The Primal Wound-Does Adoption Automatically Harm Children?

Dawn Davenport


the primal wound in adoption affects some adoptees

Have you ever had that experience where all of a sudden one idea or thing keeps popping up in your life? When this happens, I try to pay attention. Lately I seem to be inundated with the people talking about the “primal wound” theory— the idea that “severing the connection between the infant and biological mother [through adoption] causes a primal wound which often manifests in a sense of loss (depression), basic mistrust (anxiety), emotional and/or behavioral problems and difficulties in relationships with significant others… affect[ing] the adoptee’s sense of Self, self-esteem and self-worth throughout life.”

Of course, I’ve read the book The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier and have known about this theory for many years, but I seemed to hear about it with almost freakish regularity within the last month.

  • An adult adoptee asked me, “Why do they (she was specifically referring to other adoptees and adoption professionals) see us basically as damaged goods. Like we’re doomed to have all these problems. Why would anyone want to be viewed like that, like they were injured permanently within days after their birth? Who in their right mind would want to hire, much less marry, someone who is guaranteed to have all these problems. It doesn’t reflect my life or the lives of most of the adoptees I know. It’s b_lls__t!”


  • I read Jennifer Lauck’s memoir Found. This poor woman was literally overwhelmed with life traumas. She was adopted at birth by Bud and Janet. At the time of the adoption, Janet had a fatal illness but wanted a daughter so clearly put her own wants above what is best for a child. Bud was already burdened with a dying wife, a young son, and mounting financial debts. From a very young age, Jennifer felt very different temperamentally from her parents and brother and burdened by the idea that she was in the family to save her mother from death. She learned of her adoption from a taunt by her brother shortly before her mother died when she was seven. Her father died of a heart attack one year later, but not before he married the most wicked stepmother since Cinderella’s. Wicked Stepmother abused Jennifer and her brother until they finally were sent to live with separate relatives. Richard and Peggy adopted the teen-aged Jennifer in order to get her social security payments. Her brother kills himself as a young adult. Oh, and along the way, she was sexually abused a couple of times, starting when she was six. It seemed there were no adults in this child’s life that ever truly cared for her or protected her. It made for a heartbreaking read. Needless to say, she grew to be a troubled woman, struggling with a sense of self and unable to form lasting relationships. Lauck seeks answers and healing in many ways, including marriages, near-fanatical devotion to various spiritual pursuits, and parenthood. Ultimately, she found the primal wound theory and concluded that her lifelong inability to form relationships and lack of self-worth was due to her original separation from her birth mother. “Infants are unable to regulate their own emotions; they need their mother’s response to their cries to teach them mood normalization. And the infant doesn’t wait for any mother, she waits for her birth mother—the one with which she shared a hormonal connection while in utero. Any other caregiver is rejected.” While I’m happy that she found some answers, and she certainly would know better than anyone else what has helped her heal, from an outside observer it would seem that the lack of any parental figure in her life, to say nothing of the abuse, would have caused more damage than the lack of a biological connection to a mother.
  • A good friend calls me to ask if I’ve heard of the book The Primal Wound. A new therapist had recommended that she read the book in order to understand her 19-year-old daughter adopted from foster care at age 9 after having been removed from her birth family due to years of neglect and abuse. While I’m all in favor of reading and learning as much as possible and clearly the removal from a mother, even a neglectful and abusive one, at age six causes a lasting wound, The Primal Wound seemed an unusual book to suggest first. I wondered if the therapist saw the word “adopted” in the record and automatically thought “primal wound”. In this case, it would seem that the primal wound would pail by comparison to all the wounds caused by years of abuse and neglect.

And then, I came across a discussion on the Linked In Adoption Group about a new study out of Yale comparing the DNA of children raised in orphanages with the DNA of children raised by biological parents, which found a difference in the actual DNA of the two groups.* While we’ve known that children raised in institutions behave and learn differently than children raised in families, it’s pretty amazing to think that orphanage care could change the fundamental building block of human existence. That alone was interesting, but what really caught my eye was one of the first comments. **

Studies of this nature are “game changers” and provides proof of what adoptees have already known for years. This study establishes that premature separation from the natural mother alters the genetic fabric of a child.

