Adoption Trauma

Estimated reading time: 22 minute(s)

Being adopted is categorized as a major life event that often comes with various challenges. Most adoptees find it extremely difficult to adjust to a new family and form a connection with them. Even when these children grow up, they feel out of place and sometimes may never fully integrate into the household. Even as adults, such people may struggle to cope with any transition that may take place in their life. In other words, most adoptees continue carrying the effects of the separation process into adulthood. These effects are secondary to what experts now call adoption trauma.

Adoption trauma or relinquishment trauma is real and can have devastating effects on a person’s life. However, it is possible to heal and overcome its adverse effects for a healthier life.

What is Adoption Trauma?

Psychological trauma includes all kinds of injury occurring secondary to witnessing or living through one or more stressful events. These events can be painful, difficult, violent, and emotionally distressing. Emotional trauma is a subtype of mental trauma and is said to exist in children who have undergone the process of separation from their biological family followed by getting adopted by a new family. These separations, especially the ones from their mother, can prove extremely traumatic for any child regardless of how old they are. Even infants can develop adoption PTSD at such an early age. 

Read Also About Betrayal Trauma

For older children; however, the process is more difficult as they have already established a relationship with their parents. Even if this relationship is not healthy, separating from parents can still be traumatic for children as they wish to be loved by them. Many adoptive children continue to carry this emotional pain of separation throughout their lives, even when they enter adulthood.

Adoption and Trauma: How it Affects Brain Development

Research has shown that toxic stress, such as that coming from adoption, can negatively affect the development of many key structures of the brain. Some of these structures include the following:


The hippocampus is a critical part of the brain involved in memory and learning. Exposure to early stress, such as the one coming from adoption, can reduce its size and its potential to regulate stress hormone levels.

Corpus Callosum

As the most prominent white matter structure in the human brain, the corpus callosum ensures a steady and smooth flow of communication between the two brain hemispheres. It also controls emotions, cognitive functions, and arousal. Exposure to stress can reduce its volume and size while interfering with its function.

Prefrontal Cortex

This primary brain structure is involved in cognitive feedback, emotional regulation, behavioral modulation, impulse control, and decision-making. Children who are neglected or forced to leave their families and undergo adoption may have a smaller prefrontal cortex.


Research does not highlight any structural differences in children with early exposure to stressful events. However, facing a traumatic event can increase its activity level. Since the amygdala is responsible for assessing danger and triggering responses to threats, its overactivity can overstimulate the stress hormones even in the later stages of life.


The cerebellum plays a crucial role in regulating the body’s motor behavior and executive functions. The volume of this part of the brain is likely to be reduced in children with exposure to traumatic events, such as adoption.

In short, research has shown that early trauma can adversely affect brain development, leading to many emotional, social, and behavioral issues.

Signs of Adoption Trauma: How It Affects People

Adoption can make people vulnerable to certain mental health issues and diagnoses. Additionally, it may also induce other problems that may not represent a clinical diagnosis but carry the ability to affect their lives negatively.

Disenfranchised Grief

While things like divorce and death are commonly categorized as grief, many people miss out on the traumatic effects that adoption can trigger. Such type of grief is known as disenfranchised grief, meaning people do not feel comfortable acknowledging it publicly. Experts believe that disenfranchised grief is quite common in people with an adoption history as they constantly feel the pressure to be grateful for what they have and be thankful for getting accepted into a good family. Due to these pressures, many adoptees start downplaying their loss and trivializing the effects of losing a mother or a father. Consequently, they never get a chance to let go of their suppressed feelings and continue feeling their adverse effects without realizing them.


Commonly associated with posttraumatic stress disorder, hypervigilance means feeling constantly on guard for danger. Because adopted children separate from their mothers, their bodies become programmed to secrete high levels of stress hormones, which increases their reactivity. Consequently, they are always on the tip of their toes, ready to identify and manage any potential threats, even when there is nothing to worry about.

Lack of trust

People with a history of adoption often find it difficult to form relationships with others. Their minds think a hundred times before deciding to trust someone as they have already experienced the loss of their loved one once. Hence, they are mindful of forming relationships only with people they believe will stick around.

Difficulty forming a sense of self

It is common for people to struggle to understand who they are and what their role is in the world. However, for adopted individuals, this may be even more difficult to go through. When a person has no idea about their biological parents, it can be hard to understand and find their true identity. As a result, they constantly remain stuck between two worlds and cannot form a connection with either of them.

Suicide attempts

Research suggests that adopted individuals are up to four times more like to commit suicide than others. The reason for this increased vulnerability can be attachment issues, early trauma, or deprivation of institutional care, such as in an orphanage or foster home.

How to Heal Adoption Trauma: Finding Help

If you are an adoptee and suspect to be suffering from adoption trauma, know that help is available. You do not have to face this issue alone without seeking any help or support.

Therapy for Adoption Trauma

Due to ongoing research, the world now offers different types of therapy to adoptees. An expert can ask you various questions to assess the history and offer the most appropriate therapy as needed. While choosing a therapist, consider asking them the following questions:

  • What is your qualification?
  • What is your definition of trauma?
  • Do you think separating a child from their biological parents is trauma?
  • Have you any experience working with people with a history of adoption and foster care?

You should check your local directory to find good recommendations for therapists. Alternatively, consider asking your doctor for an appropriate referral.

Support Groups

Adoption can feel like a very isolating experience that no one can truly understand. Joining a support group can help people find others with similar struggles and experiences to relate to, making their issues easier to cope with.


Can the effects of PTSD in children cause a ripple effect in adults?

If you suspect yourself to be suffering from adoption trauma, remember that the events surrounding your adoption may lead to a ripple effect. Due to this effect, you may struggle with problems related to shame, anger, or anxiety. For example, you may find yourself struggling to adjust whenever you have to face a significant life transition, such as getting a new job, getting married, or graduating. These problems arise because of your negative experiences in the past in terms of adoption. You may also experience attachment issues and find it difficult to form healthy bonds with others. Insecurity is also a consequence of the ripple effect due to adoption trauma that continue to be experienced by adoptees during adulthood and even in old age.

What are the mental health effects of adoption trauma?

Adoptees are more vulnerable to experiencing psychiatric issues. These issues may include the following:

  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder

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