Adoption is trauma. But then so are the alternatives.

Adoption Thoughts
8 min readApr 19, 2023

Apparently there is a well-used hashtag and meme flashing around social media of ‘adoption is trauma’. There is very little context here so I thought I’d try and understand it myself. Why adoption specifically? Why isn’t there a ‘foster care is trauma’, or ‘guardianship is trauma’, or ‘remaining with abusive birth parents is trauma’ trope too? After all your problems don’t magically disappear just because your parenting arrangements are different.

Perhaps it is because for most people their view of adoption is that it is not supposed to be like any of the alternatives. Sure, people in foster care, or guardianship, or in supported ‘family preservation’ with ‘struggling’ (to coin a euphemism) parents are obviously in a traumatic position. They must have experienced trauma before they were in that position, otherwise they would not be there. And they are obviously experiencing it now too, because the likelihood of living permanently with an adult they can attach to (and who can attach to them) and use to help them heal, recover and thrive is very much reduced. They may get pockets of good care, especially if it is well supported by professionals, but it is generally accepted that such an upbringing is patchy at best and often ends up with bad outcomes. There are never enough professionals either. So maybe in those cases the fact that it can be traumatic doesn’t even need to be said because everyone knows that already.

But I do think a lot of people don’t really realise that adopted kids are basically in the same position as kids in care or guardianship. They will have experienced trauma before they are placed for adoption and the main point is to try and reduce the effect of that by providing an adult who can attach to them and they can attach to.

So why would it not work? I guess the first thing is to define what trauma is. Medically it is unmanaged stress. Lots of things cause stress, but usually that is transitory and for kids having a loving adult there to help them through it means that there will be no long term harm. The phrase ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ was made for this. However if the stress is long term or if there is no capable adult there to help then the effect of the stress will remain and eventually the effect will become permanent. This is trauma. In this case, what does not kill you makes you weaker. The effects of trauma are both mental and physical and are usually debilitating.

How does adoption itself cause trauma? This is obviously a little bit difficult for me to answer with any degree of certainty, as I am not adopted myself. But listening to my adopted son, and my grandfather who was adopted, and then comparing with the experiences of my son’s sister (who was in foster care for her teenage years), a friend who is volunteering to become a guardian to a family member, and another family member who — IMO — should have been taken into care at the very least or even adopted, but was left in the birth family home, means I’ve got a lot of immediate accounts of what it is, and what the alternatives are. There are of course plenty of ‘adoptee voices’ clamouring for attention on social media too, however their experiences never seem to match the people I know best, and their accounts of what adoption is often seem old-fashioned or alien to a contemporary UK standpoint.

For some not knowing much about your birth family will cause stress. You might not understand the reasons why your birth parents did what they did. You might be worried about not knowing how susceptible you are to diseases with a genetic factor such as breast cancer. You might be eaten up inside wondering if your birth parents are looking for you, and what might happen if they find you. These are understandable stressors, and there are obvious mitigations. Adopted children nowadays have a wealth of information about their birth families and will almost certainly be in touch with at least some members of them. All kids placed in adoption get a genetic screening too which highlights any potential problems for the future. Everyone in the UK will get this in the next few years but adopted kids have had this for a long time now. After all the state needs to know these things when it is looking after the child and it is unlikely the birth parents will know or tell them. My son’s birth parents hadn’t even bothered to keep a ‘red book’ (public record of vaccinations and child development milestones) and certainly weren’t going to cooperate with social services regarding family history. Adopted kids all qualify for therapeutic support too, to help understand the background to their own lives and how to cope with it. All adopters have to do is apply for it and take them there. Reunion with birth parents, should the child and birth parents want it, and the parents are still alive, is entirely within the child’s control once they reach the age where they can legally consent to do so (16–18 depending on circumstances) and so allows them to choose when and how, hopefully asking for their adopters’ help. Birth parents don’t have that control and that alleviates any anxiety the child might have about reunion too soon.

