Adoptees: To Trust or Not to Trust? That is the Question

If an adoptee trusts you, really trusts you, consider yourself the exception to the rule.

For myself, and many other adoptees, trust does not come easily, or it is given so quickly that trust turns into betrayal. It may seem as though this sentence contradicts itself, but it is so true.

Adoptees have been betrayed from the beginning of their lives. The attachment to mother that “should” have been there from the beginning, is often taken away so quickly and so completely, that it makes trusting feel very dangerous for the adopted person

Removal from the mother creates a separation trauma. The separation trauma creates a feeling of abandonment. The feeling of abandonment creates a sense of loss. Loss creates a sense of rejection. Rejection creates a deep feeling of mistrust. Mistrust creates a fear of intimacy or letting anyone close enough to the adoptee heart. The adoptee heart becomes fearful of the intent of any other person who tries to be close. This fear creates a sense of control and finally, the sense of control creates a confusion about identity. All of this looks something like……..this……


Many adoptees have a need to control aspects of their lives. For example, I like to have control in my work space. I like my office neat. I like all my supplies and toys where I can easily get to them, (I am a play therapist) and I like to clean up at the end of each day. I don’t mind when my client’s make a mess or if they put things away incorrectly, because, I get to have control and put things where I know they actually go. I have control in my office, and I like it this way. This is one way I know that, no matter what, I can have things the way I like them, for me.

But, when I feel I need control in other areas of my life, it is a sign that I am looking for safety. I had a conversation with 2 colleagues that I trust this past week. I asked them both about “adoptee control issues.” One, who is not an adoptee said, “Needing control is about seeking safety.” The other, who is an adoptee said, “the feeling of need to control is more relational, it is about seeking trust.”

Whoa – what? When I am in a spiraling brain place and needing control, could it actually be that I need to be able to TRUST another human being? Or that I need to feel safe?

I have spent a lot of time thinking on this topic, and I feel that BOTH answers are correct for adoptees.

  1. safety – Adoptees have been abandoned by their mothers. How can we ever be completely safe when the one person who was to keep us safe left our lives?
  2. trust – Adoptees have been abandoned by their mothers. How can we ever be able to completely trust another person if she left us so easily?

Do you see a connection between these two very important human needs?

So how can adoptees gain safety and trust in life? How can someone who loves an adoptee help them feel safe and have trust?

For the adoptee – work at finding your authentic self. What do you love? What opinions are yours alone? What is your sense of style? What do you adore? What do you dislike? Give yourself permission to disagree with others, and not just on line, but in ‘real life.’ Figure out, as best you can, who YOU are, and embrace your authentic self. I really feel that when we know ourselves, really, really well, we can slowly let others into our lives. It is an amazing moment when I have allowed my fear to take a backseat to my desire to connect and, much to my delight, I can look into another person’s eyes and see myself reflected back because I have figured out parts and bits of who I am as a person.

You are not only an adoptee, you are a courageous man or woman who has survived to this point in your life. You are a seeker. You are a learner. You are strong. (trust me, I can see it in you even as you read these words) Try not to put your entire identity in the adoptee basket, because, that will weigh you down. It is part of who you are, not all of who you are. Allow yourself to be yourself. Be open. Be honest and tell someone when you are needing space, or a break or to put yourself in time out or to have a ‘me’ day or to “introvert on your own.” All is safe and all will refill your bucket so you can connect.

For adoptive parents – help your child find their interests, their skills and their differences in your and their non family of origins. Help them develop the way they develop and not try to fit a square peg into a round hole. Allow them some autonomy. Allow them to explore the world, and be their safety net. Tell them about what you know of their origins. Don’t be shaming or condescending about their first parents or family. Never put their family of origin down or refer to them in a negative light, as this will tell the child that they too must be “no good,” or “defective.” Be supportive, not smothering. Adopted children need different parenting and they need to be validated in ways that are meaningful about who they are as individual human beings. Also, read The Primal Wound so you will understand your adopted child more deeply.

For partners, loves and spouses of adopted people – you may need to reassure your person that you are staying. If you don’t plan to stay, don’t lie and say you will, because this will cause more harm than you can ever imagine. If your person seems to push you away, they are, and it is most likely because they are adopted and needing control. This is when you remain patient and connected. Make time to talk, reassure, remind how important they are to you and to look them in their eyes. Eye connection is very hard for some adoptees, but it is also the way the brain can be settled and reassured that it can connect. Not long, romantic looks, but some brief, kind eyes can really help settle the anxiety of the need to push away and run away. Some adoptees will test and test. (this is my special skill) and to see if you will “REALLY” stay. Emotional leaving is hard on adoptees, too. We are the experts at doing this and when it is done TO us, it is so painfully confusing.

If all this seems hard, you are right. If being adopted seems hard, you are right.

If having meaningful connections in life, knowing your authentic self and staying present even when you want to run away sounds hard, you are right. AND, IT IS TOTALLY WORTH THE EFFORT.

There are some great books out there about attachment:

For relationships and partners:

Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love

For Parents

The Connected Child by Karyn Purvis

For adoptees:

Coming Home to Self – by Nancy Verrier

The best thing about being human is finding other humans that we can love and be loved by in return. Connection is everything. Small steps. Give a little. Gain the trust. Give a bit more. Offer your own heart love. You can do this, I have faith in you.


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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW

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