It seems like we’ve been talking about the primal wound quite a bit lately in this blog and comments. The primal wound theory holds 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.”
While I’ve never doubted that some adopted persons feel this wound deeply and for life, I have struggled with the idea that all adoptees must feel this wound. I worry that this theory is more limiting than empowering and furthers negative stereotypes.
I finally had my ah-ha moment, when I read this article: In Appreciation of “The Primal Wound by Dr. Marcy Axness. Dr. Axness, an adoption therapist and an adoptee herself, was able to explain the importance of the primal wound theory in a way that helped me get it or at least parts of it. Dr. Axness was able to help me understand that the primal wound should not be about blame and guilt– it should be about understanding. If you enjoy her writing you will love this interview we did with her on this same topic.
In Appreciation of the Primal Wound by Dr. Marcy Axness
A few years ago my husband was suffering from a mysterious, ever-worsening pain in his heels. The pain, and its intrusion on his lifestyle, was depressing for him, and even more depressing was the sense that this seemed to be one of those things that might never get explained but would rather, hopefully, go away on its own. It didn’t, and he continued chasing down relief. One day he came home from the podiatrist happy and hopeful. He had seen his problem on the X-rays, he had seen in black and white exactly what was causing his pain. Real, tangible. There was a name for what was hurting him.
There are no X-rays for hearts, for souls. There are only courageous people willing to step forward and speak of certain difficult truths. I’ll never forget the evening when I first read Nancy Verrier’s preliminary paper on her theory of the primal wound, in which she illustrates how abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds of those who have been separated from their biological mothers at birth. Verrier invokes established research to propose that bonding doesn’t begin after birth, but is a continuum of physiological, psychological and spiritual events beginning in utero and continuing throughout the post-natal bonding period. It is the interruption of this natural evolution, due to post-partum separation of mother and child, that creates a primal wound, according to Verrier, who went on to publish her findings in The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child.
The descriptions I was reading in Verrier’s article sounded chillingly familiar, and I felt relief down to my bones, a tearful epiphany of Oh God, someone finally knows me, sees me, understands this impossible ache/not-ache, this me/not-me that I’ve been living all these years, in solitary, the loneliness of not being understood, and moreover, the exasperation of the narrow halls. One walks narrow halls of life when one is not conversant with one’s full spectrum of being. Confined, and puzzled as to why…
And yes, for 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….
Is the Primal Wound Theory an Invitation to Wallow?
Dr. Axness then goes on to analyze whether the primal wound theory presents a fundamental human truth for adopted people or is “an invitation to wallow”. She concludes that ultimately adopted persons need to integrate the wound of separation into the other aspects of their lives to become fully evolved people, but not “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.”
To expect a set of newly-introduced (and, as in the case of the primal wound, profoundly powerful and empathic) ideas to go to a place of ready integration is like me expecting my child to be fully independent before she’s had her fill of being dependent. It ironically stunts growth rather than hurrying it along. And to worry that a struggling adoptee will remain in the grip of this archetype-based idea of the primal wound, so that everything for that person will forevermore be explained by that theory, is to reveal a cynicism about the emotional and spiritual resources of the adopted person to continue the process of integration, the process of pursuing wholeness along whatever paths lead the way.
What are your thoughts on the Primal Wound Theory?
Other Creating a Family Resources You Will Enjoy
- Does the Primal Wound Really Exist?
- Latest Research on the Mental Health of Adopted Children
- Mental Health of Adopted Adolescents
Originally published 2012; updated 2017.
Image Credit: Sofia Carvalho
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My friend told me about what was on the first page and I started crying. OMG! This is me! I am getting this book.
This is upsetting. 1) Because I want to eventually be a candidate for adult adoption (I want someone to adopt me), to compensate for the fact that I never had siblings or an easygoing mother. 2) And because I wanted adopted siblings so badly and will never outgrow that feeling!
For someone like me who craved adopted siblings, it’s awful to see adoption depicted in a negative light. There has to be more to adoptees than ” the primal wound”!!!😭
I have a question about adoptees who were exposed to drugs and alcohol in utero. I’m talking about heavy substances and amounts large enough to cause birth complications and developmental issues. Do they also suffer from the primal wound? Is the primal wound made worse by the fact that they may not have had the best or strongest connection to their birth mother due to the effects of substance use on both of them? I’m genuinely curious about situations that are not necessarily healthy for either the birth mother or the child.
It’s a great question and while we are not experts on the primal wound theory, it seems completely reasonable that the absence of that primary connection would impact those who were prenatally substance exposed too. The theory of the primal wound, as we understand it, is less about current connection or attachment and much more about the impacts of losing that connection. Neither does it seem to be about the health (mental, physical, or otherwise) of either the birth mother or the baby/child.
What we DO know about kids who had prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol is that they can have challenges with expressing those impacts. Social-emotional skills may be delayed. Processing speed is often impacted. Emotional regulation can be challenging. So the impacts of the loss combined with the impacts of the exposure may well be more challenging for them, but likely still able to be managed and helped with care, nurture, and great interventions.
Thanks for reading and asking such a thought-provoking question!
We have an adopted child whose behavior is terrifying. He is 16 years old, calls us every fowl word known, is destructive of our home, our vehicles, our trust, etc. he has been told to leave his school because of his
Behavior, wherein he refuses to do school work or any work. He has acquired two hunting knives, and is totally abusive of family fellow students, and property. We believe he is a great example of PRIMAL WOUND. WE ARE TRYING TO FIND PSYCHIATRIC MEDICAL HELP.
DOES ANYONE KNOW OF PSYCHIATRISTS WHO TREAT VICTIMS OF PRIMAL WOUND
Thanks for contacting us Stanley. We have resources that can help you find an adoption-competent therapist at this link: Therapy Resources for Adopted, Foster, and Kinship Families. However, I’m unsure which of those will yield one focused explicitly on the primal wound. That is something you can ask when you start calling to ask about insurance coverage, training, and other interview questions. Additionally, you should consider contacting your closest children’s hospital. They frequently have therapists and psychiatrists on staff who are trauma-competent and may be able to connect you with adoption-related services.
