The Three Traumas of Adoption (based on the writings of Betty Jean Lifton)

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I have been re-reading Journey of the Adopted Self by Betty Jean Lifton (psychologist, author, adoptee).  I read it in 2006 at the beginning of my adoption reunion journey.

The dedication at the beginning of the book reads like this:

"To the memory of my adoptive mother Hilda and my birth Mother Rae who might have known and even liked each other in another life and another adoption system."

I love this book.  I experienced so many revelations when reading this book the first time.  It was complete validation for everything I felt growing up and a realization that I am not crazy when I feel wounded, damaged or misplaced for growing up in closed adoption.

As I've stated before, my opinion is that closed adoption is a form of emotional abuse.  After re-reading Journey of the Adopted self 8 years later post-reunion, I found that Betty Jean Lifton agrees with me.  She states that telling a child he or she is adopted without "really telling the facts/truth", is disrupting the child's psychic reality.

Admitting a child has been traumatized is not the same as putting a label on them like PTSD or RAD.  There is much disagreement in the adoption community about diagnoses and labels on adopted children.  Of course there will be trauma.  That is NORMAL in adoption.  What do you expect when you remove a child from the only source of comfort and safety he has ever known in the womb?

That is common sense for those in the know about infant bonding and communication. It's also common sense for the average  Joe who thinks about how he might have felt if somebody ripped him away at birth (or later).  When I was going through child abuse and neglect training when I was a CASA/Guardian ad Litem, we were asked to do a "guided imagery" exercise.  We had to close our eyes, and pretend that we were the child who was being asked to leave everything familiar to her without any family member to accompany him, without any of this belongings and be driven to a stranger's house.  Let me tell you -- the exercise was eye opening.

Acknowledging trauma in adoption is not something the average adoption-loving person does who views adoption only in terms of "saving an orphan" or "rescuing them from an uncertain fate".  Trauma is completely unacknowledged in the adoption-loving media!  I always find it suspect that the media and others who only see adoption as positive, that they NEED to do so on overkill.  Words like forever family, adoption is the new pregnant, and GOTCHA DAY need to be banned from adoption language.

My main job as a CASA/GAL was to acknowledge a child's trauma and be his voice!  As I took case after case, I wondered silently where my GAL was when I was growing up.  Why was nobody speaking for me?


"In the closed adoption system, if you rear someone else's child, you tell him about how he entered your clan and very little about the clan from which he came. His identity is supposed to start from the moment he became part of your family, and he is expected to live as a child without a past."  (Journey of the Adopted Self, p. 38).

The first trauma is the moment the child is taken away from his original family.  If the child was an infant, they were forced to process their reality without language.  I imagine being ripped from the only source of comfort and safety you have ever known would show itself in crying, poor eating and sleeping. (I don't remember when I was an infant, but I have seen signs of trauma in my daughter who came to our household right from the hospital).

Some adoptees can process this trauma growing up and others cannot process it well.  Having an unacknowledged wound does nothing to help one heal from it.  Somebody has to acknowledge it -- whether that be the adoptive family or the adoptee himself.

This seems like common sense, but the false ideas of adoption in the past (including social workers and other professional of the time) believed that interchanging one mother for another did no damage. These professionals actually told adoptive parents this and reassured them there would be no worries for the future.

Sadly, many unaware adoptive parents found out the hard way when their children were acting out in adolescence by running away, becoming an addict, stealing, or becoming promiscuous (and in some, suicide).  In my own family, my brother was the one acting out (I was safe in my cocoon of denial)   My parents responded by taking him to a shrink, which he admits to this day, he messed with by not cooperating with treatment.  My parents -- the ones who really needed the shrink -- kept waiting around for the shrink to "fix" my brother, instead of getting to the root of what the problem was.


"One definition of psychological trauma is an experience that is sudden, unexpected, abnormal.  It exceeds the individual's ability to meet its demands.  It disrupts one's sense of self and identity; it threatens one's psychological core.  This is what happens when a child learns he is adopted" (Journey of the Adopted Self, p. 48).

Trauma No. 2 is the moment the child is told he/she is adopted.  This information comes as a shock, especially if the child witnesses one of the adoptive parents as pregnant.  Imagine how a child must feel if he is told that he didn't come out of mommy's tummy, but his brother Johnny did.  It is only natural for the child to wonder where the woman went that carried him in his tummy.

Even in families where all the kids are adopted, as in my own, there is trauma.  The child has a sudden realization that he didn't come into the world in the "normal" way.  If he or she knows where his original family is, knows what they look like, and sees that his parents are not hostile or insecure about the original family, he can integrate the original family into his identity.  As we know from years of closed adoption, the lack of information and acceptance of an original family, causes further trauma for adoptees as does not acknowledging a child's original heritage (race, ethnicity, religion, etc.)

Parents can help the child process the telling of adoption and make it better or worse.  Helping the child would be by discussing his adoption (and birth) in a truthful, age-appropriate way.  There is no magic age for telling but my personal feeling is that it needs to happen early.  Waiting until adolescence or adulthood is a very bad idea and would be an example of NOT helping the child process this second trauma.

Telling everyone in the family EXCEPT the adoptee would be an example of increasing the trauma for your child. Feelings of rage and betrayal on top of trauma will result.