What?!? That wasn’t even close to my understanding of what this study found, but the above commenter implied he had read the full study, so my interest was piqued enough to shell out the money to order my own copy. If indeed this study found biological “proof” that adopted children are damaged to the very core of their cells by being raised by a mother without genetic connection, I certainly needed to know.

The study was indeed fascinating,** but in no way provided the Holy Grail of a primal wound. The focus of this study was children raised in institutional care. A comparison control group was needed, and researchers chose children from the same region raised by their biological families. In order to prove the existence of a primal wound to the DNA by being separated from a biological mother and raised by an adopted mother, researchers would need another group of children who had been abandoned at birth but immediately placed in permanent adoptive families. This was beyond the scope of this study. The study only mentioned adoption once: “Adoptive placement in itself appears to represent a significant intervention with regard to physical and cognitive development catch-up [of children raised in orphanages].”

My thoughts on the Primal Wound have evolved some with the help of

Without a doubt, the primal wound theory resonates with many adopted people. It provides a logical explanation for how they feel and validates what they feel on a gut level. I believe they have an answer and it helps bring clarity to their life experience. I also believe that it doesn’t resonate with all adoptees, which also makes sense since adopted people are not a homogeneous group and the type of adoption would likely also impact how people experience adoption.

Humans are complex beings—there are few direct lines, single factor causes and effects, especially in human psychology. How a person reacts to any big life event depends on many, probably hundreds, of factors, including our basic genetically related temperament. And we all have our own potentially big life events: for some it’s adoption, for others, it’s a depressed mother, or a single mother living paycheck to paycheck, or the death of a parent, or an alcoholic father, or a divorce, or parents who constantly fight. For most of us, our lives are a mix of positive and negative big events. How we respond to each, and which one leaves an everlasting imprint is individual.

I remember a late-night gab session during my first year at college. A group of about eight girls was talking, and as often happens with 18 and 19-year-olds, our conversation eventually turned to complaining about our parents and life. What strikes me now is that we all carried our own individual burden. For one, it was her parent’s bitter divorce where she felt like a pawn in their ongoing fight. For another, it was the tragic death of her beloved older brother. Interestingly, she and her brother were adopted, but that wasn’t her “big” life event, or at least it wasn’t in comparison to her brother’s death or at the age of 19. Another girl admitted that her father drank too much and too often. Another was raised by her grandparents whom she adored, but who were now in ill health. Another was a very different person from her parents, and she always felt like an outsider in her family. There were eight different stories; eight different negative big life events. (What should have struck me then was how petty my own burdens were in comparison, but it would take a few years for that realization to set in.) No doubt if we got together again now, we might see things differently.

I’ve wondered if the attraction of theories that say adoption is irrevocably damaging to adoptees is an attempt to counterbalance the years where the professional adoption community preached that adoption was no big event. Just ignore it; raise them as if they were born to you; no need to even tell the child; seal up the original birth records to further the pretense. This minimization of the inherent loss in adoption minimizes the pain that many adoptees feel, and there is nothing worse than having your pain minimized. Adoptees that felt the loss in adoption were often made to feel that they were ungrateful and that there was something wrong with them. Of course, adoption is a huge life event for both the child, and the first parents (and grandparents), and the adoptive parents. I don’t believe that it is either inherently negative or positive—in the vast majority of cases, it’s a mix of both.

I have no doubt that some adopted persons are badly wounded by the very fact that they were relinquished by their biological families. They deserve to have their pain recognized, and the adoption system needs to address ways to lessen the potential for this wound, including supporting family reunification and mom’s choosing to parent rather than relinquish their child. Open adoption is a step in the right direction, as are opening sealed records. More effort to provide alternatives for families to stay together is another important step.

