The effects of a forced adoption can be psychological, social, physical, and economic. The effects will vary from person to person, as will the severity. A person’s age, education and socio-economic status will have a bearing on how the individual is affected.
Аustralian Institute for Family Studies (AIFS)
The majority of the information in this section comes from Past adoption experiences, a report published by AIFS. The report was commissioned by the then Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (now the Department for Social Services). It states that:
…the key focus of the study [was] to improve knowledge about the extent and effects of past adoption practices, and to strengthen the evidence base available to government to address the current needs of individuals affected by past adoption practices…
The research shows that people will experience the effects of adoption at different stages of their life, and that these will be lifelong and intergenerational. Further, the research suggests that people affected by adoption, especially forced adoption, experience higher than average mental health problems. Some effects are common to everyone, such as issues with self-esteem and identity, but there are differences. For example, the impaired self-esteem of some mothers may have resulted from an inability to defend themselves against bullying. But an adopted person’s impaired self-esteem may derive from a belief that they were unwanted by their parents. The effect is similar, but the cause different.
About a quarter of adoptees in the AIFS study reported that their experience of adoption directly influenced their decision of whether or not to become a parent. Those that have chosen parenthood report varied experiences.
For some, the experience is positive, reinforcing a commitment to openness and expressing love. Others report difficulties with parenting their own children. For example, they constantly fear their children will disappear or they have difficulty expressing love and affection toward them. Some adopted people have found that having their own children has brought up issues, and that prior to having children they thought that being adopted had had minimal effect on them.
Confusion about identity undermines the basis of psychological health. The primary effect most adopted persons have trouble with is self-identity. Adoption legislation sealed an adopted person’s original birth certificate and substituted an alternative certificate that stated the adoptive parents were the parents who had given birth to them. Due to the legal erasure of their history, many adult adopted persons have reported feeling confused and unsure about who they are and where they belong in the world. Even adoptees who report that their adoptive parents were kind and loving experience confusion and doubt. Adoptees who had less positive experiences in their adoptive families report greater extremes of confusion.
Adopted people were often told that they were lucky, special, or chosen, and that their presence brought joy to their adoptive parents. While well intentioned, these messages frequently backfired. They placed undue pressure on adoptees to be happy and grateful, and acted as a not-so-subtle brake on the expression of valid feelings of confusion and loss. Going through a reunion process may renew or add to this pressure. Adoptees sometimes feel pressured to minimise any difficulties they have experienced so as to smooth the feelings of their mother.
Some adoptees feel that they were marked as different. They felt they didn’t fit in their adoptive family and, consequently, had nowhere they felt like they belonged or were accepted. This was exacerbated when they looked or sounded different, or had different temperaments, talents and interests to their adoptive families.
Mental health difficulties
AIFS found that adopted people in general scored significantly higher than non-adoptees for a range of mental health issues, including impaired self-esteem, depression and anxiety. Many reported constant fear of never being good enough, which is related to the effect of being expected to be grateful. This can be a vicious cycle. For example, feeling anxious about performing well at work can induce mistakes, which reinforces a belief of not being good enough, which then triggers feelings of depression. Alternatively, some adopted people reported high levels of perfectionism and over achievement. In the absence of any explanation about why they were adopted, many children assume that they were abandoned because they are inherently bad. High achieving adopted adults may try to compensate for the supposed ‘badness’ that led to their adoption.
The tests administered by AIFS during the course of its study showed that while on average adopted persons ranked only slightly behind the norm on quality of life, there were significant differences when it came to physical and psychological health, and social relationships. Those in permanent partnerships, with full-time work and high levels of education fared the best. Those who found out about their adoption in later life tended to have lower scores over all. In terms of psychological distress, 46 per cent of respondents were likely to be suffering from mild to severe mental disorders when they were surveyed. The surveys confirmed that support during childhood helped to mitigate distress.
