Ask A Therapist: How is Trauma Part of Adoption?
An Interview With Corie Skolnick

Today it's my delight to introduce Corie Skolnick,   author of the book, Orfan. Many readers here will already know Corie and be familiar with her work as a licensed therapist, professor and author. In addition to Orfan, Corie was most recently a contributor to Adoption Reunion in the Social Media Age.  

For those who aren't acquainted with the awesomeness that is Corie, it's a my pleasure to introduce you. 

There are a zillion things we could pick Corie's brain about but today, I'd like to focus on trauma as it relates to adoption. Let's get started... 

Deanna: Corie, one of the things I find challenging as an adoptee is the surprised reaction of non-adoptees when they hear the word, “trauma” associated with adoption. A number of those people read my blog, if for no other reason than shock and awe that this is even a discussion. Can you please explain for the many people out there who have no idea why adoption and trauma are in the same sentence, why that is???

Corie: You and I accept the basic fundamental belief that the separation of an infant from its mother (or child from its parents) is a traumatic event. It is one that has long lasting negative consequences for all aspects of the child’s development.  But your question acknowledges the fact that not everyone accepts that assertion.

For a very long time this was an assertion largely dependent on theory over absolute provable scientific fact, so our understanding of how experienced traumatic events impact normal human development was quite limited to idiosyncratic observation and self report. Today this assertion rests on decades of reliable and measurable research data that declares unequivocally, a child’s development is impacted by the “trauma” that is separation. People who reject this now scientifically provable fact are like the legions who, for centuries, denied that the earth was round. 

Photo Credit: plentyofants, Flickr

Note: some of the argument about “trauma” revolves around the semantics. For the purpose of this interview I propose this generally accepted definition of the word: “An emotional wound or shock that creates substantial lasting damage to the psychological development of a person.” (The American Heritage College Dictionary).

From my perspective, the notion that “adoption is a traumatic event” is a valuable cognitive schema that gives people a way to think about and interpret a critical historical event from their life and also the consequences of said event. Your question implies that some people “choose” to believe that trauma occurs when a child is separated from its parent (much more emphasis is put on the mother-child relationship) and some people will “choose” to deny that trauma happened.

Some will ask: "Why choose to believe in something so negative?" I would say first, we can’t change reality by denying it or changing its definition. Second, understanding the truth (reality) can afford insight, and insight can be a jumping off point for healing and change. (Though not always.)

I think we do have to acknowledge that there are degrees of traumatic experience and because there is so much variance from one individual to another, in terms of temperament, and inborn character traits, and thus in terms of response to events, what’s clinically traumatic to one individual might not be clinically traumatic to someone else. It’s probably not productive to demand a universal standard when it comes to the effects of “trauma”. 

Deanna: How does research show that adoptees (both children and adults) react to this trauma that is unrecognized by most of the population?   

Corie:  Your question refers to the body of research that studies human “attachment”. Harry Harlow conducted ground breaking research in primate attachment at the University of Wisconsin, Madison back in the 1950s, demonstrating that attachment needs are primary even over the need for food.

Harlow’s primate laboratory was the very first of its kind and it was the first serious attempt to record data on the mother infant relational bond of primates. He demonstrated in some of the most important research of the last century that the interruption of a mother-child bond process produces very serious negative consequences in both the mother and the child. By separating the dyad, Harlow’s experiments induced irremediable disorders in his monkeys that have been generally accepted as correlates of human depression, anxiety disorders, neurosis, and “failure to thrive”. Harlow was the first scientist to systematically evaluate the theory that the separation of a baby from its mother causes serious psychological defects. (This was, by the way, a very unpopular theory back in the day, even among his fellow psychologists.)
Mary Ainsworth then studied attachment patterns in human infants in the 1970s and concluded that successful attachment to the mother vs. unsuccessful maternal attachment resulted in measurable behavior differences very early in life. Other research proved that infants who successfully form secure attachment bonds with their mothers are more likely to form positive and productive relations with their peers in early childhood and the disruption of an early infant/mother attachment will inhibit later social skills.

