adoption and preverbal trauma

I am often confronted by fost/adoptive parents who question the impact of adoption on a child adopted at infancy. “What can an infant know or remember?” they ask. In this post, I’ll discuss this question and adoption as trauma.

In Nancy Verrier-Newton’s book, The Primal Wound, she writes,

Many doctors and psychologists now understand that bonding doesn’t begin at birth, but is a continuum of physiological, psychological, and spiritual events, which begin in utero and continue throughout the postnatal bonding period. When this natural evolution is interrupted by a postnatal separation from the biological mother, the resultant experience of abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds of these children, causing that which I call the “primal wound (p.1).”

Adoption is a traumatic event that occurs in the life of a child. As Verrier-Newton explains, separation from a child’s biological mother is a loss that is imprinted upon the unconscious mind of the child. It is stored as an implicit memory. This is also known as preverbal trauma or preverbal memory. The child is torn away from her biological mother and placed in the arms of strangers. Though the assumption is that the child will not remember any of it, psychologists now believe that children remember their birth and the following events, including relinquishment and adoption, up to age three. The infant is left with fears and anxiety with no way to verbalize, express, mourn, or contextualize her feelings. According to Debra Wesselmann, MA, LIMHP, “Implicit memory bypasses language and involves procedures and internal states that are automatic.” Infants and young children can feel emotions, but cannot place them in context. There is no narrative.

When a child experiences such distress, the only way she is able to cope is through crying or reacting to physical touch and anger. These coping strategies can manifest in overt expression or a marked lack of expression. An infant may cry in response to distress or rarely cry and be perceived as a “good” and peaceful baby when she actually feels quite the opposite and may be hurting. She may respond by recoiling from human touch or may become too attached to the sensation, displaying indiscriminate affection toward others, even strangers, as she matures. A child may express her anger through tantums – yelling, screaming, kicking, hitting, spitting, pulling hair – or withhold emotional expression.

According to adoptee, Karl Stenske, every adopted child falls into one of these two categories. She will either act out, or she is quiet, adaptable and compliant. The degree to which the child falls into either category is individual. In any case, adopted children have experienced ruptured relationships, hope, and trust. Some adoptees who act out will go to extremes, e.g., run away from home, threaten fost/adoptive parents, rebel academically and behaviorally, or even attempt suicide. In a study published in 2001, adopted teens in 7th – 12th grades were more likely to have attempted suicide (7.6% vs 3.1%) and to have received psychological or emotional counseling in the past year (16.9% vs 8.2%) as compared to their non-adopted peers.

The child who acts out may attempt to initiate some form of rejection from parents, teachers, peers and others to prove that she’s unlovable. She may reject others first in order to avoid being rejected. The acting out child is often perceived as “difficult” by her parents and others. Parents, teachers, and counselors may not associate the behaviors with trauma, and therefore, “lay down the hammer,” which in fact, only exacerbates the behaviors and trauma wounds. The compliant child, though not seen as having any outward problems and perceived as well-adjusted, is often overlooked and not given any form of counseling or assistance in healing from emotional wounds. This child, however, is just as much at risk and may be experiencing similar distress to the child who is acting out.

These two behavior types may present at various ages, although adolescence is a common time for them to reach their peak. Furthermore, some kids may actually experience both behavior types, alternating from one to the other depending on the environment and individual trajectory through childhood and adolescence. In my own experience, I was very much the quiet, compliant child. When I reached adolescence, however, I rebelled academically and in every other way. Though many teens rebel during adolescence, I attribute most of my emotional turmoil and acting out to adoption-related issues, including identity confusion, rejection, and a desperate need to fit in with my white peers.

Still, when presented with the above information, some remain skeptical. After all, what can an infant remember? Research strongly suggests that a baby is able to recognize her mother’s voice. Within a few days of birth she begins to recognize familiar faces, voices and smells and is drawn to them. She is able to discriminate her mother’s voice from those of other voices. If you are a parent and have biological children, think back on the time when your baby sought your presence, sought your face and smile, was comforted solely by you. How could we not assume that an adopted baby recognizes the loss and separation from her birth mother, despite her inability to narrate it? I argue that she does recognize such loss – she knows abandonment, sadness, and hurt. Though healing can and does occur, she carries that loss with her the rest of her life.

Stay tuned for my next post when I discuss healing childhood trauma.

Photo by Luma Pimentel on Unsplash

Verrier, N.N. (1993). The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child. Baltimore, MD: Gateway Press, Inc.

Stenske, K. (2012). What can a tiny baby know? Retrieved from

Wesslemann, D. (2013). Retrieved from

4 thoughts on “adoption and preverbal trauma

  1. Pingback: shift happens | Beyond Two Worlds

  2. Isabella Ojeda

    This is an excellent analysis that hits home for me too. As an adoptee, I also fell into that quiet, compliant category growing up. I was always told that I was an “easy” child to raise, but it never occurred to anyone that I might have been silently struggling. I remember my family being shocked that I was diagnosed with depression in college. This piece is well-written and informative, and I will definitely refer to it when people ask me those same questions.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: healing childhood trauma | Beyond Two Worlds

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