Secrecy in adoption practices has contributed significantly to the negative effects of adoption. From the moment an unwed mother realised she was pregnant, an emphasis on secrecy fostered shame, guilt, loneliness and fear. From the moment the child was born, secrecy generated feelings of grief, confusion, loss and abandonment.
The legacy of secrecy in record keeping continues to contribute to the stress experienced by parents and adult adoptees finding and connecting with each other. Many people who contributed to the Senate Inquiry and the AIFS research affirmed that being open and honest about their experiences had had a positive impact on their life, whereas secrecy reinforced negative feelings they had about themselves.
Secrecy, truth and lies
Widespread among respondents were the negative effects of the secrecy that applied while they were growing up. This included being discouraged to raise their adoption in their adoptive families, or minimal or misleading information being provided. Some discussed how terrible they felt when they realised that ‘everyone’ else knew except them.
Treating the adoption as a secret made the matter seem worrisome at best or intensely shameful at worst, and this undermined their feelings of self-worth. Many are also angry at the barriers still in their way when attempting to find members of their natural family.
Those who found out much later in life that they were adopted have experienced strong feelings of betrayal and a sense that their entire life has been a lie.
The word trauma is widely used in relation to adoption, and especially to forced adoptions.
The Oxford English Dictionary provides two definitions for trauma, one physical and one psychiatric. The latter definition is:
A psychic injury, esp. one caused by emotional shock the memory of which is repressed and remains unhealed; an internal injury, esp. to the brain, which may result in a behavioural disorder of organic origin. Also, the state or condition so caused.
In the first historical example the dictionary gives, it cites William James in 1894 describing traumatic repressed memories and ‘thorns in the spirit, so to speak’.
Trauma can result from a wide variety of experiences, such as violent assault, surviving a natural disaster, experiencing war, physical accidents, and so on. Generally, the emphasis has been on a direct or indirect threat to survival, or being a witness to death and serious injury. Since the 1970s, however, trauma has become more widely known and understood. In particular, veterans of the Vietnam War have presented with a diverse range of mental health problems. More recently, events that are not life threatening but impair psychological integrity and wholeness are referred to as trauma. Forced adoption is considered to be in this category.
Some trauma survivors develop a condition known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is defined as:
a condition which can develop following exposure to an extremely stressful situation or series of events outside the usual range of human experience, which may manifest itself in recurrent nightmares or intrusive vivid memories and flashbacks of the traumatic event, and in withdrawal, sleep disturbance, and other symptoms associated with prolonged stress or anxiety. (Oxford English Dictionary Online)
It is important to understand that not everyone who suffers trauma develops PTSD, and that not all people affected by forced adoptions consider themselves victims of trauma.
In relation to adoption, PTSD is much more common in mothers who experienced forced adoption. The age of the mother at the time of birth and the harshness of her experience are key factors in the likelihood of her developing PTSD. The little known about fathers affected by forced adoption suggests that rates of PTSD are also likely to be higher than the national average. In adopted people, the AIFS study concluded that one in five exhibited symptoms of a severe mental disorder, such as PTSD.
Trust and attachment issues in relationships
Because the bond between mother and child was severed at birth, that is, at the child’s most vulnerable point in life, the ability to trust and attach to other people became damaged. Adopted people frequently report feelings of being alone, disconnected, or in an isolating fog. Many find intimate relationships either difficult to start or highly volatile. The fear of rejection and abandonment, based as it is on actual lived experience, can be crippling and works to subvert attempts at building healthy relationships of all kinds.
Even though many understand intellectually what happened to their mothers and why their lives unfolded as they did, at an emotional level the effects of separation bleed into most, if not all, aspects of their lives.
Adopted persons experienced a profound trauma, the loss of their mother, at the very beginning of their lives. Unlike other forms of trauma, they have no pre-trauma self. They cannot think back to a time when they were unaffected by their fear of abandonment and rejection. Accordingly, the negative effects of adoption permeate their very being.