Attachment Injury and Adoptees

As a clinician working with children in foster care, I have seen children placed, removed, moved, placed, removed,  moved placed, removed in foster homes over and over again. Often, this causes the child to retreat within themselves, losing trust in the system and in adults…and in themselves.

I call these incidents of interruption Attachment Injuries.  This is not a phrase I came up with, but it certainly fits the feelings and the struggles of adoptees in the process of learning to navigate life.  I have had injuries and struggles, too.  I understand what it feels like to push someone away before they can push me away.  It is so painful.

Dr. Sue Johnson defines an attachment injury as “a feeling of betrayal or abandonment during a critical time of need.”  Wow….isn’t birth and childhood a “critical time of need?”

Nancy Newton Verrier, describes the trauma of being separated from the voices, rhythms, and smells of the womb as The Primal Wound.

Bonding or attachment begins during the time a child is forming in the mother’s womb. What happens when that child is then removed from that mother? What happens when the decision to relinquish this yet to be born baby to adoption while the baby is still in the womb?

I have processed this feeling in therapy, and my therapist calls this separation from my biological mother my “core wounding.”  When my biological mother died, it seems to have gone even deeper within my bones.  It is an ache that I can not fully describe in words.

I found a quote in an article that stood out to me about the attachment injury while in the womb.  Here is a quote that stood out to me.

“Scientific research now reveals that as early as the second trimester, the human fetus is capable of auditory processing and in fact, is capable of processing rejection in utero. In addition to the rejection and abandonment felt by the newborn adoptee or any age adoptee for that matter, it must be recognized that the far greater trauma often times occurs in the way in which the mind and body system of the newborn is incapable of processing the loss of the biological figure. Far beyond any cognitive awareness, this experience is stored deep within the cells of the body, routinely leading to states of anxiety and depression for the adopted child later in life.”  Bryan Post, Attachment Parenting Blog

These incidents of separation and betrayal cause injury to the attachment style of the person who has experienced them; sometimes even before they are even born.

Everyone has an attachment style.  It is a way we interact with others in our lives.

Here is a graphic that explains attachment styles.


Often, adoptees feel a sense of unworthiness or not feeling loveable because of the relinquishment by their mothers.  “How can anyone ever love me if even my own mother left me?”    Or, many feel the abandonment as unspeakable shame. “If I had been prettier, a better little girl / boy, my own mother would have chosen to stay rather than leave me, right?”

Even if these words have not been articulated, I have met hundreds of adoptees who have expressed a deep feeling of not feeling good enough.  At times in my life, I have felt this way, and felt such personal disdain for myself that I did not feel worthy of anyone’s love.

How can we heal our deep attachment injuries?  Here are some thoughts 

1. Recognize that you are injured, you are NOT the injury – Many adoptees seem to take on the injury as their fault.  The birth mother made the decision to place the baby (you) for adoption.  The baby had no wrong doing in this choice.  Though, I do acknowledge that many adoptees feel rage about not having any choice in the matter…and I recognize and honor your rage.  It is well earned.  My hope, is that it does not destroy you or your chance to have a fulfilling life.

2. Acceptance can lead to more Peace – The Serenity Prayer feels meaningful to me as an adoptee “God / Higher Power  grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”   I cannot change the fact that my birth mother chose adoption.  No matter how much I wish I could have been raised with my siblings, my cousins or my biological people, I cannot go back and change the past. I have accepted this fact.  This has been a difficult path to walk.  I just looked at my life one day and knew that I could either wallow in misery or I could accept that I can not change the past, and work for the rest of my life at making each day count for something…for myself.  I am at peace.  This does NOT mean that I am “all better” about my adoption attachment injuries.  I still work at it and stay present in my relationships that matter. It is work, because some days, I want to say “F it all….I am running away.”  But I stay.

 3. Insight is a Mighty Tool – We must gain insight into our adoption and our attachment injuries. Insight means realizing why things worked out as they did, why you are how you are, why they were how they were. It’s not about making excuses for anyone. It’s about assessing the depths and locations of the scars in your inner self, so you don’t keep falling into those same patterns for the rest of your life.  How many of you adoptees reading this have either physically or emotionally “left” someone before they could leave you? (imagine my hand raised high)  How painful of an ache did you feel when you left?  Recently, a dear adopted friend said to me, “I don’t leave people, I have stayed even when it is toxic for me because I did not want to do the leaving….”  This is true of adoptees, too.  There does not seem to be a lot of middle ground.   Work at staying.  Work at communicating.  Work at you staying, when it is healthy.  Remember, Pain is Inevitable and Misery is optional in all relationships.  Your choice.

4. Learn your attachment style – Find a competent adoption and attachment therapist that can administer the AAI – Adult Attachment Interview psychological test to learn your attachment style.

I am injured.  I have a deep mother injury that I am not sure I can really ever heal completely.  But, one thing I know for sure, is when I have chosen to stay, and not leave, both physically and emotionally in important relationships, my life becomes richer and more meaningful.  It is HARD WORK for my adoptee heart, brain, soul, feet, and entire wounded self to STAY when I even get a whiff of hurt or pain coming my way.  But, I have chosen to glue my feet in place and weather the storms.  I choose this every day.

Stay attached, my friends, stay attached.





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