More Harm Than Good: Focusing Solely on the Positive Adoption Narrative




    When people think about adoption, the first thought that often comes to mind is the joy of adoption, not loss or trauma.


    Adoption loss is the separation of a child from his or her natural family as well as separation from their culture, familiarity, race, language, and identity. Click To Tweet


    Adoption is known as a happy experience for each person involved, a true blessing and miracle. The act of adoption is also considered heroic, a beautiful and selfless act of love. Overall, adoption is commonly thought of as positive.


    What adoption is not known for is the loss an adoptee and birth mother endure or the years of suffering when a mother and her child are separated. Adoption is not known for the sadness of being placed for adoption, feeling unwanted by one’s birth mother, or the years of struggle with love, relationships, identity, attachment, depression, PTSD, or anxiety.


    With that said, I hope you can begin to see the problem when we focus too much on the positive narrative of adoption rather than the reality of adoption. The positive adoption narrative often overshadows the adverse effects of adoption on adoptees and the quality of mental health care adoptees receive as they grow up and process what it means to be given up (or placed) for adoption. As adoptees age and experience milestones in their lives, their opinions often changes regarding what it’s like to be adopted. One can grow up feeling like adoption is a blessing, however, later on down the road, their feelings change and they deem adoption a nightmare.


    Bringing the realities of adoption to light is not intended to negate the positive aspects of adoption. Instead, raising awareness of the realities of adoption is about focusing on the mental health of adoptees and providing adoptees with the tools and support to cope with loss and trauma.


    Growing up in a home with adoptive parents that constantly tell their child they are a blessing, chosen, or saved creates an environment for an adoptee to feel pressured to be happy and grateful, making it difficult for adoptees to understand their feelings of sadness, anger, or fear of being un-chosen.

    What those affected by adoption should know is that while many are celebrating adoption, there are many quietly mourning a loss of family, identity, trust, culture, and security. Click To Tweet

    In relation to misunderstanding loss or trauma, I often hear adoptive parents say, “I adopted my child at birth, I am all my child knows.”


    Not true.


    Babies learn and bond in utero. They know their mother’s voice, are familiarized with her native language, and they form memories from that early on in life.


    How ignorant can we be to think that disrupting nature or what God has created will not harm or negatively affect a child separated from his or her natural mother?


    The cliché phrase, love heals all things, is perhaps one of the worst ideologies commonly used in adoption. Love does cure a multitude of things, but love is not the definitive cure for adoption loss and trauma.


    Some adoptees love their adoptive parents as if they gave birth to them. These adoptees express how wonderful their adoptive parents have always been and that they were always treated as if they were naturally born to their adoptive parents. However, deep inside, these adoptees express feelings of loss, anger, and sadness that are not discussed out of fear of hurting their adoptive parents, the people who have treated them as their own. There is an unspoken obligation that adoptees have to their adoptive parents, fearing to share anything less than positive about their feelings on being adopted after everything their parents have done for them.


    It is confusing for adoptees attempting to process how something that is supposed to be so beautiful hurts so much inside. This confusion causes chaos in an adoptee’s everyday life. The chaos and confusion pour into relationships, marriage, jobs, school, kids, and other avenues of life.


    Interestingly, when adoptees come together and share their experiences, they discover commonalities such as failed marriages and relationships, the struggle to make and keep friends, constantly moving from place-to-place, never feeling at home, having multiple sex partners, addiction, homelessness, incarceration, hoarding, and problems sleeping. The list is extensive. All of these travesties happen because adoptees are rarely equipped with the tools to understand their emotions and manage their feelings, as if adoptees need permission to feel what they feel without fear of hurting anyone.


    I have worked with many adoptees that have felt chains being broken in their lives once they were able to feel and express their loss and anger. I have seen adoptees set free, knowing what they have experienced is, indeed, trauma, and that trauma felt is not their fault; their feelings are normal because of what happened to them, and this is where our focus should be regarding adoption.


    Positive adoption language used by adoption agencies and professionals sounds good to the ear for expectant mothers and prospective adoptive parents; however, the reality is that this language often causes more harm than good for adoptees.


