The Three Faces of Adoptees

Seminar for 2013 AAC – Cleveland
By Nancy Verrier, MFT

Children who are separated from their mothers early in life have different issues to deal with than those who are kept and cared for by their mothers. The relationship with the mother is the cornerstone for all future relationships. We are mammals and are meant to be close to our mothers in our early years. (Just watch Animal Planet and see how mothers and babies interact.)

All mammals know their own mothers through all their senses. Therefore when a baby is immediately taken from the bio mom and handed over to another mom, the baby is confused and disoriented. “Where is mom?” The new mom doesn’t pass the “sensory test.” She doesn’t sound right, or smell right, or feel right, or have the right resonance or energy. The infant becomes disregulated. This is no one’s fault except that we continue to ignore it and therefore don’t address it. What does the child do?

Coping Mechanisms

The child goes immediately into coping mode. Something devastating happened and he/she doesn’t want it to happen again. “My most intimate relationship was severed; therefore I do not want to get too close to anyone in case they leave me” (the stiff-armed child). Or,” I need to hang on so tight that she cannot get away” (the Velcro child). In neither case is there trust that the mother will be there for the child. This distrust is transferred to every person the adoptee wants to get close to.

From that scenario come all the coping mechanisms I wrote about in The Primal Wound. That book was all about the feelings, attitudes, and behaviors that emanate from that one event of separation from mother. The thousands of you who wrote to me saying that I know you better than anyone really mean that I know how you coped with that loss, not that I know your authentic and unique personality. That authentic and unique personality resides within you, yet may continue to elude you to this day.

What are some of the issues which result from separation trauma?

Abandonment, loss, rejection
Distrust, fear of intimacy
Guilt and shame

From the moment you are taken from your first mom, whether placed immediately with another mom or kept in another situation, the coping mechanisms begin. When you are then placed with the adoptive family, you add another way of being. You don’t give up the coping mechanisms: They are deeply imprinted in your neurological system. However there is another expectation which comes from living with a non-biological family.

Adaptive Response

This I call the adaptive response. Here you are in a family where you may genetically be very different from everyone. The baby is searching for genetic cues: Shape of face, eyes, mouth; Color of skin, eyes, hair; Sounds of heartbeat, tone of voice; Scent of mom and dad; Feel (tactile) of skin, hair. Everything is unfamiliar. Baby cannot really relax, but remains highly vigilant.

As a child you are expected to be a member of the family. What to do? What happens is that you become very, very observant. You have to watch very carefully to figure out HOW TO BE in this family where the people may be very different from you. (Some families are more homogeneous than others.) Adoptees are always looking for similarities, yet finding differences (which they notice more readily than the adoptive parents). I believe many adoptees have some form of sensory deprivation issues which begins when the sensory information isn’t what the baby expects. The child (and the parents) are deprived of genetic cues which help in fitting in. Because the child came into the family so young and the expectation is that he/she can fit into whatever family they are placed in, most of the expectation for change is put upon the child. What are some of these burdens?

Trying to figure out what is said and done (communication styles)
Trying to figure out correct responses (sensory perception issues may be present)
Fear of being wrong because of no genetic cues
Survival feels as if it depends on figuring it out
Becoming very observant and turning into the false self
Acting from the environment instead of from the inner self

There are both internal and external responses to tremendous effort on the part of the child:

Internal responses: Frustration, anger
Self-blame/failure/low self-esteem
Sadness/depression: loss of mother/identity

External responses: Compliance/people pleaser/ withholds feelings
Defiance/over-the-top feelings, acting out
Depression/ “black hole feeling”/ unresolved grief
Anxiety: mistakes can mean abandonment
Dissociation/day dreaming

Open adoptions can help with the feeling of being different. Although still feeling the alienation from the adoptive family, the adoptee isn’t so alone in that she can see herself in her birth family. Begins to understand “different isn’t wrong.” However, in many cases is still expected to fit into the adoptive family. Here is what I hear: “Why can’t you be more like the rest of the family?” The answer, of course, is because I don’t have the same genes. Even if adoptees are exposed to their birth families, they still feel obligated to fit into the adoptive family, even if that expectation is coming only from them. Thus is created the false self.

Authentic genetic self

Depending on the range of differences with the adoptive family, the adopted person may have a more or less difficult time allowing for the authentic self to show itself. Some children are so different from their adoptive parents that it is a wonder that they survive in those families. Again, this no ones fault. Although at one time there was an effort to fit some traits and interests of the birth mother to the adoptive family, the sensory aspects were largely ignored. Now there seems to be little effort to have the birth and adoptive family fit, although some pregnant women are allowed to choose the family her child will go to. (The problem I see with this pre-birth arrangement is that it can be coercive: promised baby, reluctant mother who may want to change her mind about relinquishment.

By the time an adoptee becomes an adult, there is often very little understanding of what those genetic traits are except for the physical ones. Coping mechanisms haven’t gone away and the adaptive self has been added to those attitudes and behaviors. All of this as a means of survival. How does one find out what is true and what is false about the adoptee? And what about the belief that if one becomes more authentic, a monster will emerge? Check out all the babies you can. Do you see any monsters…even among the adopted babies? Okay, then!! Enough already!

One thing is to do something which may seem totally foreign and that is to search within for those clues instead of looking in the environment. You have been so used to looking at your adoptive family for the cues to what is the right way to speak or act that it seems very scary to do anything else when with others. This is the modus operandi of adoptees. Observe and copy. Be the chameleon. Try to fit in. The dilemma: If you don’t fit into your own skin, you won’t feel as if you fit in even if you act just like those around you.
It is my belief that with few exceptions an adoptee has to move out of the adoptive home in order to really explore his true or authentic self. It is automatic to continue to observe and copy in the adoptive home, even if the parents aren’t requiring it (and many aren’t). This is a baby belief that may or may not have been reinforced by signals from the adoptive parents. Baby beliefs are imprinted into the neurological system and therefore, difficult to overcome. Many of you are still living by these beliefs today. The coping mechanisms and false self that come from those beliefs are holding you back in your adult relationships.

In order to become more authentic, then, you might want have to take a few risks. Just baby ones at first. Order first at a restaurant (believe me, no one else cares what you want to eat!). Notice what kind of art work your friends and relatives have on their walls. Do you like it, dislike it, or are you neutral about it? You don’t have to tell them your opinion, but you have to tell yourself. Now I know that many of you can already do this. But I also believe that there are some areas of your life where you might not be so honest with yourself. Or you may not be honest with those you care about (the “people pleaser” syndrome). First of all, learn to be honest with yourself. Look within to find the answers to what you like, dislike, your opinions about politics or religion. And don’t just react to what you were taught. Maybe there are many things you actually do have in common with your adoptive family. Really ask yourself about these things and be HONEST in our answer to yourself.

~Nancy Verrier, MFT~
Author of The Primal Wound
and Coming Home to Self