It’s such a challenging season and painful for you all. I hope you find someone that serves your family’s needs well.
Hopefully someone reads this. The bond between a mother and child is real. The father also has it, but not nearly as strong.
I think the reason why some adoptees are OK and some aren’t is dependant on the adoption itself.
Scenario: baby is given up for adoption at birth and is taken to a new home right away… Into loving, caring, permanent arms….the baby has a natural ability to transfer the bond to a new mother…. No problems.
My Scenario: I was given up at birth.
I was in a children’s aid ward….. This was 1966.
I was in that ward for 2 years……. For 2 years there was never a constant. Different arms, different voices, different speech sound, different scent…. Rotated several times a day……My primal bond with my mother was destroyed in that process. How will a baby bond when there are so many different variables happening constantly everyday for 2 years? The baby will lose its primal bond….once it is lost it cannot be fixed, it cannot be brought back, it cannot be found,and it cannot be replace….. It is destroyed.
The baby that has this happen will grow up,never able to be sure of if what they are feeling is what they should be feeling…. Because there is no maternal/love bond to compare it to.
The person will have a hard time knowing if their own emotions are proper…… And will tend to display the extremes of each emotion…… Very happy, very sad, very angry. There is nothing left of the maternal/love primal bond to compare other emotions to.
I have had lifelong problems…..and have fixed many. But some are not possible to fix. So we end up as broken people.
In hindsight I can recall my adoptive mother trying to create a bond with me, but it was too late….. I was 4 or 5…….I was about to have a nap and remember my mom laying down beside me and holding me…..she tried hard to have that bond but mine was destroyed. One specific reason that I know my bond was destroyed was that I moved her arm, got off the bed and laid down on the floor at the base of the bed.
One of the worst things to happen to a baby is that bond being destroyed. It’s very difficult to understand your own emotions let alone other people’s emotions because there is nothing left of the primal bond for comparison.
The primal bond is real.
If it is destroyed, the damage is real and can never be repaired… It is permanent and forever.
1 in 3 adoptees experience major lifetime problems…… Perhaps these 33% are the ones who have had the bond destroyed.
This is an old article, but I hope someone sees my words….
I only spent 6 weeks in a ward before I was adopted but I too have suffered lifelong issues like those you describe. Similarly, as a child I couldn’t bear to be touched affectionately by anyone.
The idea that the baby has a natural ability to transfer the bond to a new mother is what we are encouraged to believe but it doesn’t describe my experience. My adoptive mother even breastfed me so I doubt she could have done much more to encourage bonding.
I never heard of this..but it’s what I always felt.i was never fully able to bond with my adopted mom like I should have.in my soul she didn’t smell like my mother..i was adopted at 2 months after being placed in care
I am adopted too like all of you just not since I was a baby. I was seven years old when I was taken and now I struggle with bonding with people. I feel as though I might love and get hurt or get left and neglected again. I realize that I have to really trust God, even if it hurts in the long run. I struggle with emotional issues too. Being 14 now I still struggle to keep tears out of my eyes but I will always remember the saying “The difficult road leads to a beautiful destination”, and I will never forget it. Through the rocky roads this Bilbe verse has stuck with me”For God has not given us the spirit of fear but one of love, power, and sound judgement.” 2 Timothy 1:7
Thanks for reading and reaching out with your story, Gabrielle. I hope you find support and care for the challenges you are facing. You didn’t say if you are with a family, through adoption or foster care, but you might want to ask how to find a therapist or counselor to work on some of your struggles. It will be even better if you have a safe, loving, reliable adult to go to counseling you, like a parent, guardian, or close relative. You deserve the best resources to find good tools that work for you in learning how to trust and how to love. You ARE worthy of being loved and learning how to love.
And that verse from 2 Timothy is a GREAT start in learning to navigate tough challenges that life throws you. It’s one of my personal favorites for hard times!
I’m not sure about how I’d feel having to change families at birth, but it can’t be worse than being thrown away at 14. That really hurts, because your parents “know” you yet still make a point of not loving you. Not to mention being kicked out of your SECOND “family” if one shows the slightest tinge of adolescent, normal behavior, like sulking. They said “you are showing signs of independence, so find an apartment, so long, we’re sick of you” ,before hitting seventeen. Try making a life for yourself in those circumstances. Hopefully the infants adopted at least are fed, not beaten, or abandoned , brutally onto the streets. Any change from the norm after being born must leave a mark on ones life trajectory, but hopefully with a legal adoption, basic needs are provided by legal agencies looking in on them. Anyway, I wish my biological parents had simply let me adopted out at birth by somebody who had my interests in mind instead of having to know how resented i was for simply being born.
I am a 52-year-old, olive-skinned woman who was adopted into a caucasian family at 11 months old. I have always wanted to write a book about how it was growing up as an alien in my own family. Not only did I not look like them, I didn’t act like them. To cope, I fantasized that Julie Andrews and every other woman was my “real mom”, so I wasn’t aware that what I was experiencing was pain. Pain showed up in some other different ways. For example, my mom would often push me away, irritated that I was acting like a “leach”. My immediate feeling was shame followed by extreme loneliness. To her friends, Mom would proudly report that I didn’t have separation anxiety, but I don’t think my first-grade teacher shared with Mom how often I would lie about being sick so I could go home to make sure Mom was still there. I needed to be near her, to be touching her, and I was always very affectionate. Although she would say she was proud of our close relationship, Mom’s avoidant behaviors exacerbated my neediness. She often left me alone with unsafe people for weeks and she sometimes didn’t return after going out for a night on the town. Another way my anxiety showed up was with the other adult women I mentioned before. When one paid attention to me and listened to me, I immediately and desperately wanted her in my life. I craved something that wasn’t there and could never be, but I didn’t know what it was. Mom died early and without saying goodbye. I am still suffering from that separation which is currently showing up as transference – extremely painful. Meeting my birth mother didn’t have the results I had hoped for, but I have gotten some healing from having my own children. What has lessened my pain the most has been deliberately and intentionally practicing self-compassion through prayer and meditation, learning that I have a treasure trove of love and affection that I can give to myself every day.