While some secrets can bring people together by giving them a sense of intimacy and sharing, secrets can be destructive if they cause shame and guilt, prevent change, render one powerless, and hamper one's sense of reality. When there are secrets in a family system, there is a conspiracy of silence.  The conspiracy does not have to be agreed upon verbally, but can be unconsciously communicated to members of a clan." (Journey of the Adopted Self, p. 22)

Growing up with secrets.  Secrets are the basis of all dysfunctional families -- that and an inability to give voice to what is "really going on".  Adoptees that grow up with secrets (and honestly, I haven't met one yet who did not), are living the third trauma-- not unlike the family secret of incest, alcoholism, criminality, etc. in the family.  It's just another flavor of dysfunction.

In my family, it was discouraged to ask questions about my original people because "we just don't know".  The excuse of "not knowing" was a chosen state by my parents and many others in the closed era.  Their logic was, if I don't really know (which means they didn't ask, nor did they want to know), then I can't share anything.  I believe many adoptive parents of my era did this for several reasons:

1.  they did not want to acknowledge that there were other people out there who were biologically related to their child;

2.  They were actively discouraging the child's curiosity in an attempt to prevent searching and/or perceived loss to the adoptive family; and

3.  they had not dealt with their own issues such as infertility, mental illness, alcoholism and so therefore were not able to help their child deal with his issues.

Besides the secrets going on in the family, the secrets continued to reach into the adult adoptee's life in the form of secrets being held by adoption agencies and the government-sanctioned "legal fiction" of the amended birth certificate, in addition to the original birth certificate still being held in most states under lock and key.

Everyone in adoption seems threatened by blood ties, while still embracing the mentality in society that "blood is thicker than water." (Apparently, only the blood of biological families counts -- but not those of the adoptees).

I would venture to say there is a fourth trauma that Betty Jean Lifton does not classify in her book; however I experienced it personally and know many others who have.


When you finally garner the psychic strength to seek out your roots, you are bombarded by new secrets in your biological family.  New information that assaults you at your core -- that you were the only child in the biological family to be given up, that your uncle molested all of your bio siblings, that your mother says she was raped and will not reveal your father (my own personal trauma).  The list is endless.

What do you do with these kinds of "revelations?" How could this type of information NOT be traumatic to an adoptee raised in secrets to also have to discover new ones in their families of origins?


The first two traumas are not preventable -- they are inherent in adoption.  However, the third and fourth can be prevented and/or reduced.  My own experience in healing from the four traumas may look different than your own; however I find that the following list goes a long way in the healing of the 4 traumas:

1.  Honesty and transparency in the family
2.  Open communication about fears, dreams, expectations, etc. and REAL ANSWERS to questions
3.  Support and acknowledgement when the adopted person may need help outside the family and being an adoptee's voice when he cannot do so for himself.
4.  Embracing your own truth, history, trauma, abilities and heritage and be willing to embrace the adoptee in your life's truth, history, trauma, abilities and heritage.
5.  Find a support group of others who "get it" and will validate what you know to be true


Betty Jean Lifton gives a strong warning to adoptive parents in a plea to help adoptees everywhere.  I wish this information had been provided to my own parents and I wish a flyer would be delivered to every adoptive parent in the U.S. with these words:

"American parents feel helpless and angry that no one warned them of the pain their adolescents would feel at being abandoned.  No one told these parents that when the plane landed with its precious unidentified bundles that their love would not be enough, that they should go to Korea before too many years passed and find people who knew their child's story, or even a fragment of it.

I tell adoptive parents to stop letting the agencies, lawyers or independent facilitators infantalize or intimidate them and to research their children's heritage on their own before the trail becomes cold. This often means returning to the country of origin while the child is still young."

Betty Jean Lifton (1926-2010)


  1. I swear this piece is me even to point 4

  2. At 60 i learned that 5 families...3 different names...and 1 failed adoption by 18 months age =trauma. Unfortunately no one told me. And now at 63 i have to deal with this emotional garbage. Boy am i ever pissed

    1. As Lynn states, Nobody wants to aknowledge the anger, the PTSD that affects every thing you do. I thought about getting a punching bag, but thought it just might make me accept physical anger. There is another level that people of older ages go through, at least in my case, a sense that there is not enough time to sort it all out, to get over it. And some people whom Id like to have a go with anout it are gone. Commiserations friend.

    2. Yep! full on agree w Lynn, Lesley and Grace. I am 53 and just out of the fog. Just got my obc, state of IL, and wow, that was something! almost like, entirely new world, pre attaining obc and post obtaining obc, as now I have PROOF, I WAS BORN. I am a human like everyone else on earth. Before obc, I was an alien possibly hatched, or otherwise tossed, like a football, to another family. now I know for sure I was born. I may, may not get full answers or truth, and it may be too late (birthmother deceased)- but I am ok.I move forward w steady, slow momentum in my search.

    3. Yes, now you know you weren't just dropped out of the sky, left in a cabbage patch or found in a box. You were BORN to a real live woman! Isn't is simply amazing to have Chapter 1 after living with Chapter 2 your whole life?

  3. I can absolutely agree with this trauma . I only wish families were alerted to this. It was a nightmare growing up adopted. As an adult I have ended up with no family ties . Adopted or blood .Reunion did not work. Stories kept changing from birthmother

  4. Wow. This blog is so validating and I thank you for publishing your collection of thoughts. My own adoptive mother went so far as to create a family tree quilt (her family tree) with me on the end of hers. It hung right next to where I sat during meals. Any conversations about my origins resulted in her breaking down in a fit of tears. I felt so invalidated by all. of this.


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