The Thread of Trauma Woven Between Spiritual Abuse, Control, and Adoption; My Childhood Introduction

There are many ways that adoption trauma surfaces at different times throughout an adoptee’s childhood and lifespan. There are no continuing training requirements and the lack of adequate and quality training for adoptive parents’ preadoption finalization can lead to very dangerous outcomes for children and youth who have been adopted. 

One category of abuse has very rarely been heard by the broader adoption society, Spiritual Trauma and Abuse. This is not to say that people and more specifically, Adult Adoptees, have not spoken out about their experiences with it. On the contrary, many adult adoptees have shared their experiences of trauma within the church and the spiritual abuse they were subjected to. However, it is not often highlighted or seen when we look at the broader responses of others who are impacted by adoption; adoptive parents, individuals seeking to adopt, adoption professionals and the law that guides adoption policies, to name a few common sources.  

Spirituality has been defined as a “search or quest for the Sacred” or as a “private, personal, affective experience with ‘the Divine’” (Walker, Reid, O’Neill, & Brown, 2009). Spiritual abuse in childhood is often defined as child abuse impacting a child’s sense of spirit or spirituality. When the child has been in foster care or adopted, their sense of self can already be fragile and the trauma that they may have already from these experiences places them in a category of vulnerability that intersects with other parts of their whole self and being.

Before moving forward with this article, I want to re-affirm that the safety and wellbeing of children, particularly those impacted by the experience of foster care and adoption will always guide my work. I am not a judge on religion or spirituality. I will not bring my own views of religion into the conversation. My goal is to remain professionally objective. 

It is important to note that while faith is not necessarily harmful, and often considered a virtue, religion, on the other hand, has a long history of abuse and even genocide. It has been used as a framework to weaponize, enslave and control populations and communities and in some respects, in some locations and ideologies it still does. This is a documented fact, and it needs to be recognized in Adoption, and most especially in Transracial and Transnational Adoption, as mission organizations are often arbiters of adoption, globally. 

The struggle for control, individuality and independence is not new between children and caregivers. However, the struggle for control can be a much different experience for an adopted child. The life-altering decision made for a child without their consent is and always will be the foundation of adoption. The loss a child faces over their story and narrative is only compounded by the loss of the ability to access key pieces and parts that suddenly become out of reach due to laws, policies, bias, adoptive/birth parent fear/guilt/shame or even just personal opinion. This is where we need to truly focus in on the difference between power over a child and empowering a child within their adoption experience.

Power is used to divide between those who have it and those without it. It is a measure used to place oneself, one community, one population above another. It serves as a reminder that the control lies in the person, community or population with the power and not necessarily the with those who have a basic and human right to it.

Empowerment places the power with those who it belongs to regardless of status, affiliation or intent. It provides a message that others will walk alongside and lift that person, community or population up when they fall, shower them with encouragement and do this without taking their autonomy and control.

It is not surprising after understanding the impact that control plays in an adoptee’s experience, why the idea that spiritual abuse may be that much more traumatic within their lifespan. 

A common thread I have seen within my work and within my broader community circle is that the harder a child pushes against the idea of something, the harder some religious communities push their caregivers to force their child to conform. This leads us to what the definition of conformity actually is. The best definition that I have come across is simply “yielding to group pressures” (Crutchfield, 1955). There is no room for growth, individuality, or understanding. It is simple, the more the sin of a child not fitting into the spiritual norms of their parent’s belief system, the more a child must be disciplined and punished into submission. Submission within the direct pressures of the immediate family system and conformity within the social pressures of religion.

As a child, I was hurt, I did not feel the love and acceptance of a family or of a mother. From the very beginning, I had my own personality, thoughts, and feelings. However, this was not encouraged within my family system or by my parents. There are many unhealthy traits that permeate through my family’s belief system of how a family should be and act.

My thoughts and feelings were never wrong, they were just different. I wasn’t a bad child, I was a child that wasn’t able to assimilate into the culture of the family I was adopted into and because of that, I was punished; and spirituality, faith, and Christianity was used as a weapon to control and scare me into submission. This is Spiritual abuse and the repercussions this abuse has had on me throughout my life has been life altering. 

My adoption experience and the trauma and pain I was left to process on my own was considered disobedient in the eyes of the church my family was apart of. It directly clashed with the teachings and ideals that their particular view of Christianity held.

At the age of 11-years-old, I was sent away for the first time (of many until I turned 18) for a period of two months. Each time I was sent away drove a deeper divide between my trust in what my adoptive parents presented as ”love”. This particular time the idea was presented under the guise that I was going to a mission driven exciting summer camp. What I experienced was nothing short of terrible, abusive and traumatic.

I want to reiterate that I was 11-years-old. The same age my daughter is now. I could never fathom sending my child away for two months at this age, regardless of where it was. I would move heaven and earth to make sure my child is safe and loved. This was an experience that made me feel neither safe or loved. 

