The Lifelong Journey of Adoption Trauma

Every adoption is different. Some adoptees have more positive experiences then others. Some adoptees were provided a safe space, not to deter the fact that the trauma still exists, but they were supported in handling that trauma in a healthy environment. However, not all adoptions are safe. When I say this, I don’t necessarily mean physically (although that is another aspect some adoptees have to struggle with), I mean emotionally and mentally. Adoption is rooted in a twisted vine of experiences and emotions. The spectrum goes all the way from grief and loss to love and acceptance. No matter the age of the adoptee when adopted, it is there. Some adoptees express this differently, some are not as affected as others. All adoptees have their own path, experiences and story.

But what about the children who are not afforded a safe space in adoption. Those children, grow into adults and those experiences and that pain follows. Adoption trauma is life long.

A study conducted on the mental health of US adoptees found “the odds of being diagnosed with ADHD and ODD were approximately twice as high in adoptees as compared to non-adoptees” (Keyes, Sharma, Elkins, and Iacono, 2008). “Adoptees scored only moderately higher than non-adoptees on quantitative measures of mental health. Nonetheless, being adopted approximately doubled the odds of having contact with a mental health professional and of having a disruptive behavior disorder” (Keyes, Sharma, Elkins, and Iacono, 2008).

Another article and news report found that “Overall, the GAO looked at nearly 100,000 foster children in the five states and found that more than one-fourth of foster children were prescribed at least one psychiatric drug. The GAO found foster children were prescribed psychotropic drugs at rates up to nearly five times higher than non-foster children, with foster children in Texas being the most likely to receive the medications compared to foster children in the other four states.” (Abdelmalek, Adhikari, Koch, Diaz & Weinraub, 2011).

This is not to take away from instances where children truly do need medication. However the disproportionate amount of foster children and adopted children who are placed on medication and over-diagnosed is staggering and alarming. In reality, many children (in foster care and adopted) diagnosed with ADHD are actually experiencing complex trauma and when we look at it in that standpoint, medication would not be the way to address it. Support, intensive therapy and consistent unwavering and unconditional acceptance would be more appropriate because it is not a chemical imbalance but past trauma that created the symptoms.

These are just some pretty hard statistics in relation to adoption. While some of the sources refer to children in foster care, this also directly relates to adoptees adopted out of the foster care system, such as myself.

What exactly could equate these types of findings? Are they all “right”? What is leading to this trend?

This week has been especially hard for me. I am tired and I read some things that were extremely hurtful. I have been given files in the last year that chronicle my life and adoption. To give a little background, I was adopted at almost 4 years old. I entered the child welfare system through the form of a respite home 2 weeks after I was born and within 2 weeks my status was formally changed to foster care. I had more than 2 different placements before 11 months of age, at this point I was placed into the foster home of the family that would eventually adopt me. Prior to entering their home, I was described as a bright and happy baby. Once I was transitioned into their home, the paperwork does a very dramatic and negative shift in how I am described.

When I was 1 years old, it was advocated by my foster parents to have a full panel of genetic and chromosomal testing done because I was a fussy and “hard” baby and because both my birth parents had mental health issues and some limitations. These tests were normal but the stage was set. All the paperwork points to my first parents and my behavior was always related to my adoption. I was over diagnosed and over medicated my entire childhood. I was subjected to evaluation after evaluation, partial programs, sent away to other family members and even placed in a Residential Treatment Facility (which I showed absolutely no sign of the issues presented when placed there and also in which staff members and my counselor apologized to me for not being able to discharge me. In order to be discharged, my family had to attend family sessions but they refused for months. My “issues” only presented in the home so their hands were tied). I found an application in which my adoptive parents actually applied for me to receive SSI, which was denied.

Some of the diagnoses are listed in the attached picture, a diagnosis that was not included was that of RAD. Although never formally diagnosed with this, it is tossed around in all of the paperwork that I have read. This picture was taken from an IEP but it was the best way to capture the history of my diagnoses. It is also important to note that all of the “issues” I had was reported by my adoptive parents but was not seen in real time by professionals. This is also documented and there are a few different photo excerpts that I added to show this.

This is only a small part of my beginning, there was so much more related to my first family and the experiences that I had before the adoption was finalized at almost 4 years old.

The other two pictures attached are of the medication that I was prescribed. This was a snapshot of a time period, but I was on medication virtually my entire childhood. This began shortly after I arrived in the house around a year of age. I apparently would not sleep and would cry a lot. Taking out the fact that I was uprooted and taken from the parents I had known and placed into a new home. No one seemed to think this could be grief and loss, fear and panic at bedtime. We talk of routines with children. I was confused and crying for help. Before the age of four I was placed on sleeping medication for “insomnia”. I had never had issues sleeping before in previous placements. At the age of 17.5, I left my adoptive home and stopped all medication. I was fine, and was able to function. This is an interesting fact because the many of the disorders I was diagnosed with would not simply disappear and in fact, I should have gone into crisis after stopping medication.

