From the Desk of Dr. Hillary French, Educational and Therapeutic Consultant
At any given time, about one third of teens and young adults who come to the Bodin offices are adopted. I have always found this intriguing, wondering why is that? Most of our teens have many common issues such as; psychiatric and emotional issues, behavioral issues, academic struggles/learning disabilities, and substance use/abuse among others, but why are a disproportionate amount of our clients adopted? First of all, I know that not every child who is adopted at birth has adoption issues. Thus, I am only speaking about those families walking through the doors of Bodin needing help. I must admit upfront that my thoughts and theories are based upon observations and anecdotal evidence rather than pure research, but I have been a Psychologist and Educational Consultant here at Bodin long enough to draw some conclusions from these observations.
First, one might assume that these adopted students have an attachment disorder, specifically Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), yet that is often not the case. Actually, most of our adopted clients are adopted at birth. We do have some students who are adopted later, who were in orphanages or foster care for the first years of life, had pathogenic care; often neglected, unloved, and enduring trauma of horrific kinds. Then good-hearted, caring and eager parents adopt these children, assuming that with enough love, these kids are going to thrive. These students are the ones that break my heart the most, frequently the ones who need the most intense treatment and who often do have RAD. But again, since most of our clients are adopted at birth, RAD isn’t the issue.
The question remains why do a disproportionate number of our students, who are adopted at birth, with no diagnosis of RAD, struggle significantly more than the average adolescent or young adult? Why were things “just fine” until the teen years hit? Then, what seems all of a sudden, the students who appeared to have no blatant issues with being adopted or anything else, start to act out, use drugs, become promiscuous, self-harm, and begin failing in school? Let me first discuss why being adopted at birth may not make everything “okay.” If you have read The Secret Life of the Unborn Child: How You Can Prepare Your Baby for a Happy, Healthy Life by Thomas Verny, MD (1982), Dr. Verny makes a convincing argument about how deep the bond between a mother and her child in utero is or is not. That book made a huge difference in my pregnancy with my son! One such premise in the book is this: imagine, an expectant mom who is ambivalent about her pregnancy. There are a plethora of reasons that a mother will decide to give up her child for adoption. One can imagine that most women who make that choice experience a significant amount of stress over those 9 months, anxiety, depression, fear and doubt – financial stress, work and family/relationship stress. Then, all of mom’s stress hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine get dumped into the baby’s blood stream and into a brain that is being developed. How can a developing fetus not be affected in a neurological and biochemical way as that child grows inside his or her mother’s womb?
Secondly, there is the premise that an adopted child has a “primal wound,” as detailed in the book, The Primal Wound, Understanding the Adopted Child, by Judith Verrier, (1993). Essentially, she states that adopted children have this primal wound that festers and grows inside them. The child was used to his/her biological mom’s voice, smells, tastes, and other familiarities in utero. Verrier indicates that this bond is forged and reinforced over nine months, and lasts throughout the child’s entire life. Once that newborn is placed in the arms of a stranger upon birth, a loss is created that can be devastating and long-lasting.
Infants and small children are resilient and adaptable. If their basic needs are met, cared for and loved by their adoptive parents, they can thrive in life. However, for many of our adopted clients, that “primal wound” is there, but may not manifest in any obvious form, until adolescence. The root reason for why this occurs has everything to do with the main significant tasks of adolescence – Identify Formation and Separation. In identify formation, teens have to find a clear sense of self; what are their values, ethics, beliefs and morals. What their social, cultural, ethnic, gender and sexual identity is and what makes them unique. But this quest to define one’s identity is a challenge for the teen adoptee, who must determine who they are without the basic knowledge of where they came from. Internally there is a huge struggle, how can they develop their identity if they know little about their history- who they are, who they look like/have characteristics of, and why their birth parents gave them up, to name a few!
The other hallmark task of adolescence is separation; the process of creating a distance between teens and their caregivers, and moving on to be responsible for themselves. Subconsciously, separation can remind the adolescent of rejection, that core issue in adoption, stemming back to the initial loss of their birth mother. Their independence can bring up feelings of abandonment, again tying back to that same loss.
Figuring out who you are and learning to become independent can be a challenge for any teen. However, a lot of adopted teens have this added layer that can make it a much more turbulent time. Perhaps it is so overwhelming many cannot manage and seek ways to mask their distress; push their adopted parents away and engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as drugs and self-harm.
This is a narrow explanation to a very complicated question. I would welcome your thoughts on this as well! Perhaps my next blog will be what adoptive parents can do to help their child ease through adolescence a bit easier. Until then, I continue to do what I do with passion, dedication and admiration of all the families we assist here at Bodin.