice must to be heard
  • Professionals need to develop a greater understanding of how adoption can affect children and be trained to effectively support them
  • This research raises interesting questions about whether children remember their primal mother
  • More research is needed to establish if adoption policies should support children being told about their adoption early in life

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