Is Adoption Trauma?

I met a man today and we struck up a casual conversation. He asked about the types of clients I see. I responded that I mostly work with kids who need help with attachment and trauma, as well as adoption.adoption trauma? is adoption trauma adoption voices magazine jane ballback robyn gobbel breast milk baby babies adopt adoptee mother daughter son child kid x-ray brain He responded, “Is adoption trauma?”

To be honest, that’s a difficult question to answer when engaged in a conversation with a stranger. The situation was such that I would continue to encounter this man on a regular basis and I wanted to remain friendly.

But, is adoption trauma?

Trauma: An overwhelming experience that has potential negative impacts on an individual in the moment and in the future. {From: Siegel, Daniel J. (2012-04-02). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) (p. 506). Norton. Kindle Edition.}

Babies can hear noises outside the womb by around 20 weeks gestation. They learn about the flavor of breast milk through the amniotic fluid. Their brains are neurochemically prepped to enter into the world that they were expecting. Newborn infants are completely helpless, 100% dependent on the care of their mother for survival. When their mother is absent- the mother they had heard for 20 weeks, the mother who they were expecting to taste- does that child experience a trauma?

Trauma is subjective. Two people can experience the same event and for one it will be traumatic and for the other it will not. We could both endure the same earthquake and I could be left with symptoms of PTSD while you could integrate that experience without difficulty. So, for me the earthquake was trauma and for you the earthquake wasn’t.

So, is adoption trauma?

For many adopted children and adults, it is. I have worked with children as young as four who are reeling from the traumatic grief of being separated from their mother. I have seen a fourth grader sob uncontrollably, missing the mother she never knew. I have heard 12-year-old children adopted at birth describe a visceral feeling of being given away and second best. And I have worked with, and been friends with, adults adopted a birth who absolutely identify with having experienced a deep trauma at the moment they lost their biological mother. Luckily, my experiences with children grieving for their mothers is that they are brought to my office by attuned and loving adoptive parents who seek out a therapist who deeply understands the wounds in adoption. These children have had their wounds honored; their trauma is not minimized. There are too many children whose Two sweet babieswell-meaning parents are unaware of the trauma of adoption. There are too many therapists who are unaware of the trauma of adoption. And there are too many adopted children and adults whose difficulties are minimized, marginalized, labeled as “the angry adoptee.”

I am not anti-adoption. I hope this is obvious to my readers. My entire career is devoted to understanding adoption and helping those who are touched by adoption (over 60% of the population, by the way). We can support ethical adoptions and still acknowledge that adoption is trauma. Simply because it is not trauma to all doesn’t mean that it is not trauma.

I told the man I met that yes, adoption can be trauma. He then told me that he has two adopted children!  We talked for a bit about their struggles. He was open to new thoughts and ideas, and acknowledged that one of his children seemed to have some difficulties related to adoption, despite the fact that he and his wife were present for his birth. He gladly accepted an invitation to attend Adoption Knowledge Affiliates and I equipped him with a booklist so he could begin exploring the thoughts of adoptees. He was grateful.


About the Author

Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is the founder of The Central Texas Attachment & Trauma Center in Austin, TX. She specializes in working with clients who have been impacted by trauma and loss, including adoption, abuse, and neglect. Robyn loves helping children heal from trauma, calm their explosive behaviors, and quiet their worries, all while supporting and encouraging their parents. Robyn also works with adults whose lives have been impacted by adoption, including adults adopted as children and families who have lost children to adoption. Robyn blogs about parenting, adoption, and adoptive parenting. In addition to her therapy practice, Robyn is the President of the Board of Directors of Adoption Knowledge Affiliates, a nonprofit education and support group in Austin, TX that brings together the entire adoption triad. Read more about Robyn on the Contributors Page.

Comments (10):

  1. This is wonderful. I have adopted older children and have first hand knowladge of their trauma but often times the trauma of infant adoption is overlooked. I have friends that are intrested in adoption but are blind to the responsibilities of an adoptive parent. One of those responsibilities is being aware of your child’s needs and accepting them. I have adoptee friends. Those that have been adopted from birth tell me the same thing, that you shared. Their needs were often overlooked and pushed under a rug. Thank you for sharing and educating others.