It’s important, however, to also recognize that many adopted people do not carry this “primal wound”, or if they are wounded the cut doesn’t go so deep. Who is and who is not maimed is likely dependent on temperament, how soon the child is adopted, life experiences, specifics of their adopted families, and a host of other factors that we may never know. Adoptees are a wonderfully diverse group. They deserve better than any automatic label.

P.S Make sure to read a wonderful

* “Differential patterns of whole-genome DNA methylation in institutionalized children and children raised by their biological parents”. Oksana Naumova, et al. Published in Development and Psychopathology.) The original poster was lamenting that research results seldom spread to the “real world”—those of us who are in the midst of living and loving children through adoption or are working with families in this position. (I share her concern and that’s one of the reasons Creating a Family has an Adoption Research page where we include a discussion of the above study.)

** Not all adoptees that commented shared this opinion. One adult adoptee who is also a therapist said: “I oppose the self-defined victimization of adoptees, and I have challenged them openly about it. I took a lot of abuse for saying they are dramatized not traumatized.”

***I thought it was particularly interesting that the orphanages in the study were chosen because of the “high quality” of care. “They were well equipped, had an adequate ratio of children to adults, had good physical plant facilities, and demonstrated adequate administrative leadership.” I also found it interesting that researchers believe that the changes in DNA are heritable, thus the children of these children may also carry some of the scars of institutionalization. It should also be noted that this was a very small study involving only 14 children in each group.

Originally published in 2012; Updated in 2019.

Image credit: Michael Yan

28/08/2012 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 24 Comments

24 Responses to The Primal Wound-Does Adoption Automatically Harm Children?

  1. Avatar Jack says:

    I wonder how believers in the Primal Wound Theory view open adoption scenarios. I recently read about this theory and it shook me to my core as an adoptive parent of a 2 1/2 year old. I can only offer anecdotal information, but I thought I’d share my story. I took in the neglected son of my brother’s girlfriend after she had passed him around from house to house for months. He was 7 months old when I took him in. She did care for him for the first month or two of his life, then decided she’d rather go to the beach and amusement parks than be a mom. He lived with probably a dozen different family members until I offered to babysit him for a week or two, which led to months an months. Finally I told her that I’d fallen in love with him and asked to adopt him, which relieved her a great deal. My little guy experienced some delays. It took him longer to walk and talk than most children his age, but he attached to my spouse and especially me in a short period of time. He sees his biological mother maybe once every few months. I can honestly say that he doesn’t seem to have any kind of mystical, subconscious spiritual bond with her. He treats her exactly like every other non-biologically related person in the room. He clearly has a stronger bond with me and prefers me above all others. To my son, I am his parent. He doesn’t seem to feel anything for her at all. I would think that if the primal wound was a real thing, wouldn’t a child this young feel it especially strong? I’m not saying he won’t ever feel sadness about being rejected by her, but it won’t be because of this supposed magical bond. I think the best way to prove that this theory is just psychobabble is to look at children from open adoptions.

    • Dawn Davenport Dawn Davenport says:

      All I can say is that for me as an adoptive parent, I think it is important to try to understand how our kids may feel. And some adopted people do feel that there is a hole or something missing, which to them this theory explains. It remains to be seen how open adoption might change this. I’m glad you and your son are doing well!

    • Avatar Cristy says:

