We adopted my daughter at infancy and though I was prepared for trauma and other issues that stem from being an adoptee, I wasn’t fully prepared for how early on in a child’s life they have such big emotions about their adoption.
We have a semi-open adoption and though we have exchanged letters, my daughter has never met her birth mother. I also have been as candid as I could about her story with the information that I do have. I wouldn’t say we are at the point of having abandonment issues per se, but regardless, there is a lot of misinformation about children who are adopted at infancy. There are many that don’t believe that there will be any sort of trauma if a child is adopted early on.
But, that simply isn’t true.
What are abandonment issues?
Abandonment issues can vary based on the individual, but according to Pace Recovery Center, they can include aggression, withdrawal, sadness, self-image problems, daydreaming, difficulty falling asleep, and nightmares. This is all common, even for children adopted from birth.
In an adoption training I attended a few years ago, I learned that babies can hear in the womb as early as 18 weeks into a pregnancy. Because of fluids, etc. the loudest sound they hear is their mother’s. If they’re hearing someone’s voice and then that voice is gone and replaced with another, that must be difficult for a baby. This may lead to a feeling of physical separation and abandonment that many think infants aren’t capable of feeling.
Personally, I’ve seen my daughter experience feelings of emotional abandonment later on and when I talk to other adult adoptees, they feel the same way. They have spent time questioning why they were placed with a new family and in many instances, if they know that they have biological siblings that live with their birth parent, it can be hard for adoptees to fully understand why they were the one to leave their birth family.
I often get told by people that if an adoptee has a stable and loving home, none of this should matter, but it does. Belonging and inclusion is a massive part of development and growth. Many children are adopted into families whose cultures and race are different from their own, and this can cause additional trauma and questions/emotions about abandonment.
For more information about transracial adoption and trauma, read this adult adoptee’s story.
How do you know if your child is having abandonment issues?
If your child starts exhibiting any of the symptoms as listed above (aggression, withdrawal, sadness, self-image problems, daydreaming, difficulty falling asleep, and nightmares). Remember, that a lot of these behaviors may be unconscious to your child. They may not realize that abandonment is what is causing these behaviors, especially depending on their development and age.
This video is an amazing resource from an adoptee, adoption wellbeing researcher, coach and psychotherapist. You’ll be able to learn more about what causes abandonment issues in adoptees and what the signs are.
What other traumas might a child adopted in infancy experience?
The Center for Youth and Family Solutions also acknowledges that there can be trauma very early on in adoption and does occur in infancy as well. They explain that “the far greater trauma often occurs in a way in which the mind and body of the newborn is incapable of processing.” This includes the “original trauma” of their birth, different caretakers at the hospital or even if they go into foster care, and then the separation from the birth mother. The center notes that “such life events interrupt a child’s emotional development, sometimes even physical development.” This trauma can manifest into stress later on in their relationship with their parents and peers.
Regardless of the age when a child is adopted, they can still have trauma and abandonment issues that are coming out in various ways, many of which they may not be emotionally mature enough to communicate.
What can you do?
If you are seeing a change in behavior in your child like those listed above, it might be time to seek professional help. These are times that I declare to be outside of my own area of expertise–but frankly, even if they were in my purview, my daughter often does better speaking candidly with others. I think to some length, when she has emotions related to adoption, she does fear hurting my feelings. I always acknowledge that she has every right to experience grief and loss, but I still sometimes sense hesitancy.
There are multiple people to help you with this and to help your child. You can reach out to an adoption agency to get connected with social workers and counselors. I also highly recommend if at all possible finding an adult adoptee that your child can talk to. Lived experiences are important and learning from others can help add validation to feelings that your child may question having.
Most importantly, be open to having discussions that may be uncomfortable for you and that you may not fully understand. You’re ability to listen is imperative during this time.