We can now collect information from human populations that those early researchers never imagined. One of the most compelling recent studies I’ve seen compared the PET scans of the brains of infants and found significant differences in the physiological development of those babies who had been in the care of mothers diagnosed with Post Partum Depression. (i.e. normal developmental process was compromised and those infants had significantly smaller brains with less brain activity than infants in the care of “normal” (not depressed) mothers after only 6 months.) Surely is it not safe to suppose that if brain development is compromised by a mother’s depression it would surely be affected even more by her total absence?

Deanna: What are some of the common issues of adoptees that you see in your practice?

Corie:  Because I’m a Marriage and Family therapist, most of the people who consult me initially complained about relational issues. I can rattle off a bunch of common presenting problems, things like perfectionism bordering on obsessive-compulsive disorder, (including eating disorders), depression, anxiety, etc., but a vignette might be a better illustration. 

 The family that first got me interested in “adoption” as a discrete factor in family function was a family with a young mom who had been adopted. She had a two year old who was doing the normal “terrible twos” stuff. This period, though sometimes difficult for parents, is quite healthy and, in terms of development, it actually represents prodigious achievement for the kid. It means that he/she has realized his/her own uniqueness and is busy practicing his/her autonomy by rejecting the control of the parent, and, (horrors!) saying “no”. 

This particular mom was unusual in that she had a graduate degree in psychology and she was well read. She knew that her reactions to her child’s terrible two stage was inappropriate and over the top. (She would experience his attempts to differentiate as his rejection and abandonment of her; she would take it personally, and become extremely depressed.) She knew that demanding absolute compliance and conformity in her two year old was dysfunctional, but she was “triggered” by what felt like his rejection of her. What was fascinating was that her knowledge and wisdom were useless to her when she got triggered. She wound up in an emotional cavalcade of panic and desperation and then she got angry at her child and severely depressed. She was the first adoptee to clue me in to the nature and power of “triggers” for adoptees.  Adoptees will laugh at my naiveté, (or maybe not) but, at the time I was like most mainstream therapists. I initially just did not acknowledge the trauma that was her adoption. When I did, it was a breakthrough for both of us.

I specialized for many years in adolescence, so I saw a lot of families with similar issues because the teen years are when kids really differentiate. It is their job to do so.  

Let me also say right here that it isn’t only infant relinquishment that causes “trauma”. But I did see that extreme negative reactions to certain developmental milestones were way more prominent in families “touched by adoption”, both when the parent was an adoptee and when the family had children who had been adopted. Eventually, I was simply forced to acknowledge that “something” was going on there.

Corie Skolnick

Deanna: Many people flat out deny that trauma has any place in adoption although separation from one’s natural parent(s) whether by relinquishment or termination of parental rights is present in every adoption. In your opinion, why are so many people so invested in this denial?

Corie:  This is complicated. The answer can be political, sociological, religious, personal (psychological) or even economic. First let’s distinguish between what I think of as “first order” denial, and “second order” denial. The former “first order” denial is accomplished unconsciously. We don’t have conscious control over it. Second order denial is conscious. We acknowledge a factual reality but we actively deny our involvement in it in terms of our emotional responses. Second, be aware that each person has their own need, both conscious and unconscious, for such denial depending on their role in adoption and their experience with it.

In each scenario, both types of denial also involve cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable sensation we experience when our thoughts and behaviors are inconsistent with each other. Let’s say an adoptee hops on board the “trauma train” and acknowledges that the separation of an infant from its mother is trauma inducing. It is not uncommon for an adoptee to first hear this theory as a student in an introductory Psychology course. They read all about the research and in order to pass the test, he/she will have to accept that they experienced some degree of “trauma” as an infant. If they don’t, they will experience cognitive dissonance because there will be inconsistency in what they believe about themselves and what they say they believe about the reality of trauma and its impact on infants, i.e. what they just learned in their class. It is reasonable that they would “prefer” to deny that such trauma is caused rather than identify themselves as a trauma victim, is it not? Now, let’s say they accept the theory that mother-child separation is detrimental (traumatic). But, let’s say in one instance the “child” determines that such a theory is painful to their adoptive caregivers. At a conscious level they can elect to deny their own traumatic experience. “Oh, yes, I can see that this is generally a traumatic event, but, somehow, I was spared. I’m NOT traumatized by my relinquishment and adoption.” This spares the adoptive parent any “blame” and also artificially relieves the “child” of subsequent fears of further abandonment resulting from hurting the parent.