Control is and was the main motivating factor within the conservative evangelical version of Christianity I was raised in. The founding principles of the summer camp I was sent to revolved around obedience, control and conformity. One of the most alarming pieces of information I received back as an adult was the file that contained the paperwork from this summer camp. Most notably, the checklist that we were given to guide us as we packed and the agenda/itinerary of how each week would be laid out with a daily agenda outlined. I had no idea I was heading to a spiritually abusive boot camp disguised as a fun children’s mission summer experience.

It is also important to highlight that the act of sending an adopted child away for reformation and as punishment is a way to burn any type of connection you are trying to build with your child and also further traumatizes an already vulnerable and traumatized child. An adopted child is not inherently bad, wrong, or in need of correction and conformity. Adopted children do inherently experience trauma. It is our job as adoption professionals, adoptive parents, and adults within a community that has adoption interwoven in the experiences of those around us to provide a net of safety and protection. A net to build and empower adoptees and give them the space to recognize, understand, and process all of their experiences safely and without judgment or expectation.

I remember taking this photo to the left for the sole purpose of being sent in and used on the prayer card for friends and families during my summer away. I was so young and naive. I had no idea the abuse that awaited and robbed me of that summer. A summer I should have been riding bikes with friends, going swimming, and catching fireflies. The highlighted bullet points to pray for included sensitivity to God and cooperative attitude.

The stationary provided to us to write letters home was graphically detailed and pretty accurate to the experience. I want to make a note that I did not draw the pictures boarding this letter. It was on all of the standard stationary that was provided. Below is a letter that I wrote home. Reading this as an adult made me truly hurt for my 11-year-old self. I had no way to make a call or reach my family directly for 8 weeks. All I could do was write letters and as written at the bottom of my letter, I could not understand why I wasn’t receiving any letters back. In reality, its because my family never sent me any.

For context, in the letter I talked about an “S.B.”. This abbreviation stands for a “special blessing” which was the camp’s form of punishment. You could receive these for just about anything and you could also receive these as a group with your team. This could be digging holes, cleaning sheds, moving wood and junk around, and picking weeds. I remember getting many of these because I couldn’t finish what was on my plate. I would then spend my free time in the middle of a hot Florida field picking weeds in the middle of summer.

I never quite fell into line, I always knew I wasn’t what was “ordered” and the unreturnable status caused issues. I was not a conformist. I have always spoken up about things I felt and knew were wrong and this included the things I continuously lived through, throughout childhood within my adoptive home. 

From the moment I was placed with my adoptive family until I was 18 years old, I was subjected to things that were meant to change me, make me more compliant, make me more obedient, make me smaller, and fit into the expectations and mold of what those around me wanted. This was done through chemical abuse, physical abuse, mental/emotional abuse and spiritual abuse. I was medicated beginning at the age of 18 months old and began receiving diagnoses that I did not actually have. However, no professional ever questioned my adoptive parents’ intentions or motivations. No professional ever questioned my adoptive parent’s mental health or stability. They simply shook their head in sympathy and gave another diagnosis, wrote a note and handed my adoptive mother a medication script.

The spiritual abuse I was subjected to only made this experience that much harder. It drove the idea that there was something wrong with me, that I was sinful and the family I came from was sinful and that I could be ”born again” into the child I was meant to be through faith, god and the church. We are all “adopted” by God once we accept Jesus into our hearts and repent. This is the mindset that validated the abusive actions of my adoptive parents, and they were sanctioned by the church community around them to do so.

It was through this experience that I lost faith in the principles of the Christianity I was raised in and the love and protection that my adoptive parents ascribed to uphold. I lost trust in what family was meant to be. In my small young 11-year-old mind, families didn’t seem to work out for me, so maybe I wasn’t meant to have one of the “good ones”. The foundation of adoption took me from one set of parents and then placed me into a home with another set of parents that then abused me through the use of spiritual abuse (and other forms of abuse) to say that I was loved, wanted and protected. Even at 11 years old I knew that couldn’t be right.

The fact is we need to speak out on these experiences and pieces because it isn’t an exception to the norm. Even one child who experiences this, is one child too many. An adopted child is coming into the world of ”family” much differently then other children. All children deserve safety, love and acceptance but the nuances of adoption make all of the aforementioned things much more complicated.

Religion and spiritual abuse within adoption and within an adoptee’s life carries variables that are woven into the principles of the ”savior complex” and the motivations that validate it. This needs to be analyzed much more closely. As professionals, as adults, as teachers, parents, coaches and those in power, we need to do better in protecting the children we say adoption saves, after the adoption has been finalized.

We need to put a spotlight to expose Religious Trauma and Spiritual Abuse, the rationale and hidden motive for control and the need for ownership of the adopted child within these specific adoption experiences. We need to dissect the way it is used to weave positivity and shield the surface of adoption and yet, behind closed doors it is used as a weapon against the children they say they saved.

Recognizing Spiritual Abuse

It can be hard to recognize abuse when you live within it’s environment. Spiritual abuse is no difference. Religion and spirituality can also be a topic that is hard to broach and those around may take offense to any type of critique of something they hold close to their spiritual principles. This can make it hard for individuals to feel a safety in speaking out or pointing out Spiritual Abuse when they see or experience it, especially when their immediate family and broader community holds views that align or are relative to the situation, even if they are not directly involved with the spiritual abuse themselves.