Thanks, Michelle, for sharing your story and what was challenging for you as you grew. Thank you also for highlighting what has helped you make sense of your story and helped you heal along the way. It’s always helpful to hear from the lived experiences of those in the middle of the story.
I’m so sorry. I also will always crave and desperately need love from a Mother. I see others who never had to question their place in the world, knowing they belong and are unconditionally loved, their ea\s’y confidence, and calm lives ,easily attached. I also need from partners proof of love, and am always disappointed. The worst is watching it all unfold, being powerless to change it, pleading for time, wanting to be held and really comforted, and watching my mothers exasperation with me, her contempt, which then triples my shame and feeling of being a burden,and unlovable, asking for way too much. I even tried to act younger, and dumber, because it seemed she loved me more when I was cute. I never had children, I’m glad that helped you, no one should ha\ve to be born just to suffer shame that way. I’m trying to speak to myself kindly, but that thought, ‘“if my even my mother ( foster or biological) thinks so poorly of me, I must be nothing) still crops up from time to time. Thank you for sharing y0ur thoughts, they affected me deeply, I’ve never heard the feeling explained so well, you deserve all the best life had to offer!
my mom and i were arrested when she tried to give me away at a bar. i was 3 months old. the last time i saw her i was pulled from her arms kicking and screaming by the bailiff in the courtroom.
That sounds incredibly scary and painful to process. I’m so sorry. And I hope you have the loving care and support around you now to process all you have experienced. Thanks for reading and reaching out.
Primal Wound does not apply to ADOPTEES only! I would hope that integrating this basic truth might make it more accepted? Any child separated from it’s own mother at or soon after birth will experience a Primal Wound. If the mother dies. If for whatever reason a child cannot be with it’s mother – her incarceration, severe mental illness, etc. Any child separated from it’s mother will experience that loss, that wound. The DIFFERENCE is how the loss is addressed. In a child who’s mother dies, but remains with the father or extended family, that mother will be spoken of, remembered, the child will be expected to grieve and supported through their grief. The loss isn’t denied or ignored. Even if the child gets a step mom. I saw Molly Shannon of SNL speak of the loss of her mother in a car accident when she was 4 years old. Tears in her eyes still, wanting to remember and honor her mother. Only in adoption do we have this idea that the adoptive mother fully replaces the biological mother, and for the sake of the adoptive mother SOLELY, we never speak of our other mother. We are told our “real” mother is the one who raised us. We are told we’re lucky, expected to be grateful. Our loss is never acknowledged much less spoken of. So our Primal Wound goes deep. Lasts much longer. Burying it, hiding in the FOG is an emotional safety mechanism that helps us deny our own loss and pain. Until something shifts. And we finally face the loss, the grief. Usually with other adoptees who understand, validate, support us as we navigate through what many of us had long ago buried.
Thanks for your thoughtful response and perspective. You make some excellent points about loss and grief to be considered.
I have a comment. Actually I have a lotto comment on and I would like if you could maybe email me so I can speak with you more about adoptee.
*Edited to remove private contact info
I was adopted shortly after my birth in 1953. I got to know and love my birth parents after the deaths of my adoptive parents.
The story I would like to share, is how when a therapist “regressed me” to the time of my birth, I saw on the ceiling, as tho I was an infant looking up, written the words “there is no mother”.
I spent some time thinking about this; was it my operative understanding of the world? Or, could that have been the same experience any baby born in a hospital would have. Alone in a crib looking up at lights.
What an interesting experience! We are not mental health professionals so that is a question you should walk through with your therapist for the clarity you are seeking. But thanks for sharing it with us.
This is a long story but I hope someone can give us advise and direct us to help.
I adopted my youngest boy at birth. He was 4 hours old when he was placed in my arms. It was an open adoption and we got to know the birth mother beforehand. What struck me, and still burns in my mind, was when I changed his first diaper. I lay him down on the bed where his birthmother was sitting, and he kept turning his head from me to her with this confused expression on his little face. Fast forward to him being 3 1/2 years old now, and I’m still battling to get that really deep connection with him. He seems to be always angry. He has huge behavioural challenges and seems to have it in for woman. He will kick, bite, slap, bit, do anything to physically hurt females, me, granny, his teacher etc. Grandad and other grown-up males are fine. But woman, he is guns blazing.
I did not experience this with my eldest adopted child or my miracle biological child. Could this be part of the primal wound? Being angry at his biological mom? (She is a very robust person by nature, was on drugs in her first trimester, dried out in jail, was released at 6 months pregnancy and still smoked heavily and drank alcohol over weekends till birth. I only found out about the drugs and alcohol when he was 6 months old. Lots of violence in her living-together relationship with a much older man. We do not have physical contact with her at the moment as we agreed to let him decide if he wants to meet her when he is 18, she does get photo’s and an update from me every 6 months).
I am now in the phase of preparing him to know about his adoption. He noticed a pregnant lady thd other day and I used this as the connection point to start talking about tummy mommies and raise-and-love-you-forever mommies. I’ll gradually increase the information as he prompts readiness for the information with questions/interest from his side. My worry is – I am feeling rejection already. By the time he knows the whole story, will it not completely rip open this primal wound? How do I help my boy work through it and heal?
Thank you for reaching out. Have you checked out our resources yet for parenting children who have had prenatal exposure? There’s this page of resources and this recent podcast that might help you understand what is going on for him as a result of the exposures he experienced.
There are also many resources you can access here on our site to help you connect with him in ways that build the sense of safety and trust that he needs. One of my favorites is this one, called Attachment 101 — it’s a great overview of connected parenting. Another helpful resource for learning how to build trust through fun is this podcast: Fun and Simple Ways to Develop Attachment.
Finally, we have a wide range of books to help you build connection, open conversations, and talk together about adoption and help him connect with his story. Check out our Suggested Books pages, like this one for General Adoption Books. There are many other similar pages that you can search for the right fit for your circumstances.
