How Adoption is Unique

As an adopted person, my birthday this week brings thoughts about my entry into this world, thoughts about some ways that adoption is unique.

Before getting my degree and writing Parenting for Peace, my previous body of work explored the psychological and social issues in adoption. Understanding how adoption is unique can help bring healing and wholeness to everyone involved.

“Out of Everydayness”: One Way Adoption is Unique

One of my favorite places is Hawaii, and I’m enchanted by the uniquely Hawaiian concepts of hanai and ‘ohana. These have to do with family connections that expand and expand, without anyone losing one’s own history.

One fascinating piece of research that has informed my understanding of how adoption is unique analyzed the narratives of adopted adolescents to identify common, consistent themes. The common themes in how these adopted youth described themselves were “alien,” “rootless,” “flotsam,” and “in limbo.” Three common salient themes running through all these narratives were:

  • “a) ‘a sense of ‘homelessness,’
  • b) an experience of being different, not belonging, or of having fallen ‘out of everydayness,’ and
  • c) a profound estrangement from generally taken-for-granted realities such as the security of parental relationships. As a result of these themes or issues, participants, particularly those involved in treatment, often felt anxious, ungrounded, and unworthy….”[i]

A Longtime Puzzle About Why Adoption is Unique

Adoptees are consistently overrepresented in clinical, therapeutic, and correctional settings. Although they make up only 2 to 3 percent of the general population, over 7 percent of special education students identified as emotionally disturbed are adopted,[ii] and adopted adolescents comprise anywhere from 5 to 30 percent and higher of caseloads of mental healthcare professionals.[iii]

These statistics are fact, not conjecture. That said, I don’t embrace a hand-wringing, doomsday attitude that pathologizes adoptees and adoption. Far from it: I have found that when we can begin with an unflinching acceptance of the truth of things…and then bring a multi-faceted perspective to exploring the issues of adoption…it can open robust avenues of growth, possibility, healing and wholeness to everyone involved. When we can brave looking deeply at such primal issues as

  • separation at birth
  • having been carried in an ambivalent or outright rejecting womb (perhaps when one’s mother even contemplated abortion)
  • having been conceived without being intended by one’s parents

…we begin to plumb some fruitful territory indeed, for nurturing the richness of our inner life. Research from the field of prenatal psychology offers much to adopted people regarding the impact of these early experiences. Beyond this, researchers could mine prenatal psychology for important insights into what has for decades been a persistent social science riddle: What that we’ve yet to identify contributes so saliently to consistently higher levels of psychosocial vulnerability in adopted people?

How Adoption is Unique…and How it Is Universal

Rather than promoting sweeping assumptions about adoption, I find it far more helpful to “unpack” adoption into its component experiences. What are some defining pieces of the adoptee’s experience, and how might they contribute to those salient themes turning up in adoptees’ narratives?

  • maternal separation at birth, and that which has come to be called “the primal wound”
  • a stressful gestation period
  • a spectrum of qualities of attachment relationships with parents, sometimes complicated by their prior reproductive losses
  • disconnection from our histories and our stories, which ideally serves an individual in his or her taking-off place for the journey of identity-sculpting

It’s important to note that only one out of these four defining features is the exclusive province of the adoptee: the loss of history and story. The other three can happen to “anyone” and it is indeed why I turned my post-doctoral research and writing toward parenting in general, once I saw so clearly that adoptees do not have the corner on these primal issues.

To the extent that adoption is used as shorthand to represent the above constellation of experiences, it is useful — why? The most helpful thing we can do with a struggling child (or struggling adult, for that matter — including ourselves when we’re in “the thick of it”) is to interpret feelings and behaviors in light of the experiences someone has had!

Interpreting behavior with adaptive lensThis is what I call an adaptive lens: when we can expand our perspective and how adoption is unique…and apply an adaptivelens to adoptees’ behaviors and “disorders,” we can see them as brilliant adaptation strategies that have gotten stuck and are no longer adaptive, but disruptive. An adaptive lens interprets a child’s behaviors and expressions in light of what they have experienced.

This is the basis of my coaching work with parents. This is the basis of my book Parenting for Peace, which synthesizes and translates leading-edge research about how the environment (i.e., our experiences) changes — for good or for ill — our children’s development…either nourishing or constraining the expression of their full potential. It is what I will continue to share with you as long as my fingers can flit over these keys!

An Adaptive Lens Label for ADD Can Lead to Healing

For now I’ll leave you with an example of a renegade use of an adaptive lens: participating in a panel presentation on RAD (“Reactive Attachment Disorder”) at an adoption conference years ago, I proposed a new label to use for children who had suffered through maternal separation—which essentially engraves the threat of annihilation in their nervous system—and who years later could not gather their attention and focus on a given task: Natural Organismic Response to Massive Abandonment or Loss—acronym, NORMAL.

Healing is always possible, provided we are willing to see things as they are. We don’t need to be perfect or anywhere close to perfect. Just willing, and with an open heart & mind.

If your child, adopted or not, experienced separation or trauma or some other kind of attachment disruption, the path to healing can be surprisingly simple: acknowledge the hurt, empathize, connect. The tool I’m offering below, on how to use “sleep talking” with your child, is an excellent, out-of-the-box way to do this kind of repair!

[i] Abbott, Scott William. “When There’s No Place Like Home: Heidegger, Hermeneutics, and the Narratives of Adopted Adolescents.” Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences & Engineering 60, no. 9-B (2000): 4871.
[ii] Brodzinsky, David M. “Prevalence of Adoptees among Special Education Populations.” Journal of Learning Disabilities 27, no. 8 (1991): 484-89.
[iii] Shelton, Deborah, and Bonnie Miller Rubin. “More Mental Disorders in Adopted Youth.” Los Angeles Times, May 6 2008, A17. ***
Last image:
peregrine blue under Creative Commons license


About Marcy Axness

I’m the author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers, and also the adoption expert on Mothering’s expert panel. I write and speak on prenatal, child and parent development and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. As a gift to Mothering readers I’m offering a unique 7-step parenting tool, a “Quick-Start Guide to Shifting Your Child’s Perplexing, Stuck Behaviors.”


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