  2. Hi Julie! Thanks so much for stopping by and jumping into this conversation. It can be so painful for parents to acknowledge that the thing they wanted most in life- to bring this child into their family- could be a source of pain for the child. I get that! And I hope that by talking about the trauma more, and embracing adoptive parents with support, love, and genuine care that they can walk with their children down that path.

  3. Sorry adoption is trauma. It is and always will be. If the child didn’t suffer that is interesting and I don’t believe it, BUT EVERY REAL MOM SUFFERS EVERY ONE OF THEM. The lies to procure a child for sale wound for an entire life.

  4. Hi Dee! Yes, adoption is a trauma for a woman who loses her baby, without a doubt. I was writing this article from the perspective of the infant. And I do agree that all infants experience the trauma of separation but just like 100 people can experience the same trauma, not all 100 of them will experience trauma related symptoms. The separation of an infant from his or her mother is a trauma! Thanks for commenting!

  5. I’m amazed to even see an article on adoption that focuses primarily on adoptees. It’s something I rarely see. Especially at this particular magazine.

    So hooray for that!

    My older “brother” and I were both adopted. We are both traumatized adults. He’s so consumed by rage that he’s barely functional. I’ve fared better, but my life is impacted by many issues: Debilitating insomnia, trouble maintaining any kind of close relationship (I just don’t care), etc. In my opinion, we all suffer trauma, at least to SOME extent. I don’t think there’s any way around it, to be honest.

    I’m always perplexed by adoptive parents who don’t automatically assume their child has come to them from a place of profound loss. I’m a mom. I know from experience how closely bonded my son and I were by the time he was born. And when I speak of that, no one ever questions that it’s true. But because I was surrendered for adoption, next to no one–and when I say no one, I mean NO ONE, and that includes most therapists–even considers that that was likely true for my mom and me, as well.

    It always seems to be such a surprising concept to consider.

    Why? WHY??? The bond is either profound or it’s not. You don’t get to celebrate it in some and dismiss it in others.

    • Thank you for your comment. Please look under “Adoptee View” and other categories for more adoptee stories.


    • Hi Renee- I’m so sorry you’ve had such trouble finding validation in your trauma of separation. I’ve seen this trauma first hand and worked with both children and adults on their birth trauma, and it really is unacceptable that there aren’t more therapists who understand the deep wounds of adoption.

  6. Great article. You are part of a terrific community with Adoption Knowledge Affiliates with Katheryn Shelley and others and their great conferences. I have spoken there often. Do you work at all with Janie Cravens? I am so pleased to know that your practice is in Austin! Keep up the great work.

  7. Adoption is a trauma for both mother and child separated by adoption…some books of interest might be “The Primal Wound” by Nancy Verrier, “Journey of the Adopted Self” by Betty Jean Lifton, and “Adoption Healing” by Joe Soll. The Australian Government has recently recognized adoption as a trauma and has provided funding for specialized adoption trauma counselling for those separated by adoption. Origins organizations all over the world have been working with adult adoptees for over 20 years with resources and counselling for adoption trauma.

  8. Thanks for addressing this. We have several adopted girls of which all have trauma symptoms. It bugs me when other adoptive moms claim “we adopted at birth so there isn’t any trauma”. It makes my heart hurt for their kids. It simply has to affect a child – how they process it and to what extent and how each is different is a science not yet understood.

    This is a bit off topic here, but I struggle too with the discord between birth/first/whatever the correct term is mothers and adoptive mothers and adult adoptees. I saw this discord with some comments here and in other places on the site. I am the first to admit that my children would have been significantly better off had their tummy mommy’s (which is what we have settled on here for the time being as they are 6,7, and 10) been able to keep them. The reality is – that couldn’t happen for reasons we will never know. I do for them what I can to help them heal from the trauma their abandonment caused. I love them and I support them and with them I grieve their loss. It’s not perfect but it’s the best I can do in an imperfect world.

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