Thanks for reaching out!
Please do not use the tummy mommies & the raise-and-love-you-forever mommies! As an adult adoptee that story is horrifying. How come you kept your tummy baby & his did not? I’ve known as long as I can remember that I was adopted. I was not mad at my adoptive parents (or my mom). IMO it’s better to give an age appropriate, maybe softer when younger, version of the truth. Your original mom loved you but wasn’t able to care for you. Don’t give more information than he’s asking for. Also-Be prepared with answers as to “why?” as they are asked. She wasn’t well. When he’s older, you can add details as to her issues, always reassuring that she loves him the best she was able to do. As to why he’s angry, it may not be because of the Primal Wound. It may be because of all his mom went through during her pregnancy. Stress and anger and instability can affect a child in utero. You may want to discuss that with a therapist or neonatal specialist or? And last, as a mom of a special needs son, I suggest seeking behavior therapy. I learned more about how to help my son with his behavior issues, probably more than he did! Lol It’s been huge! Don’t wait until he’s older. There are techniques that can have a huge positive impact. Best wishes.
Thank you for weighing in thoughtfully and with a perspective that can help parents walk with their children through these confusing feelings and questions.
I know that journey! My son is 29 now – and a great young man. But that was him at 3. Great therapists and fabulous teachers held us up. Surround yourself with all the good resources you can. ***Ask your school district about early childhood services to start. Get services going S soon as they recommend. Don’t be too proud to scream for help. Hang onto your spouse! Read all you can and keep sharpening your parenting skills. The best book I found and wish I found earlier is “How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen & How to Listen So Kids Will Talk.” It’s all worth it as they get older.
Excellent advice! Thanks for weighing in!
Your brain was not sufficiently form to do anything you just described, let alone read. Your “therapist” found a gullible one didn’t they?!
The regression of memories is a common therapeutic technique. Whether you believe in its validity or not, it’s out there, and the research into what our brains understand and process — and WHEN (or how early) — is still unfolding.
Hmm. Just make sure you aren’t being used, because being regressed and then er-traumatized when in that vulnerable state, again, does more damage than anything you can think of!
I have a daughter who is a Korean adoptee. I am caucasian and have always been open with her about her life and what I knew about it. From the beginning we included her tummy mummy (we still use this term as birth mother sounds too clinical and not descriptive) and always honored her. Included her on special days and how special her mom was because she chose life for her. Without more information, it was wrong to assume she was unwanted, so we took the birth and difficult decision to give her up as proof she was wanted. Many questions arose in her life, many we could not answer. She had questions from others and taunts but we always discussed them She is now adult and miraculously we were able to find her mother and siblings in Korea. Her mother passed away a few months after finding each other, but we went together to Korea to meet her sister and brother. It was amazing. So many reaffirming moments. I suggested she go to an adoption counselor once she found her mom. She went a few times but felt it wasn’t needed and that she was prepared for the future.
We never knew about the primal wound theory, While I think it has validity, I think we all have a wound in life, Everyone has “the worst thing that ever happened to me …..” and to each person the pain of the worst is very painful. We all yearn for the “most” and the “best” but have forgotten to know how to live with “enough.” When reading about the primal wound, my daughter said she felt a little ashamed to have had a good adoption. This made me sad. We can’t change the initial circumstance for giving up a child, but as a biological parent as well as adoptive parent, I know the angst a mother must feel. She too is wounded. The past cannot be changed, but the present can honor the past and make a future. I hope one day to hold my daughter’s child, biological or adopted, but the first person I will thank will be her tummy mummy.
You sound like a truly loving, caring and empathetic person. It is no wonder that you created a ‘good’ adoption for your daughter. She should feel no embarrassment at having that (speaking as an adoptee) – it is what we would hope for all, although with the sad vagaries of human nature does not seem to be easy to achieve. Wishing your family all the best for the future.
Your article is extremely invalidating to the experience of adoptees
Thanks for reading and sharing your initial reaction. Have you had a chance to read some of our other archived materials on The Primal Wound Theory? You might appreciate the way they round out this article.
Does the Primal Wound Really Exist? (article)
The Primal Wound – Interview with Nancy Verrier (article)
and In Appreciation of “The Primal Wound Theory” – link to article by Marcy Axness, PhD
We hope that you find these helpful.
I agree, because I desperately wanted my parents to adopt a child or two, for me to have siblings. And I’d hate to think that it would be traumatic, instead of positive, for the children.
How does this theory account for surrogacy and egg donation? There are mothers raising biological children that they never carried. Do the children suffer the wound of separation from a “genetic stranger”? Are they insufficiently bonded with the biological mother that raised and nurtured them?
There are mothers raising non-biological children that they carried and delivered. Do these kids only deal with the traditional adoptee challenges of later life but lack the primal wound?
There are thousands of mothers who have biological children with whom they never had a physiological connection beyond carrying an egg with half the child’s genes. It seems this theory would have to account for these children and how they feel about their unconventional circumstances as well.
These are fascinating questions to ponder. We cannot speak for “all” children through third-party reproduction but, if you are seeking information on how donor-conceived children feel about their conception and parents, maybe you’d like this podcast: Panel of Donor Conceived Adults.
My heart and soul still hurt years after my finding out I had been adopted. I am a late discovery adoptee who found out suddenly when my brother called me late one night from the East coast to tell me to sit down, he had stunning news to tell me. He then told me he was cleaning out our dad, Abe’s NY apartment and found my European adoption docs hidden in a metal box
I found out I was born to a French Jew from Strasbourg and adopted by Jewish Americans in Baumholder Germany at 3 months old. My given birth name was changed through the courts in France to a biblical Jewish name. The story they had told me was they were “visiting” Germany when they had me as I knew I had been born there. No,,,, they went there to go get me.