    In my experience, adult adoptees prefer the cold, hard truth about their story, not the positive fluff adoption agencies encourage adoptive parents to use. That hard truth requires help for adoptees to process and understand, and identifying those truths should not be a one-time conversation. These are conversations to be had, over and over again, because the difficult truths are part of an adoptee’s story. Talking about the positive aspects of adoption and the respective difficulties can often remove the shame that can build up and cause years of harm. This is why mental health counseling is vital for adoptees. Never think that because an adoptee seems well-adjusted and happy that everything is fine and therapy is not needed.


    The majority of adoptees I have worked with were adoptees whose parents had zero knowledge that their child was quietly suffering. They were raised in a home with loving parents that always used positive adoption language, focused on the positive, and never talked about loss or trauma. These adoptive parents were never prepared by their agency to handle these types of discussions or provided with a book list to learn about adoption trauma. Many adoption agencies purposely do not discuss adoption trauma out of fear that prospective adoptive parents will back out of adoption, further losing thousands of dollars on the transaction. We must never forget that adoption is a business, and for these agencies to stay in business, their focus will be to share the beauty of adoption and not the truth about adoption. The truth is that an adoptee may struggle to attach, have behavioral concerns, and suffer from mental health issues. We need to address these concerns and possibilities, pre-adoption, and equip prospective parents with the tools and resources to help them parent.


    It is unfortunate how many adoptive parents I have worked with that have expressed they were never prepared to deal with loss, attachment issues, and trauma by their adoption agency.


    Creating an environment where questions are asked and answers are honored is critical. No matter what is said, showing the adopted child or adult unconditional love is essential. Openness should always be encouraged. A cry for help is easily recognized when adoptive parents are educated about adoption trauma.


    Healing is possible. Healing may take years of therapy and community, but we must never forget that scars are often permanent. When adoptees are able to share the story behind their scars, they can be set free and their scars begin to fade, little by little, though they don’t disappear.


    Healing starts with the foundation of truth, no matter how an adoptee came to be adopted.

    Adoptees prefer truth, and not positive fluff, to tell their stories. Click To Tweet Adoptees want to know if their mother struggled with addiction, if they were conceived through rape, or abused by their natural family, which led them to be placed for adoption. When adoptees are able to own their truth and be supported by their adoptive family, feelings of shame and embarrassment can be released and countered with thoughts of self-worth and love, helping adoptees live successful, healthy lives.


    Adoptees: what has your experience been like sharing your feelings about being adopted with your adoptive family? Were you encouraged to share your feelings? Or did you feel you grew up in an environment where it was difficult to share? 

    Adoptive parents: what are you doing as a family to encourage your child to express their feelings about being adopted? 


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    Jessenia Parmer
    Jessenia Parmer
    I'm Jessenia. I am an adult adoptee with 10 years of experience advocating and fostering relationships with adoptees, and over five years of experience teaching adoptive parents how to have a successful and genuine relationship with their adopted child.


    1. Mariam Mahler says:

      My husband and I are just beginning our journey to adopt and I can’t thank you enough for the wonderful resource your blog is for us. I don’t know what it’s going to look like for us when we bring our adopted child home, but I do know that we don’t feel like heroes for choosing adoption. We feel grateful, thankful and really scared. It helps so much to hear your perspective as a person who was adopted and some of the tools that we can access moving forward. I’ll be honest and say that this is a humbling read, but again, I can’t thank you enough.

      • Thank you for being here, Mariam. The best thing u can do as an adoptive parent is learn about adoption from the adopted adult perspective because we have lived it. I highly recommend you continue to read adoptee blogs and books on adoption trauma, build relationships with adult adoptees, and find an ADOPTEE competent therapist in your area for you and your future child. Best wishes to you and your family. You will be great a parent!

    2. LeeAnn says:

      I adopted a 14-yr old boy 3 years ago. He was in care because his mom was convinced he was better off with the State than with her. She “bowed out” and continued the lifestyle that eventually took her life. In her mind, she was making the best choice for him. In his mind, she didn’t even make an effort to get him back–the ultimate rejection and abandonment. My strategies to help him cope with that loss have been:

      1. NEVER denigrate his mom. I never met her and don’t know anything about her except what I hear third- or fourth-hand. I always give her the benefit of the doubt when it comes to intentions, motivations, and love for her child. It takes a lot of discipline to not feel jealous or judgmental and actively listen even when he says things that stab me in the heart, but it’s worth it for the incredible openness it creates.

