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Adoption Awareness Month: Acknowledging the Complexity of Experiencing Relinquishment

November is Adoption Awareness Month, and I'd like to take this time to recognize the adoptees. While adoptees tend to have resiliency superpowers, it's still not an easy road. Did you know that adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide than non adopted people? Research shows that the prevalence of any lifetime substance use disorder is 43% higher among adoptees (50.5%) when compared to non-adoptees.

Often I have found in my work with adoptees in both pre- and post-substance use recovery that they have within them experiences of a deep inner turmoil which manifests as low self trust, disconnection around identity, and overwhelming fear and anxiety. I believe what leads my adopted or fostered clients into addiction or compulsive behavior often stems from the suppression of inner pain. Sometimes this is a pain recognized, but sometimes this buried pain is not so clear. Substance abuse for example, can be thought of as an attempt at a solution to the inner turmoil rather than the cause of it, as it can help to numb that pain and keep it lodged within. The problem with this is that keeping the pain blocked prevents folks from experiencing the growth they need to become their best and most fulfilled selves.

With any growth and healing there first must be an acknowledgment that there is pain. This can be tough. It is not uncommon for adopted folks to feel numb about their adoption experiences. Adoptees might feel pressure to avoid any deeper exploration of the losses that may have come before society's perception of their win of an adoptive family. For example, many adult adoptees have described hearing a version of the following narrative throughout their lives: Your birth mother/parents wanted to give you a better life and then you were adopted into a family that could give you that better life and who loves you. You are lucky.

But there is so much more to this story. There is a deeper, more complicated truth that lies beneath this simple sweet tale that is sometimes really hard for adoptees to talk about or even get in touch with emotionally. Experiences of early neglect and abuse leave emotional scars, busy, overcrowded orphanages are traumatic, growing up BIPOC in a white family certainly can be traumatic as well. Being separated from one's biological mother, now matter how young one might have been, is a trauma, for the infant or child at the time. The feeling of abandonment is experienced by the infant no matter how loving and thoughtful the decision may have been around relinquishment. For more info on early trauma and development, I encourage you to check out Dr. Bruce Perry’s research, or pick up a copy of Coming Home to Self: The Adopted Child Grows Up by Nancy Verrier.

It has been my experience that given time, it is almost inevitable that issues stemming from experiences with early trauma and separation and subsequent difficulties with attachment will be a strong focus in therapy for the adoptee.

Parents and friends of adoptees can help support these folks by giving them many opportunities to explore their adoption story in a deeper way. Growth and validation can occur when adoptees start to talk about the complexities of their history and their biological losses with people willing to listen and empathize with them. Also, the adoptee to adoptee connection is irreplaceable. Much like the magic that comes when two people in recovery from addiction connect, when adoptees can talk about these issues, they can start to heal and feel understood. Groups exist for adult adoptees and younger adopted folks to connect with each other. Here are a few:


Margaret A. Keyes, Stephen M. Malone, Anu Sharma, William G. Iacono and Matt McGue October 2013. Risk of Suicide Attempt in Adopted and Nonadopted Offspring. Pediatrics 132 (4) 639-646; DOI:

Perry, Bruce. (2002). Childhood Experience and the Expression of Genetic Potential: What childhood neglect tells us about nature and nurture. Brain and mind;Vol. 3.pp. 79–100. Perry, B.D.(1999). Memories of Fear - How the Brain Stores and Retrieves Physiologic States, Feelings, Behaviors and Thoughts from Traumatic Events. Chapter 1. Splintered Reflections: Images of the Body in Trauma. (Edited by J. Goodwin and R. Attias) Yoon, G., Westermeyer, J., Warwick, M., & Kuskowski, M.A. (2012). Substance Use Disorders and Adoption findings from a National Sample. ploS one, 7 (11), e49655


Lisa Coppola, LMHC, PGS is a licensed psychotherapist who brings many years of clinical and community experience to sessions through her work in the field of mental health and dual diagnosis. She strongly believes in the strength and change that comes from getting in deeper touch with our creativity, exploring the authenticity within ourselves, and investigating the narratives that culture may have imposed onto us collectively and as individuals.

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