The extreme loss I feel will never go away, Although I wake up every day and do what I have to for my sons, the pain is deep. A DNA test in 2019 with the help of a “Search Angel” revealed who my unknown birth father was which also revealed I had a bio sister born in the US in 1959. Unfortunately, my bio parents and sister passed away and adoptive parents too.
What hurts me the most is that my adoptive mother was so abusive towards me so why did she adopt me in the first place? My adoptive father and I were close but he never told me about the secret of my adoption, which again hurts me. Also found out all their relatives knew I had been adopted.
I cannot change the past but only move forward. If I can give any parent advice on where to tell their children they are adopted, please tell them when they are of the age of understanding .
Thank you so much for sharing your story and experiences of loss and pain since finding out your true story. We are so sorry for the pain you have endured. Many late-discovery adoptees have found support and connection in social media groups where others are also walking through the stages of grief and how to move forward — I hope you find some solace and connection with others like that.
Thank you also for sharing your advice to adoptive parents. YES, we always recommend discussing the child’s adoption story with them as early as possible, as honestly as possible, and keeping the topics open and accessible in the home while the child processes and grows in his developing understanding of the topics. Your lived experience is a hard example of why this is so necessary!
Again, thank you for sharing your story. May you find peace and healing as you continue to process.
I’m 55 and was taken from my birth mother straight away. For six weeks I was, for all intense purposes, an orphan. I feel stuck, not accepted by the genetic siblings of the adopted family nor accepted by the siblings of my birth family. I also don’t fit with either family. Environmentally I fit with my adopted family, but I have nothing in common with them. My interests are completely different. My birth family I share many similar interests, but my belief system is completely different.
I’m stick, and essentially I am an only child with no real identity. I have struggled with self worth and self esteem issues my whole life. To top that off I was molested and raped in my adopted family and raised in an environment that showed no affection. I often wondered, why did they adopt me? Was I just like the idea of a fluffy new puppy, but when they grow the fantasy wears off.
I wander through life improving my environment, bit nothing ever really fills the hole; I feel incomplete.
Thank you for reaching out and sharing so vulnerably, DebNZ. Your story sounds incredibly painful and challenging to work through. I wonder if you’ve ever considered therapy? We find it to be a helpful thing to have a safe space to process the hard stuff of adopton.
We have resources for therapy that include information about therapists who are also adoptees. And who are adoption-informed. We also have an online support group that includes an active adoptee presence who might be of support and encouragement to you as you work through your feelings and experiences. We’d love to see you there.
Regardless, we are thankful that you shared and we hope you keep reading here. We wish you the best.
I was adopted at 3 weeks. My birth mother just left me then vetoed me later on. I never knew my birth father. My adopted parents could not have children and I was victimised by them all my life by that fact and by my birth mother who I feel abandoned me.
I am an adult and a basket case by this.
I have been told to read The Primal Wound by my counsellor. I hope it sheds light on this for me.
Thanks for sharing your story and for reading our blog. I hope you find the answers you are seeking and the healing that you deserve.
Many wishes for you.
I hope this is ok to post another comment Tracy. At first Nancy Verrier’s book explained everything to me. I recommended it to my also adopted sister and a good friend who’s adopted. The ‘explanation’ was a relief but ultimately disempowering. How I could I move on if my feelings were caused by something that happened 48 years ago? Then I realised that my feelings had been up and down a lot since then. How could a fixed event in the past cause feelings that come and go. Nancy attributes feelings that are human to being adopted. She doesn’t explain what is actually wounded either. Is it our sense of self? That’s just a sense. It’s not who we are. As one philosopher put it, we’re spiritual beings having a human experience. That spirit can’t be wounded because it’s not a thing. Who we truly are is fundamentally unwoundable. I’ve done a video about this at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKGoGKXT-8U&t=2s
I was adopted as a baby. I had a relatively normal life but with a lot of angst. I came across this theory recently and suddenly a lot of things make sense. In particular, the vivid dreams I used to have when I was a very young child, say 3 or 4 years of age. I would dream that my (adoptive) mother would carry me to the end of the driveway and hand me to the garbage man. I would plead for her not to do it, but she wouldn’t listen and I was just helplessly handed over. This was such a distressing and recurring dream that I remember it to adulthood, now in my 40s. To this day, my most common type of dream is being left behind and alone.
Thank you for sharing your experience — we’re glad that this post resonated with you. Adoptive parents can use information like this to support their kids and understand the internal and emotional issues that their kids face. You might also appreciate our recent podcast, on the 7 Core Issues in Adoption and Foster Care. Thanks again for reading and sharing.
To be honest, I wasn’t adopted and I had a very similar recurring dream as a child. Maybe all children have a deep fear of losing the ones who take care of them?
That’s a valid point and likely has some great truth to it — children are vulnerable and need the predictability and safety of knowing that their primary caregivers will BE there.
Thank you for this. I’ve always thought the impact of abandonment and adoption are huge for my daughter, now 17 and worried by constant anxiety. I have always been clear with her about her difficult start in life in China. She knows the story and so far hasn’t been ready to look any deeper at it saying ‘I don’t remember it so I don’t think that has an impact on me.’ We have a really good relationship but she struggles to say ‘love’ to me, even on Xmas cards etc. She came out with a strange pronouncement the other day when she was upset, saying ‘I’m not a family person.’ She is a kind and caring person, but seems to be blocked emotionally. There are plenty of characteristics which, to me, indicate she may be mildly autistic. She is bright, but was diagnosed mildly dyslexic at age 12. I think she may also be high functioning mildly autistic and suggested this a few years ago, but she wasn’t ready to look at it. Now she is ready to look at assessment for this (she has sessions with a therapist who has put the same idea to my daughter). There could be a range of things affecting her, but when we had our first session with an adoption counsellor the other day (who suggested Primal Wound) I got the feeling that the therapist was going to focus (wallow?) on the trauma which I don’t think is helpful. I agree that my daughter acknowledging the trauma of how her life started may help her to move forward emotionally, but I’m wary of the assumption that all adoptees are permanently damaged for life.
Thanks for reaching out and sharing your and your daughter’s struggle. I’m so glad you are seeking therapy and evaluations. They can be very useful tools in finding what works for your daughter and how she can equip herself to cope.