Lots of adoptees will recognize that growing up they had an intense need to be compliant and “good”, never “bad” as a function of their denial system, but if they don’t make that recognition, some people will say that they could be still denying their own reality to service the ego and well being of the parent. Conversely, lots of adoptees will recognize the inversion of that scenario. In their teen years (and beyond sometimes) they become ultra defiant and ultra oppositional. It all comes from the same emotional place, just expressed in extreme opposite behaviors. The purpose is the same, to feel “engaged” with or “attached” to the parent and the valence of the attachment, either positive or negative is almost irrelevant. In the case of the classic example of an acting out adopted teen they get to create a kind of theatre in which they are engaged in normal differentiation processes, (“I’m nothing like you! Leave me alone!) while at the very same time doing everything to draw the parent in closer and get more attention, not less, albeit usually negative attention.

Let’s look at one other “role” in the world of adoption and examine the need for such denial. Imagine a social worker who facilitates adoptions for an agency that works primarily with newborn adoptions. A person in such a role simply cannot do both things: acknowledge trauma AND tell young pregnant women that it is “better for their child” if they relinquish them. Such an acknowledgement would be painfully inconsistent with the behavior of facilitating adoptions, so viola, denial is employed so that they can continue to counsel young women to relinquish. What their motives are can be financial; they simply need the job and the paycheck. Or they might be religious; the churches responsible for the Guatemala to America orphan pipeline in this past decade removed hundreds of Mayan children believing that they were doing God’s will “saving” those babies. Or, the motives can even be political; a lot of the people who rushed to Haiti to “rescue orphans” without certifying the death of their parents, did what they did out of a belief that those children will be better off raised in America vs. a third world country -  no matter what.

It’s a controversial topic, but I know plenty of people who believe that the “for profit adoption industry” is motivated only by the money, and nobody refutes that a LOT of money changes hands in some adoptions. Still, the power brokers in that industry along with the politicians that make legal decisions regarding these adoptions can’t see themselves as mercenaries only. To do so would be to acknowledge a baby market and their role in what some call baby trading or even slavery. The individuals who profit from that industry have to deny that trauma occurs in order to preserve their perceived nobility.

I guess it boils down to this: if denial is in operation, it serves the adoptee when they need to reject the belief that something is wrong with them. Denial of “trauma” as an absolute saves them from having the identity of a “trauma victim”. 

Denial by others is simply because nobody likes to believe that they are the perpetrator of something that causes trauma to infants. To believe that would make it impossible for a person to maintain a positive self concept. So a blanket denial of trauma would certainly be of service to somebody who needs to maintain a positive self image. And, that’s everyone involved.

Deanna: Thank you Corie, for taking the time to explain this to us, today. You've given us quite a lot to think about. I appreciate you so much!

Corie Skolnick was a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles for more than twenty years, concurrently serving as an adjunct faculty member in the psychology departments of California State University, Northridge, and Moorpark College. Now writing full time, she is a contributor to the recently released anthology, ADOPTION REUNION IN THE SOCIAL MEDIA AGE and a travel writer at

In 2012, her first novel, ORFAN was selected by the prestigious Hugh C. Hyde Living Writers Series at San Diego State University, and it was also accepted as a nominee for the 2012-2013 Freshman Common Reading Selection at CSUN. AMERICA’S MOST ELIGIBLE, Corie’s second novel will be published in late 2014 by Mannequin Vanity Publishing/Mannequin Vanity Records (New York/San Diego).