Is Someone At Risk For An Attachment Disorder If Adopted At Birth?

This post is in response to comments made about a prior post where it was suggested that a child adopted at birth is not at risk  for attachment disorder. Some respondees agreed, others didn’t. The purpose of this post is not to make anyone wrong or right or to score points, but I thought it raised an interesting question which I throw open to my followers.

From everything I’ve read by the experts, such as Nancy Newton Verrier, David Brodzinsky and others, that primal wound – the broken attachment at birth – can be the source of a lifelong void in many, but not all, adoptees. The fact that there was an immediate hand-off in the delivery room from birth mother to adoptive parents is not necessarily a cure, in my opinion. Wouldn’t that child, in the back of his or her mind, always wonder about the people who gave them life yet couldn’t be there to parent them, for whatever reason?

I do agree, however, that the longer the child is separated from a devoted caregiver, the worse it is for the child. Children, like Casey, who’d been institutionalized often have difficulties adapting to a new life beyond the institution that had been the only “home” they ever knew.

So with that, I through this open to my followers. What do you think?

16 thoughts on “Is Someone At Risk For An Attachment Disorder If Adopted At Birth?

  1. Remember that a child’s physical movement from the womb to the outside world is not the beginning or end of gestation. A lot happens in the womb, and if you read about epi-genetics, even before conception much track has been laid. There are too many factors to be considered than to pick one and call it the “reason”. In the end, somehow these kids do not feel safe here. “Why?” may not be knowable. Compassion can only speak to the present moment. They need us to hear them and for us to understand their experience as unique and personal. We just need to be open to a wider range of possibilities. Acceptance of what is is paramount.

  2. This according to a psychologist I know, who has worked in the adoptive field for approx.30 years, and is a faher of a child adopted from Russia: Even when a baby goes directly from the womb of the birth mother into the arms of the adoptive parent (what some call the “perfect” adoption) a vital bond is still broken. That bond starts at the moment of conception. Of course the childs personality has to come into play — as well as the environment he/she grows up in. So many factors to consider. Growing up with the fact that you were given up at a time when you shoud have been most wanted and most loved has to be a huge hurdle. Throw in an individuals level of sensitivity and intellect, and that hurdle can grow. All I ever wanted was for my son to feel safe, secure, and loved. Those elements were all freely & abundantly given, and yet it wasn’t enough to keep him here.

  3. A lot of this I’d read about and previously dismissed before Casey’s suicide. But of course since then my understanding of life in the womb has done a 180. I was a luddite on these matters.

  4. The notion of “primal wound” has proved seductive for some adoptees and adoptive parents (as something to explain and blame), but there is no valid research even suggesting such a phenomenon exists, much less confirming it.

    “Newborns, Emotions, and Adultomorphism: Sources of the Primal Wound Myth” by Jean Mercer, PhD, ChildMyths blog

    • The fact that there is not enough research on a subject hardly makes it as easy as I am reading that you would like by your choice of words ‘notion”, “seductive” and “phenomenon”. What I personally find instead is a huge body of anecdotal evidence coming from the very experts that should be able to speak to it.. the adoptees! Yes, by all means dismiss their experiences because they just want “something to blame”. I would so much rather hear the response; “yeah it’s not been proven yet, but so many folks do resonate with it that perhaps there should be some serious attention given by the scientific community!” After all one post debunking theories is hardly proof of the opposite claim.
      And while a newborn is not an adult, there are still sensations, feelings and experiences that cannot be processed and categorized as adults since they do not have the verbal ability to do so. They cannot even form concrete memories and save the fleeting thoughts for later, but there can, I do believe, be a sense of what is NOT right. Yes, they DO look for their mothers voice, they do look for what they know and they can be “not right” in not finding that comfort. Can that overwhelming feeling of “not right” turn into something greater? The hundreds of adoptees I do know say yes.
      I also think there is not enough study into the pre-birth connection between mother and child and the feeling of a crisis pregnancy, the knowledge of the pending adoption separation coming after birth, and the disassociation promoted by many adoption agencies can, IMO, also be contributing factors.
      I personally would LOVE the Primal Wound to be untrue; the knowledge that my sad and unnecessary decision to relinquish my own son could have in any way harmed him is a horrible thing to live with, but even if I don;t like it or want it to be true, I must accept the reality that adoption separation was not good for him.

      • Anecdotal evidence is not good enough, especially when it runs counter what we know from research. At this point, “primal wound” is not even considered a good hypothesis, much less “reality.” Verrier has been challenged on this, and she has not risen to the challenge.