I highly recommend our online support group – https://www.facebook.com/groups/creatingafamily – for you to connect with other parents who “get it” and can share their stories with you as you learn more about your daughter’s needs and how to cope. I also recommend the online group called China Adoption Questions – there are a ton of us who are parenting teen/tween adoptees from China over there to talk to. I’ve found it so helpful. Finally, I think these two podcasts might be of great interest and support to you:
I’ve already listened to them several times and am learning so much!
Best wishes to you both.
Tracy Whitney, are you the author of this post? I really appreciate it.
I am not the author – our Director, Dawn Davenport wrote it in response to an article she read by Dr. Marcie Axness in which Dr. Axness interviewed Nancy Verrier, the author of the original book, The Primal Wound.
Here’s the link to a blog post summary of the interview if you are curious: https://creatingafamily.org/blog/primal-wound-interview-nancy-verrier/
Here’s the link to a radio show/podcast we did with Dr. Axness as well: https://creatingafamily.org/adoption-category/what-adoptive-parents-need-to-know-about-the-primal-wound-theory/
Thanks for reaching out. We hope you continue reading and accessing all our amazing content!
I am not an adoptee but my son is adopted at birth. I never hid the fact that he was adopted and so loved by us and have never pointed any fingers.
Recently going through some rough times now as is dealing with depression, anxiety, and abandonment issues. He was able to meet his siblings recently but his birth mother will not come forth to meet him. I think this has aggravated his anxiety since his symptoms have become more severe since then. I am truly hoping and praying to see him overcome these emotions so I can see him smile with joy.
Are there any similar stories out there?
Thanks for reaching out Blanka and sharing your struggle. I think you will find several other stories similar to your son’s in our online community. You can find us here, on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/creatingafamily
It’s a closed group so you can hear from other adoptees, adoptive parents, and even birth parents about the struggles that your son is facing with his anxiety. You will likely glean some good supportive advice as well.
In the meantime, this resource might be of some help to you in understanding what your son is going through: https://creatingafamily.org/adoption-category/adoption-blog/what-adoptees-want-adopted-parents-to-know-about-adoption-reunions/
We hope you join the group and keep learning with us!
Thank you very much. I will definitely look for the group on facebook and read the article you provided.
I think it depends on the child, the age at which adoption occured and how the adopted parents are handling everything. I was fortunate that I was adopted at birth. My birth mother was anesthetized and when she awoke I was gone and they refused to tell her what she’d had- boy or girl. My actual adoption was a closely guarded family secret, no one was told that didn’t know originally including me. I found out by blood types when I was 40. I’ve since forgiven them for that– found my birth families,- all fine people and continued my life with no feeling of having any “wound” from being adopted.
Thank you for sharing your story!
I think you’re right. I wonder if not knowing you were adopted is why that wound didn’t form?
I was born in 1970 and knew from the age of two or three – and I also knew that I was a “replacement” for a biological child who’d been stillborn.
I also always knew that I’d been premature, taken away at birth and, after the NICU, spent the next couple of months in foster care.
It was always framed as “we chose you” (even though the government adoption agency made the choice).
But I always felt like I didn’t fit, especially after they adopted another baby when I was 6 (they’d started the process a few years earlier – and then we just got a call one day, a few days after Christmas, with no warning [the same thing had happened with me] and we just went to pick him up a day or two later. even though we didn’t have a crib or anything).
It was just in a government office building in a strip shopping mall (the same place they picked me up). We went in, were handed the baby (and a welcome bag with a couple of diapers and formula packets) and left.
It felt very random. I always felt like maybe they felt they’d gotten the wrong kid.
It didn’t help that my mom was physically and emotionally abusive — and constantly used “we’ll send you away if you don’t behave” as a disciplinary technique.
Or that my brother was athletic and into all the stuff (hunting/fishing/sports/tools) that my emotionally-distant dad was into.
So I always felt like I shouldn’t be there, especially when I started to realize I might be gay when I was 7 or 8.
So there were a lot of factors.
And I realize plenty of non-adopted kids feel like they don’t belong, either.
I’m not adopted. But my mother and I clash like fireworks. She is very strong-willed and I’m emotionally fragile and hate the things strong-willed people say. I also hate being an only child! I wish I HAD been adopted. I loved my father individually, but I didn’t like his extended family (uneducated and very religious). So between my weird paternal family tree and being nagged by my mother, I’ve never been truly happy with my family. I only like three of my relatives, and they’ve each been gone for at least five years, one in 1999, one in 2007, and one in 2020.
Most of my relatives are not “on the same wavelength” as me even though they’re biological relatives.
Hi Lilly! I just saw the movie, “Deep in My Heart” last night. It’s on Youtube for free. You might be able to identify with a lot of the feelings shared in this true story. It’s my new favorite movie.
I know you directed this at Lily, but thanks for sharing. Always on the lookout for good adoption-themed movies. I looked this one up and it sounds compelling for sure.
**Fair warning for others who seek it out – the storyline to the movie begins with a rape which results in the conception of the main character.
Thanks again for the recommendation.
You sound dismissive, which is exactly what bothers me about my adopted mom. Just her. If I made a mistake it was biology and I was beaten. If I did what she wanted, it was her nurturing. Tell me that’s not f*cked up for a brown child to hear from a blond/blue eyed authority? Also, she couldn’t accept I didn’t want to identify as Caucasian. Divideing people by Race and attributes associated with skin tone still makes me really upset.
I wish people didn’t have to identify with race to begin with. I’m mixed and I don’t like being referred to as black.
I would love to talk with adult adoptees for some advice on a custody battle we are currently in for my great-niece. I need to know other opinions on if we are doing the right thing for her, for her long term best interests. Would anyone be willing to listen to our story and help me with an open mind?
I’ve sent you an email Susan. Thanks for reaching out!