      Hi Jack,
      I think you are mistaken as per the definition of the primal wound. It doesn’t mean that there is a magical connection between birth parent and child. It means that if the child was removed from the mother at birth, the infant perceives the new environment and feels anxiety. Hence, we carry around more anxiety and fear. It’s basically a word for infant PTSD. One could have a good or bad relationship with birth parents. I, for instance, know someone who almost drowned as an infant. She was afraid of water for several years and needed therapy. She had a near death experience and although she consciously doesn’t remember, her body remembers. The infant perceived the separation as dangerous. An infant survives on instinct, hence, separation from mother (source of survival), is seen as dangerous. I have a relationship with my birth mother and still suffered the primal wound because I was removed so early in life. Since your son was with his birth mother for about a month, he may not suffer that. The primal wound also has nothing to do with attachment. I have always been very attached to my mom. When I met my birth mom for the first time, my guard was up. That doesn’t mean that the separation didn’t affect me as an infant and that I didn’t carry that anxiety with me into adulthood. Invalidation and isolation seem to be the reason that adopted people are four times more likely to commit suicide and or engage in self harm, not because of the womb itself, but because of the invalidation. With my friend for instance, they knew there was a problem because she was so afraid to swim (and we live near the ocean). In case of adoptees, we assume all is well, and the trauma is never addressed. I would suggest that you actually read the book or watch this lecture:

      It’s like a condensed version of the book. Best to you and your son! 🙂

  2. Dawn – I just read this article and feel it would add to the conversation and understanding.

    In Appreciation of The Primal Wound, by Marcy Axness, Ph.D.


    No adoptee I know wishes non-adoptees to label the adoptee. That would be like me labelling people challenged by infertility and speaks nothing to the feelings felt, the process undergone to resolve or accept those feelings, or having any empathy for them both during or in the future.

    Rather, instead of labelling the adoptee, or not, to understand the meaning, and I believe the above article provides a clearer understanding that can be used by adoptive parents to broaden their understanding.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Oh my, The Adopted Ones, that article is amazing! Everyone, right now, click over and read the article. Dr. Axness, an adult adoptee, says that after first reading The Primal Wound, “[F]or that night, and weeks of nights thereafter, I felt that I’d found The Key to me: “Ah ha, so this is my core issue, and all those years of therapy, of dancing around the ancillary issues, was simply a prelude!” For awhile I suppose I did become “over-identified” with the primal wound, which is a concern that some critics have over this kind of ideological theory. They believe that to ascribe to any one theory the genesis of a person’s essential make-up is a grave mistake. In the long run, I agree, as I will discuss later.”

      She acknowledges the limits of this theory, and agrees that it is only part of The Key and adoptees need to integrate the influence of separation from birth mother into all the other important influences in their lives, but not before fully bathing in the empathy and understanding of this deep hurt. “Then comes the work of integration, but not, I believe, before one has had the opportunity to wallow, to swim deeply and languorously in this place of long-craved empathy. We’re parched cisterns needing to be filled to over-flowing and then some, and then some, and then some, and then…slowly…we can begin to integrate, to be sensitive and receptive to other ideas, other influences, other forces which have relevance in our lives.”

      I so get that! And her explanation resonates. I do worry that adoptees as a whole will become labeled as fragile and inherently broken. I worry about others labeling them, I worry about their parents labeling them, and I worry about some labeling themselves. But Dr. Axness sees that as less of a problem and she makes a convincing argument.

  3. Avatar Von says:

    Here we go again.While all adoptees have different experiences of adoption they have in common the loss of a mother and the trauma of that loss. Why is it that non-adoptees feel qualified to pass judgement on an experience they did not have, will never have and do not know?
    The adopted life is complex, it goes through many stages. Those who say the primal wound, which incidentally is not a theory, only a hypothesis and can never ethically be proven,is not something they believe as an adoptee has not lived out their adopted life yet and has far to go. Things change.

  4. Avatar NM says:

    you know, the other thing that really strikes me? You’re not adopted!!! And you wrote a whole article about how you think you know that it’s not true just because you talked to some people.
    I think that telling people that they’re kids are going to grow up just fine because the primal wound doesn’t exist is cruel. The truth is cold, and horrifying. It’s worse than losing a loved one.
    But being there for someone who needs you is great, so by all means, adopt. I plan to for my third. But at least I won’t have a bunch of ideas that it will be all sunshine and rainbows, because I know, like no one else could know. No unadopted, normal person. Because that’s all I ever wanted. To just be like everyone else. For my mother to really be my mother. Because I love her so much. I wish you could know the pain… so you would stop spreading lies.