      2. Ask him questions, prompt him to talk about his feelings, and periodically bring up the topic of his mom. Milestones, Mother’s Day, birthdays, and even everyday memories like having spaghetti (apparently hers was amazing) are all opportunities for him to process thoughts and feelings related to loss–mostly lost opportunities.

      3. Model talking about emotions. When I lose my temper (inevitable with a teenager!), we take time to cool off, then come back together to rehash the whole series of events that led to the anger. “When you did X, I worried that X, so I said X. You thought that meant X, so you felt X, and you reacted by doing X.” It’s like a scientific dissection of an argument. We really probe and clarify, like distinguishing the degree of intensity that specific words connote so we have fewer misunderstandings in the future. Getting that granular helps him figure out (and express) how he’s really feeling when he thinks of his mom–is it more of a wistful wish-she-were-here kind of moment, or is it a deeper I-miss-her-and-our-life, or a soul aching she’s-gone-forever mourning? They all happen at various times, and having the words helps him ask for the level of support he wants.

      This past Mother’s Day, he told me he wanted some alone time in his room to spend time with his mom (he has her ashes). I considered that a huge success. He recognized his own emotional needs, he set aside time to feel and process, and he felt comfortable enough with me to ask for space. ADOPTIVE PARENTING WIN!

    3. Hello, Jessenia.

      Just a bravo to your attempts to ge the word out about the myth of adoption as a blessing/panacea for the relinquished infant or abandoned child. Yes there are some adopters that are kind and caring, but that isn’t the norm and can set up real problems for the adult adoptee who sooner or later begins to search for his or her truths.

      Adoptees are traumatized from the minute they are separated from their mothers, the one human who shares ca 50% of cMs (genes) with them along with the other 50% from his/her father. It is that combination, along with the haplogroups from paternal and maternal ancestors which are the drivers of that baby’s beginnings and the rest of its life. The older abandoned child suffers even more because they are sensate with memory beyond the womb -the older they are the more they know about being unwanted and separated. this day I remember my little sister taken from my arms by some agent and seeing my brother taken in the car our parents. I have memories of before I could walk, memories which are to this day poo-pooed but which helped me retrieve at least some knowledge of my own family, and which explain why certain voices and certain languages give me pain yet longing ..because they are what I lost with the separation.

      I especially like that you have included information on the in utero life of the fetus .. who learns everything about his/her mother and a great del bout the external world and its contents-from pets, outdoor activities and so much more… all of these become not only memories, but pre-quels to what comes after birth.

      Adoption ius an unnatural and cruel system and should be eradicated. It is only in the western countries that adoption is an accepted construct. In other countries and societies it is prohibited because no child has but one set of parents and no child should have her or his identity stripped from him/her , nor should a child loose his/her heritage or inheritance. Most importantly the child’s name should be kept intact so that genetic ties are not broken or twisted into what they are not.

      I was born in early spring of 1945, scant weeks before FDR’s death. By the time spring of 1948 arrived, I was separated from my two siblings and abandoned along with my younger sister in a dog pound in a plains state far from where I was born. I was five and a half years of age when I was adopted to be abused physically, sexually emotionally and psychologically by my adopters- all of which I had suffered before by my parents. I have yet to find my sister and was to late to reunite with my brother who died in 2011, just a year after I found one paternal uncle.

      The information I have share is just the tip of the iceberg … If it opens just one person’s eyes about adoptees and the abominable system adoption, fostering, institutionalizing, etc. then it has done some good.

      To any adopter I say with all the force I can muster: that child in your care is NOT your son or daughter, nor are your natural born children their siblings. We are not born to the wrong parents, nor are we substitues for the children you could not or did not have.

      To all others: We maa be adoptees, but we are subject to the same laws of non-adoptees, including access to our own birth certificates, and documents pertaining to OUR families and our background, including adoption files and DSS and medical files. pertaining to us..

      To say I abhor adoption is more than British understatement. I have fought the system since I was 5 1/2 and work with adoptees in search of themselves and their genetic kin., and am an adoptee rights activist.

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