If you have not already, please refer back to my blog post; “Let’s Talk; Seeing behaviors through a trauma informed lens” to understand the significance of descriptive language when describing foster children and adoptees.

I was failed by the system. I was failed by professionals. When I place all of the paperwork in front of me, spanning almost 18 years of my childhood, I SEE A TREND. A trend that should have been picked up by the numerous professionals that I was put in front of. It also dawned on me, what narrative does a child live out when everything around them is pointing to them being the problem? Everyone and everything pointing at them being the one that needs fixed, to change and to adapt? Even when reading the strengths that were put down on paper (picture attached), it is full of passive aggression and negativity. The one place it should be about my good attributes.

I am now an adult. After leaving my home, stopping communication (for a brief time to process and get myself together) and making my own decisions; I was miraculously able to function and even thrive. I had no “issues” or “behaviors” that carried over, all that changed was the environment in which I lived. I now have three degrees, a healthy marriage and two beautiful children. My Masters is in Clinical Social Work and I am currently licensed in the state I live. I completed all degrees with GPAs above 3.8, my undergraduate degree and masters degree were a 4.0 and 3.9 respectively. I did this with no learning support (interesting as I ended up barely graduating from an alternative school and was not expected to go further than job corp, let alone college) and the only physical support being my husband. I also did this with two children. Contrary to what everyone predicted, I am now the first person in both my birth and immediate adoptive family to go to college and obtain a degree. Now, how would that be possible with what I stated above? The child that was described on all the paperwork would not have been able to accomplish what I have accomplished. That child that was described on all the paperwork was not an accurate picture of what was really happening and who I really was. However, my voice was silenced, my experience was merely a “faulty perspective” as described by both my adoptive parents and professionals. I was not living in a safe place. The people who were supposed to protect me did not like me. No one heard me, pulled me aside and asked me what was really going on (in the home), no one wanted to listen to the person at the center of the actual adoption, the adoptee. Every professional took what my adoptive parents said, sympathized with them and did their best to help THEM. I had no control and I had no safe support. I was not heard. This is not just my story but many. The different screenshots of the descriptors used is common with adoptees.

My profession and passion is built around my past. I never had a social worker who elevated my voice in the room of people. I never had a professional who truly advocated for what was best for me and not what was best for the family or my parents. I never had a professional look further than what my adoptive parents stated as a fact. It has been my mission to be that professional I never had.

All this to say, I am well adjusted. I left home and took control of my own life and I have thrived. I have flourished. I have conquered and I have pushed past every negative description that individuals tried to plaster across who I am. I own my own experience and no one can take that from me. However, I am still deeply effected by my childhood trauma, by adoption trauma. There are days that I am triggered and I have to sit down and take care of myself. There are days that I need to center myself and tell myself, I am an adult and I am now in control. Adoption trauma is life long, from the loss that envelopes the beginning of adoption, the grief that is always there and the trauma that may come from the adoptive family itself. It is life long.

I love my adoptive family. I love my adoptive parents. I believe they were ill equipped, not properly trained, followed professionals blindly, and at times put their own issues into how they interacted and raised me. One thing I stand by as a professional working in the realm of child welfare is that before adopting, you need to examine your motives, your fantasies of the child you are bringing into your life, adoption itself, and examine yourself. You need to pinpoint your own issues and do the work to heal and grow before bringing in a child who has a plethora of trauma themselves. If not before adoption, then it needs to be done during it. My adoptive parents had faults but they are still my family. However, it was still unfair and unjust. Adoptees can love the family that raised them and also hate the adoption experience they were given. They are not mutually exclusive. It has been and will always be my mission to impact the world of adoption in a way that helps support the adoptee first and foremost. It is my mission to truly make changes on all levels and to enact safe spaces for foster and adoptive parents to learn and for adoptees to be elevated in the conversation. Adoption is a life long fluctuating experience. All stories are different but this is part of mine and I am taking it back.


Published by Stephanie Oyler

Stephanie is a Licensed MSW professional who specializes in the area of adoption and foster care. She is also an adoptee herself. Adoptee LIT is a space created for education, advocacy, personal insight/experience and guidance in the sphere of Adoption.

4 thoughts on “The Lifelong Journey of Adoption Trauma

  1. wow were you a gorgeous little girl, they must have been so excited the money they could make off you. are you in reunion?


    1. Hi Denise. I was in reunion with my birth mother for 11 years until she passed late last year. I am in reunion with an Aunt on my fathers side but besides that, unfortunately there is not many other people in my first family. Both my parents came from the system themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

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