The feelings of uncertainty, insecurity and the conviction that one is with the wrong parents,that one belongs somewhere else and doesn’t quite fit in are commonplace. Many children get them regardless. I had them and so had friends I’ve talked to. We were all raised and nurtured by our biological parents. What’s the explanation ?
Well, certainly there is some commonality in that set of feelings to the human experience across the board. All of us face moments in which we struggle to know our place, to fit in, to belong. One crucial difference in exploring the theory of the Primal Wound is that for adoptees, those feelings are borne out of a break in that first relationship and in many cases that relationship is not restored or regained.
I think the difference is that adoptees use this PW theory as the explanation for all their feelings, whereas other people don’t have that “adopted” status to hang it on.
That feels like a fairly broad brush with which to paint the picture. Honestly, none of the adoptees in my circles use the theory quite so singularly. Most that I interact with have other tools with which they work through their feelings about their adoption. I think the ones here who are vocal about the issues they face are doing so because they resonate strongly with the theory but we can’t know how else they face the struggles brought about by their adoption story.
My mother is strict and my father’s family are uneducated religious fanatics. I STILL wish I had a different family. (I’m biological not adopted)
I would be interested to watch your video of reuniting. We have adopted four brothers from Haiti.
I’m curious if the wounding would be present in someone whose biological parents are the parents, but he/she is carried by a surrogate mother. Also, would this wounding happen to someone who is raised with the mother, but finds out later that her husband isn’t the child’s father? Or is that something entirely different? Thanks:)
You raise some good points. As I understand the theory, I would assume that it would hold that a child born to a surrogate would feel the wound. I don’t think it would hold that being raised by a nonbiological father would cause a wound. However, what about a child who was in NICU for months and wasn’t cared for exclusively by his mother? Or would a child feel a partial wound if the mother went back to work immediately and the child was cared for by the father, grandmother, or nanny?
What I do know is that this theory is helpful for many adoptees to understand something about themselves and that’s good enough for me. I also know that some adoptees think it’s a bunch of hooey (and that’s a direct quote from one). I suspect it has a lot to do with the circumstances of the adoption, the age of the child at adoption, the relationship with the adoptive parents, the relationship with the birth parents, and the temperament of the adopted person.
Thanks for the thoughtful question.
I can completely relate to your journey Tim. Also when my friend emigrated to Argentina I was inconsolable. It was as if she was dying. I knew my reaction was over the top but I could not control it or understand it at that time. 4 years with a psychologist and I now understand it but still can suffer some of the effects.
Hi Dawn, I was adopted at 3 months and have always known that. There may have been two wounds. Even though I was loved by my parents , grand and great grand parents on both sides and aunts/uncles and cousins I still felt like I didn’t quite fit where I was. I was always curious about who I was and where I came from.
I made it into my mid 40’s before I went for some serious counseling. Without going into a lot of detail here I had an experience in a session (not rebirth) that I came out saying “for the first time in my life I feel legitimate on the face of the earth.”. Counseling was helping but healing really began after that event.
Primal Wound was recommended and I read it. I devoured and related to much of it. I was comforted by it but did not see it as a place to wallow. It helped me see why I was looking at, reacting to and dealing with life the way I was. Now with some understanding a new outlook and approach was possible. I know some adoptees do not seem to need all this but I’m glad it was there for me.
Risking a painful rejection I looked for and found my birth Mom. I just wanted to see her. If it was a bad situation just seeing her would be enough. I did not tell her who I was the first time we met. The second time we met I ask her some questions and she reached out , got my arm and ask “are you that baby?”. Those were some of the sweetest words I’ve ever heard. We developed a great relationship and later she introduced me to the rest of her family and they all accepted me as one of them completely. I NEVER take any of that for granted. God truly blessed me by that.
Always the hopeless romantic I thought I might be the result of young love, summer romance or an office affair but that was not the case. My birth Mom did not live her life as a victim. She went on with her life married and raised a large family while celebrating one extra birthday each year.
I appreciate the fact that my adoptive family did not “spring” the news to me that I was adopted to me when I was 13 or 16 or when I got married. It was just something I knew. When my Mom would introduce me, even after I was grown, she would add the tag “he is adopted”. This bugged me but I never said anything. After she passed away I found an entry in a baby book where she wrote “the whole community came to see you because they had never seen an adopted baby before”. (This was in 1946) She added the tag line out of pride/honor but I took it as “he is not one of us.”
I’ve rambled on but I just wanted to say if you read Primal Wound and it touches you in some way let it heal, soothe, answer some questions and give some understanding. Take some time there but don’t wallow, heal, gain a new outlook and strength and move on with your life.
I hope the book can help adoptive parents understand as different kids react different ways and some more curious about birth family as Christie said. Parents are the ones who do the day to day routine life stuff. I was in my early 20’s when I got my birth Mom’s name but 57 when I met her. The book would have helped in the mean time had it been available. I’m not sure about what age is good to meet a birth family. You have to be respectable to/for the family you are going into. You do not want to blow up another family. It takes maturity on everyones part. I’ve told adoptees and people who gave up children to get your act together incase that day comes. Also never forget that as an adoptee you may find a mess or rejection.
PS A friend made a professional video of me telling about finding my birth Mom and family. At first I thought it was “my story” but after it was done we realized it was “her story” also. It honors the tough/strong decisions she made after a tragic event in her life and decisions she made later when I showed up. It will be finished in about a month. If you are interested let me know and I will send you the link.
Thank you for sharing so much of your story with us. It sounds as if you’ve done a lot of hard, honest work to process your story and how that intersects with your adoptive parents’ and birth parents’ stories as well. Your advice, woven throughout here, is valuable to both adoptees and to adoptive parents. Thank you for that as well.
When your video is done and ready, please feel free to send it to firstname.lastname@example.org – we’d be interested to learn more of your story.
Happy Holidays to you and yours.
