28 [Healing Series] Is Adoption Trauma? with Lesli A. Johnson, MFT

Is adoption really as traumatic as some people say it is? Lesli A. Johnson, MFT teaches us about what the word trauma means and confirms that indeed a trauma occurs when an infant, a baby, a child is separated from their mother. There’s even brain science to prove it! The process of separating a baby from its mother is coded in the nervous system as traumatic for both the mother and the baby. We chat about ways to heal from adoption trauma and Lesli suggests three books for further reading on the topic.

Topics We Discussed

  • Is adoption trauma/traumatic?
  • The word trauma has a negative connotation, but as used for truth and transparency, when we acknowledge adoption as a traumatic event we can move forward in healing.
  • Trauma occurs when an infant, a baby, a child is separated from their mother. There could be multiple traumas for some adoptees: placed in foster care, more than one placement, more than one foster home.
  • If you’re going to get a puppy, you’re not supposed to take a puppy from their mother before their 6-8 weeks old. Why is it “ok” in infant adoption?
  • The process of separating a baby from its mother is coded in the nervous system as “traumatic” for BOTH the mother and the baby.
  • The sympathetic nervous system - fight, flight, or freeze - is the only system developed at birth, and when the familiar mother isn’t there to soothe the baby, the baby’s levels of cortisol shoot up. If the separation event happens before the language receptors of the brain are developed (age 0 - 3) they are encoded as implicit memory (no words/language to describe it).
  • Adult adoptees will report, “sense of feeling lost or unrooted or like I don’t know where I am”; we could relate that back to the separation of adoption, before there are words to describe what happened.
  • The baby hears and smells in utero - the baby knows the mother’s voice, the mother’s gait; when that separation happens, everything that was familiar to the baby is gone. It activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight or freeze). When a mother and baby stay together, the mother acts as a parasympathetic nervous system, a soothing agent for the baby. The familiar mother can calm and soothe the baby. Crying babies can be given a piece of clothing with the scent of the biological mother and babies can be soothed by just that!
  • Common themes for adoptees - separation anxiety, separations and transitions are difficult, activation of the nervous system, hypervigilance, anxious, difficulty self-soothing. Most adoptees that Lesli works with have a significant amount of anxiety and hyper vigilance.
  • For adopted children, helping parents view adoption as trauma (for example reading The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier).
  • Can there be adoptees that aren’t affected by adoption? Some adoptees are more resilient; also denial/repression (not meant in a derogatory way) can be powerful coping mechanisms.
  • How do we heal from this trauma?
    • Acknowledging it as a trauma
    • Establishing a coherent narrative
    • Support Groups
    • Therapy
    • Facebook Groups
    • EMDR Therapy ( here’s the episode Lesli and I did about it )
    • Mindfulness program
    • Anything that connects the body and the mind (integrating them)
    • Yoga
  • Life transitions that can wake us up to adoption as a trauma: having a first baby, mid-life crisis, even just being an adolescent trying to figure out your identity.
  • “Part of finding out who you are is knowing where you came from”
  • The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier
  • The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van Der Kolk, MD
  • Adoption Therapy: Perspectives from Clients and Clinicians on Processing and Healing Post-Adoption Issues edited by Laura Dennis

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