Spritual abuse is also hard to confront and speak out on when as a child you have been gaslighted or punished during times you did speak up or disagree. “Summer camps” like the camp highlighted earlier in this article are a good example of this. As a child I was intensely gaslighted at even a thought or curious question around Christianity. My environment allowed me no safe space to breathe or think differently. Therefore, I avoided the topic. There was no room for even a conversation, let alone a debate and by questioning the Faith that I was raised in, I was made to believe I was “sinning” or that I needed to be exposed even more and with more structure and less flexibility.

Another example of this is evidenced by a brief story of my daughter and my adoptive mother. When my daughter was 9 years old she was very into greek mythology. She is an avid reader and enjoys learning about other cultures, stories and customs. She has always loved to learn. Her classroom library was filled with chapter books about greek Gods, mythology and all of the riveting stories about each specific God or Goddess.

My adoptive mother came by quickly to say hi and my daughter ran to great her. During their brief conversation my daughter excitedly told my adoptive mother about Zeus who she had recently read a book on. My adoptive mother made a face of discontentment and concern and with in one swift moment she cut my daughter off mid sentence to correct her. “You do know that there is only one true God, right?”. I quickly ushered my daughter inside and the next morning my adoptive mother dropped two bibles off for my children, ”just in case”. My daughter simply enjoyed Greek Mythology and was quickly judged in that short exchange and later, in private she expressed how she felt unsafe and uncomfortable during that interaction.

I was able to step in as her mother, but as a child that was my constant reality and environment. It was hard to measure up as an adoptee who already struggled with the classic adoption issues but even more so when we add the layer of spiritual abuse within the mix.

So, how can we recognize that we have either experienced Spiritual abuse or possibly still experiencing Spiritual Abuse? Below, I list some signs that you may want to look a little closer at. It is important to note that if you are feeling that you have experienced or are still experiencing Spiritual Abuse I encourage you to seek help or advisement from a trusted friend, counselor, or outside party.

  • Slander/Reputation Damage
    • Spiritual abuse is fueled by the act of shaming and gaslighting. A commonly used tactic to remain in a sense of power is to use the act of gossip and slander to tarnish an individual’s reputation in an attempt to keep them in a submissive and passive role. This is particularly harmful to children and due to a child’s natural vulnerability they are less likely to be be able to disagree without being labeled. Children can oftentimes be given the label of disobediant, defiant, unruly, or troubled. In extreme cases these false narratives can be used as a way to justify diagnoses, medication or extreme punishments.
  • Spiritual Abusers (like many abusers) are Experts at Presentation and Masters of Deception
    • Those who use Spiritual Abuse to exert power and control are masterminds at presenting as normal and are often well liked by those around them. Parents may be overly critical and strict about the way their children dress and present to the outside world but even more so within the church or community Faith they attend. Children can be punished, shamed and/or criticized for not complying or attempting to exert any form of individuality from their family unit. The same amount of care may not be seen in other areas that do not directly reflect the parents position of spiritually or faith, such as school. Children may look underdressed and unkempt in other spaces or communities.
  • Spiritual Abuse is Oftentimes Carried out in Likeminded Spaces/Communities and Supported by the Company that Surrounds Abusers
    • Spiritual Abuse is done in spaces and communities where others validate the behavior and hold the same principles. They will condone behavior that otherwise may be deemed abusive. These communities may even encourage harsh or extreme forms of shaming or corporal punishment/discipline.
  • Spiritual Abuse Twists Truth to Uphold Power
    • In Spiritual Abuse, teachings such as the bible are used in ways that prove the specific point attempting to be made but doing it in a way that is untruthful to the scripture or lesson being used. Individuals may use partial quotes, change the sequence of scripture or even make up their own version to fit their opinion and agenda. This is used to maintain a sense of power, control and authority and to keep that authority from being threatened or questioned.
  • Spiritual Abuse Speaks Before Asking, Always
    • Spiritual abusers will make and uphold assumptions and treat you accordly whether you spoke or not. A differing perspective or defense is oftentimes disregarded, belittles, twisted or diminished and used to shame or ruin credibility and reputation.

This is the first article in a series of articles I will be doing highlighting sprititual abuse, control and the role it plays in some adoptions. It is important that we recognize and understand that the nuances and layered issues that come with being adopted can be exasperated by different intersecting experiences, such as being raised in a religious household. This does not mean that religion is bad, but it does mean that the way we express love, how we validate, how we continue to hold safe spaces and landing zones, and how fear, shame and guilt within the church can affect children and adults differently if they have been adopted. This does not encourage judgment but instead encourages reflection.

These are things that need to be recognized so that we don’t further separate or cause disconnect between adoptive parents and adoptees but instead act in ways that take into account these intersecing identities and allow for safe connection and reconnection.

Click Here for more stories and experiences from those who attended Teen Missions International.

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.

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