  5. Avatar NM says:

    I can’t help but tell you… that you are just SO wrong. I was adopted. I have no memory of the adoption at all. I’m 27 years old. I spent my whole life confused by the whole “primal wound” thing. Like, how could these people not get that it was no big deal? My parents were open about it. I knew my birth mother. I could ask questions at any point in time. It really didn’t matter, it was no big deal.

    I just had my second baby (a girl – like me) three months ago. And I’m shocked. I’m appalled. How on god’s green earth could anyone do something so horrible to someone so beautiful and precious? How could anyone not just sacrifice everything for their beautiful child?
    It’s not just about loss, you’re also very wrong about that. My mother loved us all equally. I have 2 siblings, both biologically related to my mother. (adoptive mother I mean). And I’ve always had this pain that I couldn’t understand. But now I know. Now I get it. The pain is there because of the simple fact that as much as I love my mother, and as much as she loves me, and as much as both of us want it to be true, want to believe that she is my mother… it’s a lie. It’s a horrible, twisted lie. Some kind of sick joke. I could go on forever… this is a new realization for me as of… yesterday actually. But you must know that you are misinformed.

    • NM, I’m so sorry you are in such pain. Do you think it would help to talk with your birth mom, or do you think that you are in too much pain right now? I’ve heard from a number of adoptees that the birth of a child brings up the pain and confusion of adoption.

  6. Avatar Jenna says:

    TheAdoptedOnes, I’m responding to this late, but I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your perspective. Your description of the novel was beautiful. My guard went up because labels are so easy to throw around at adopted kids. It doesn’t mean that if he does relate to the primal wound at some point in his life, I would feel like he was playing a victim or think his feelings were not valid. It just means that I simply can’t predict how he may feel as he gets older.

  7. Avatar Erin Altrama says:

    I am an adopted person who has become acutely aware each adoption story is unique. The one shared truth is the severance of our biological links. Nature intends its young be nurtured by the ones who give life. So therefore I do believe the Primal wound exists.

    I agree with the post saying the word wound implies a capacity to heal. The healing depends on many factors such as the age of the child, personalities and the quality of care given by one or more to enable the formation of new and meaningful attachment. The synergy and environment introduced to our world and the capacity to adapt matters.

    The wound does not need become all consuming but can quite easily if mishandled.

    Adoptees cannot be told what they should feel. What we experience is individual to each of us, be it positive or negative has need to be validated. We are different from biological offspring but can belong in our new world and grow into well adjusted adults.

    There are many among us who experience adoption as a positive force but also those who do not. I do not believe self pity or mere curiosity are the forces which motivate us to seek our roots. This comes from a far more deeply embedded primal source.

  8. Avatar Dina says:

    While I think that the book might help some people gain an understanding in why they struggle/d, I am very put off by its absolutism. It clearly states that if you don’t struggle, you are surpressing your real feelings. I find that a simplistic overgeneralisation. It could even be interpreted as arrogant and patronising. I have very mixed feelings about this book.

  9. Avatar D says:

    I read the Primal Wound soon after taking placement of my youngest daughter and it shook me to my core. I worried that my baby had been traumatized…forever. The truth is that my daughter sighed the most contented baby sigh when she was placed in my arms the first time…The hard to feed baby in the nursery became an eager eater as I fed her. She is the child that was my “easy baby”…So easy to love and so loving! I’ve watched adoptees in my family(cousins) grow up and be happy, capable adults. But still…That book haunts me!

  10. I’m glad you posted this. Like so many things in adoption, the truth is probably found not in Either/Or but in And. There are some valid points in the Primal Wound Theory and there is a methodology problem with proving it.

    Here’s an excerpt of my thoughts when we did the Primal Wound book tour, about the problem parts (there is a lot to agree with, as well):

    The head shaking came from the anecdotal nature of the evidence. When dealing with human subjects, it is impossible to isolate variables. Some adoptees are controlling. Some adoptees are not controlling. Some non-adoptees are controlling. Some non-adoptees are not controlling. A causal link has not been established because of the inability to isolate adoption as THE factor in a personality.