        Child development research indicates that it is only when the infant is 6-8 months of age that he begins to understand the concept of people as separate individuals. Because an infant recognizes something as familiar doesn’t not mean that the infant understands all the complexities of concepts such as caring, mother, love, separation, etc. This is projecting adult understandings onto the infant.

        You should not beat yourself up over something that doesn’t exist. “Primal wound” is seductive, as it is an *easy,* almost mystical explanation why things in life may not be as good as one wishes; it is something to blame outside of the self. But it also seems capable of creating a nocebo effect.

        The other seductive part about “primal wound” is its appeal to the Pro-Life movement.

  5. Babies are not blank slates. They know when Mom’s not there. And what they’re looking for primarily is her voice. That was my observation with my kept child when they wheeled her into my room after her birth. Soon as she heard my voice, before she’d even properly seen me, she quieted right down. And it only makes sense. When, in her 9 months of gestation, would she have ever seen my face for long enough to have memorized it? Then they put goop in babies’ eyes after their birth, so everything’s blurry anyway.

    It doesn’t matter if not all adoptees have obvious problems later. That can be chalked up to temperamental differences in how they react to early trauma. Some become very compliant rather than act out. I would hypothesize that those are also less likely to commit suicide, since killing yourself is not a “good” and “social” thing to do. Compliant people worry a lot more about what other people think, and they’d worry about the effects of the suicide on their loved ones after they are gone.

    Do not assume that just because your adoptee seems adjusted that everything’s OK. They lost their family. That automatically makes them not OK, and I’m even less inclined to think they’re functioning in what I would call a healthy matter if they say they do not want to know their natural parents or that all they want is their medical history. The millions-strong membership at and other genealogical websites should tell you it’s a pretty normal impulse to want to know where you come from. And children of divorce whose parents remarry cope OK with the idea of having more than two parents. So what’s this, then? This is not coping. It’s shutting the original parents out because of the primal wound, rather than take it out on the adoptive parents.

    (And before any of you suggest that’s proper, might I point out that adoptive parents create the market for all this tragedy in the first place. If you weren’t there to take the babies and children, governments would have to find some other way to cope with families in crisis rather than allow them to be split up willy-nilly, and of course there would be no adoption agencies at all. Just something to think about. And it doesn’t cure your infertility either, so please don’t ask me what you’re “supposed to do” to have kids. Adopt all the children you can possibly handle, and you still haven’t had kids. You just took someone else’s.)

  6. Good grief. This should not even be considered controversial. There are VOLUMES of research on the repercussions of mother/child separation. This research includes the biology of brain development and is NOT theory — it is knowledge based on what science now knows. Investigate the research done by experts in the field like Allen Schore, Bessel van der Kolk, Bruce Perry, Daniel Siegel, and many many more. Please stop denying the very real repercussions of the separation of the mother/child dyad. The denial is embarrassingly revealing of wishful thinking.

  7. We adopted our daughter at birth. I was in the operation room (she was born by c-section). Sadly, she had attachment issues. We had to be VERY intentional and work VERY hard to parent her in a way that cultivates attachment. I later conceived miraculously and parented my second daughter the same way (with the exception of nursing). The attachment was effortless. I don’t think we are doing anyone any favors by pretending there isn’t a rupture. The best strategy, in my view, is to recognize it and deal with it the best we can.

    • Thanks for asking. You can look at “Blogs I follow” on my blog home page or go to my Resources page where I have a good number of adoption resources.

  8. For Julie’s comment: I’m a believer in the fact that there is trauma at birth when separated from the baby’s natural mother. I understand greatly the ramifications this can cause to a child growing up and the severe loss that is very Real. Some birth mothers are incapable of caring for this baby properly, some are on drugs, involved in prostitution, have abusive home environments. Certainly no good can come from being a high mother with strange men in and out of the house doing god knows what to the child or in front of this child. That will cause a whole new trauma for this child and reason for depression, anxiety and suicide later on in life. In situations like these what options are there?? Should the child be neglected by it’s natural mother instead and suffer it’s whole life in this circumstance so they don’t feel the pain of birth trauma? Some mothers Will choose to abandon or not raise their babies, I’m not saying it’s fair or doesn’t leave hurt to the child but if there weren’t adoptive families these children still Wouldn’t be raised by their natural mothers! They would be a foster child in our country never having a place to call home or knowing the love of a parent who really cares for them when they’re sick or having a trusted parent to discuss huge decisions with in life. Can they really only turn to their natural mother for these things that she’s clearly not in a position to give them? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

    • Yes suffice to say that adoption, as I’ve now come to learn too late, is far more complicated than many want to believe. It leaves me with many conflicting feelings about what’s right and wrong for the child, oftentimes going against my own selfish interests.

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