Adoption and Attachment Issues in Young Adults
It’s estimated that as many as 35% of all young adults in treatment programs are adopted. This is a shocking statistic when compared to the general population, which is comprised of only 2% adoptees! One of the driving factors behind this statistic is the issue of abandonment that often accompanies adoption. Abandonment anxieties can morph into attachment difficulties, which then often express themselves as symptoms of ADHD, bipolar disorder, and learning disabilities. So by the time an adopted child becomes a young adult, she may have several layers of emotional and behavioral dysfunction, all of which stem from the trauma experienced during adoption.
We now know that a child’s attachment to her mother starts in the womb, so even a child adopted at birth can experience severe attachment disruption later on in life. An infant’s world changes radically when the biochemical connection to her birth mother is severed. While this can be mitigated by adoption into a loving family, separation from the birth mother can still have an impact. Separation can constitute an actual trauma that is significant enough to drive important developmental changes. Some experts are even entertaining a diagnostic label of “developmental PTSD” for infants or children who experience attachment issues as a result of separation from the birth family.
It’s during infancy and early childhood that the right hemisphere–responsible for relationships and emotions–is developing most quickly. So neurological events that occur at this time can have a long-term impact on relational and emotional functioning. In young adults who have adoption-related issues, we tend to see emotional dysregulation along with generalized relational difficulties with parents and peers.
Abandonment, however, is the core issue for the young women we’re discussing; it’s often what drives all of the other issues. “Imagined abandonment” is part of what these young adults are dealing with. Because of early attachment trauma (which they’re usually not even conscious of), the young adult imagines that all the important people in her life will leave her. She’s braced against imagined future abandonment, which of course leads to high levels of relational ambivalence.
The first step in the healing process is to get the parents and child talking about the impact of adoption—acknowledging that there is loss involved. Adoption is a beautiful and redemptive event, but it’s one that does involve loss–often for both the child and the adoptive parents (who may have had difficulty conceiving, etc.). For the young woman, the loss is likely not remembered but it’s also not forgotten; it can operate as an invisible emotional force that must be brought to consciousness before it can be dealt with.
We work to help the young woman realize that she is continuing to behave as if she is going to be abandoned at any moment. We try to help her understand the very real (but until then mysterious) source of her fears, and then to distinguish between real and imagined threats of abandonment.
With a loving, supportive approach that addresses the core issue of abandonment, treatment results can be profound.