    Many of the noted issues — “separation and loss, trust, rejection, guilt and shame, identity, intimacy, loyalty, and mastery or power and control” — perfectly describe ME. My own parents say that *I* am controlling. I became overly responsible and strived to be perfect. I have had trouble with abandonment. I have felt unworthy. I have felt I don’t fit in with my own family.

    I was separated from my mom at age 5 by an oxygen tent, so maybe I *do* suffer the primal wound.

    But is it possible that perhaps these issues are maybe somewhat universal?

    No one can ever prove or disprove the notion that life with a biological mom would have been better than a life with adoptive parents. Because we each get just one road. This is the crux.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Lori, well said. I laughed when you said that the traits of an adoptee described in The Primal Wound describe you. It’s just so hard to make generalizations, and ultimately, it seems unhelpful. We must be able to validate the experience of individual adoptees without needing to apply our “findings” to the entire group.

      It is hard to design and expensive to conduct good longitudinal adoption studies, but a few exist and the results are fascinating and generally fairly positive. It seems to me that the only way to make generalizations about a huge group of people is to rely on well designed, large, longitudinal studies.

  11. Dawn, I am sure you knew I would weigh in on this topic so here goes.

    I read the book after I got sick so in my 40’s. As I read it, I found that it did describe the different paths my siblings and I followed as children/teenagers. It did validate many feelings I had felt at different times, which was refreshing to say the least. I did not find it negative at all, but I did not go into it with the mindset that it was bad – just a theory based on her own work and life experiences.

    I did not come away with the feeling that acknowleding the validity that separation at birth is harmful to the baby, in anyway assumed that we were victims or deeply wounded for life, and would live an unhappy life with no way to resolve the feelings. Perhaps because I fully understand the definition of wound, and did not jump to the conclusion that it had to be giant or gaping or knashing of teeth horror – just something painful in a variety of ways. I would encourage everyone to read the full definition of the word wound to see what I mean. It simply was a fact of life that adoption impacts you, and how it impacts you, will be based on who you are.

    We now know that babies inherit traits and learn while in the womb and are not blank slates waiting to have a personality shaped for them. We now know that stress by the mother during pregnancy can also impact the baby. The studies on cortisol levels is intriging (sp?). What better scenario could you find than a mother experiencing crisis pregnancy, facing the fact that her best option to provide for her child is to surrender that child for adoption. That would be the most primal stress felt of all, in my opinion, and the stress would be felt by the baby.

    So perhaps it is the mindset and preconceived notions that the reader brings to a book titled The Primal Wound that creates the impression of negativity.

    Finally, I do not see a whole lot of difference in the message between Brodzinsky’s Being Adopted The Lifelong Search for Self and The Primal Wound. Both speak to specific ways and ages of adoption understanding and feelings that can appear from being adopted. Perhaps the real difference is the title of the book.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      The Adopted One, I didn’t know for sure whether you’d weigh in, but I sure hoped you would! 🙂 I love your point about keeping the definition of “wound” in mind when reading the book. Wounds can and do heal.

  12. Avatar erinaltrama says:

    As an adopted person I am acutely aware that behind every adoption story is a unique set of circumstances. To imagine that we all suffer the same degree of trauma at the time of separation is to fail to take into account the age of the child, the family they are adopted into, the quality of attachment which is formed at a young age with particular care givers. All of these things matter.

    The word wound as one post mentions suggests that healing is possible. Yes it is but depends on the subsequent synergy and compatibility to environmental factors and people imposed into our world.

    The wound does not need to become an all consuming problem but the fact remains it does have the potential to do so if mishandled.

  13. Avatar Cami says:

    As an adult adoptee, I thank you for this. Spot on.

  14. Avatar Jenna says:

    So glad you address this. I don’t want to raise my son with the idea that he was born with a primal wound. To label a child so early in life would be a shame.

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