I never realized that something that happened to me when I was 3 months old (placed for adoption, after having been with bio mom 3 months) would affect me the rest of my life. I thought I had the ideal adoptive family and that I was ‘normal’, until I wrote my memoir and started researching and discovered WHY I couldn’t spend the night away from home; WHY I cried for a week when my father went on a business trip; WHY when my husband of 25 yrs left, I could NOT let go. All abandonment issues. My story ‘Finding Joy: My Life as an Adoptee’ tells my life story, accompanied by research papers that explain WHY. My quote on the front cover of the book: “Adoption is not an excuse; it is the answer.”
I have these abandonment issues too. Cried inconsolable at funerals. Even for people I did not know well.
I am curious why this doesn’t affect all adoptees.
Is it possible that mothers giving up children have a depressed state during their pregnancy? And that this is passed onto the child? Depression and anxiety?
I am wondering if this has been studied?
There’s certainly been research done on maternal depression and its effect on the child as he/she develops. But I’m not sure that the very unique issues of an adopted child were addressed in those studies. It’s certainly an interesting topic to consider.
It DOES effect all adoptees. Some, especially with the majority of psycho female adopters out there just can’t talk about it. (ie: Aren’t allowed too).
I’m sure it affects a lot of adoptees. I think tho, that adoptees are not a monolith so it’s not likely that it affects all. And certainly not all the same way or to the same degree.
Not all adoptees are unhappy! I know some happy adoptees and due to my mother being strict and my father being from a family of religious fanatics, I wish I myself had been adopted. By a sophisticated family of agnostics or atheists, of course.
I just found your blog by chance. I’m a 46 year old adoptee who has experience lifelong identity issues, difficulty forming and maintaining close relationships, chronic depression and the feeling that I’m incomplete or broken. I grew up feeling completely separate, different and alone, like an alien. I couldn’t understand where I came from so I couldn’t see a future and was convinced that I wouldn’t see the year 2000. As it happened, in 1992 I attempted suicide by ingesting cyanide and survived only by pure chance (I know what it’s like to die).
I spent my childhood idealising self-reliance, trying to control my emotions, minimising connections to people, building layer upon layer of defences so that nothing and nobody could get through. When something did I would build yet more defences. My whole life I’ve tried to adapt and fit in but now in mid-life I feel like there is a well of black emotions in me, as dark and thick as crude oil. These emotions are close to the surface and when triggered they’re uncontrollable – a kind of rage.
In the past I’ve sought counselling and tried medication but nothing has made any real difference. Now I’m seeing a counsellor who is helping me to relive my experiences as a way of dealing with the well of emotions. He thinks the emotions are ‘internalised shame’ but I’ve never felt ashamed at being adopted because I didn’t choose it. However, I’ve always felt worthless because I wasn’t good enough for my mother to want to keep me.
I’m now in regular contact with my genetic family (my genetic parents married and had two other children after me) and doing my best to integrate the different fragments of my identity (like a broken mirror). Both families only feel like half families and will probably always remain so. Sometimes I feel like I have no family.
I’m writing this because after stripping away all the layers of defences I’ve realised that I don’t know what it is at the heart of me that I was so desperate to protect, and where the seemingly endless well of black emotions comes from. I’m afraid to venture any further into that realm for fear of what I might find, what I might disturb, and what it could do to me. However, I know that it is the source of my troubles. Do you have any suggestions for what it might be, or any books that I might read?
I’ve heard of the ‘primal wound’ theory but initially I doubted that a baby could remember the trauma of separation. Having learned about the common experiences of other adoptees I’m now thinking that Nancy Verrier might have hit the nail on the head. The issues I’ve mentioned have been with me since my earliest memories – from when I was 3 years old.
Sorry to ramble on. I’d be grateful for any insights you might be able to provide.
Kind regards, Tim
Tim, I am so impressed with your ability and willingness to keep digging and try to understand your emotions and what is haunting you. I’m so glad you are being guided by a therapist in this search for mental health and clarity. You should definitely read The Primal Wound. Some adoptees see it as the missing link they have been searching for. Some don’t. I’d love to hear back from you after you have read it to see if it answers some questions for you.
Apologies for not getting back to you Dawn. I read The Primal Wound and felt like it resonates with me. However, it didn’t help me fix anything.
I was recently diagnosed with Complex Trauma and PTSD. The only thing that could have caused the complex trauma is my experience of adoption. The complex trauma and PTSD diagnosis explains almost everything I couldn’t understand about myself (the intense feelings I can’t control are emotional flashbacks). It also explains why the trauma never goes away or diminishes. Reliving the trauma of my childhood, as I did with my previous therapist, isn’t an effective strategy and possibly made things worse.
I’m told there are techniques for dealing with complex trauma, including EMDR, but I’m yet to start the therapy.
In hindsight I don’t think I ever stood a chance of a normal life, which is both comforting and distressing, depending on how I look at it.
I’ve no doubt that the primal wound described by Nancy Verrier is the starting point for the development of complex trauma experienced by many adoptees and the mothers from whom they were separated.
I would like to hear more practical parenting tips based on the primal wound theory. I am parenting five children. Three youngest are from Ethiopia. Mother died three years ago. Kids are now 12(male),10(female),7(female). We have had them home for five months. Connecting has been more challenging lately.
I recommend that you join the Creating a Family Facebook Support Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/creatingafamily/) It’s a closed Facebook group so that only those in the group can see the posts. You will get lots of practical parenting tips there. I’ll also chime in over there.
I loved this blog especially since I’ve been thinking about the primal wound ever since you posted your first blog on it a while ago. It’s good info for me to be aware of. I’ve bookmark your blog now.
“The primal wound should not be about blame and guilt: it should be about understanding.”
I am eager to hear your interview. It sounds like it will help me to more deeply understand the primal wound and how it should influence my parenting.
Lori, I too think all of us adoptive parents need to think through this issue, as you say, to influence our parenting.
I thoroughly enjoyed Nancy Verrier’s book and felt like I totally got it. With 4 girls around here, each reacting to adoption in different ways, and having varying levels of trauma, EACH of them at one point has longed for their other mama. It is normal and natural. I would love to read this other book by Dr. Axness. 🙂
Christie, thanks. Dr. Axess’s book is Parenting for Peace. I’m loving it so far.