Maybe just the fact that you are adopted causes stress. It may be a way that kids can use to other you in the playground. You may not look that much like your adopters which at the very least is likely to make you self-conscious in public. It is an aspect of your identity that happened to you rather than you were born with or chose, and for many people that distinction is important — and an irritant. From the adoptive parents point of view these things are less easy to mitigate against than the birth family legacy. It is basically the same problem that any kid who is ‘different’ or had something happen to them has. You need to just reassure and be there for them if they are having a tough time. None of this is their choice, but neither is it intrinsically part of them at birth. You’d expect grief and anger when losing a relative, and that is in effect what has happened — usually in a very personal and nasty way. The ultimate betrayal of trust. It is going to take a long time to get over that and it is easy to blame the result of the birth parents’ actions rather than the actions themselves, because that feels safer emotionally. An adopter needs to help the child comes to terms with it by providing that reassurance that yes something has happened to them, and it is now part of them, but they are still the same person and there are still people who love them. Not easy if you are having trouble attaching to the child yourself I agree, but nonetheless important and it is the main reason why adoption still exists. No other alternative can provide that. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t I guess. If it doesn’t then this isn’t so much a failure of the adopter or the adoption (well, not most of the time) but more an illustration of the depth of initial ‘primal wound’ trauma inflicted by the birth parent. I don’t think I’m just telling myself this for convenience, being an adopter myself I mean; the level of attachment that a child is capable of is correlated with the severity of their pre-adoption experiences. And adoption nowadays generally only deals with the most severe cases. But that doesn’t mean it can’t work, because you can work to mitigate those pre-adoption experiences. We just need more help to do it than perhaps adopters did in the past, hence the Adoption Support Fund.

So why, according to the all-knowing Web, is adoption trauma, but not any of the alternatives? Foster care has no permanent adult, no one to attach to. It is just a roof over your head. If you are lucky(?) you might get some in–person contact with your birth parents every couple of months or so, but there isn’t really much chance of you getting a proper reunion with them afterwards, despite the well-meaning initiatives like Lifelong Links. As an aside I went to a couple of ‘Lifelong Links’ sessions a while back and what struck me is that the only people who turned up — other than us — were professionals in the child’s life. Is that enough? I don’t think so. There isn’t any therapeutic support, but then you may not have had quite such severe things happen to you. Then at 18–21 you are basically out on the streets. Not the carers’ fault, it is just that they are paid to look after children and need that income. Personally I’d find the stress of uncertainty very traumatic, but people respond to these things differently.

Guardianship is better, just. It only lasts to 18 (actually less time than foster care), but usually has a permanent adult. Note that isn’t guaranteed, a guardian can step down and/or be replaced, but social services normally try to appoint capable family members as guardians instead. Generally that means grandparents. So they hopefully have a pre-existing mutual attachment to the child already making it less likely they will step down. Due to age they may have to though. Guardianship is a strange role in a legal sense, the birth parents continue to have the parental rights, but they have none of the responsibility, which is in the purview of the guardian. This kind of situation is almost unworkable unless the guardian is another family member. Trying to bring in a stranger to do it would quickly break the arrangement down I think. There would be constant control battles over how to bring up the child (why would you agree to parenting demands from a child abuser?), and the guardian’s life would be effectively controlled by the birth parent for the duration of the agreement as they in legal terms ‘appoint’ you based on your current life circumstances. No moving for a new job or emigrating for instance! For the child though a guardianship represents a degree of continuity which might help that identity crisis, at least if the guardian is a family member. This has to be balanced against the inevitable stress of continued frequent contact with the birth parent which would also happen if the guardian is a family member. Can that stress be managed effectively by the guardian? Guess how much support they get with that. Guess how much therapeutic help they get for treating the problems caused by the original traumatic events too. And how many guardians actually are ready for it? They get no preparation or training at all, and even if they eventually get that (don’t think any proposals for guardian training are on the horizon), you are still appointing based on family relationship rather than ability.

The ‘family preservation’ alternative is clearly ridiculous in cases where adoption is currently chosen. There is no family left to preserve. The naivety of people who champion this both irritates and amuses me. Too much time in their ivory towers I think. They need to live a bit in the world that they choose to write about.

So there you go. There’s my attempt at trying to show why adoption is trauma. And why all the alternative are trauma too.

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