Exploring The Primal Wound
Adoption Paradox Primal Wound
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Exploring The Primal Wound

Within the sub-culture of adoption, few theories are as celebrated and simultaneously controversial as “The Primal Wound”. The book with the same name, written by Nancy Verrier in 1993, calls out the idea that separating an infant from its mother is always inherently traumatizing.

Adopted people flocked to the book, many crying out, “finally someone understands how I’ve always felt.” Others have called it dangerous because they say it creates generalized views that all adoptees are “damaged” and perpetuates negative stereotypes. Adoptive or would-be adoptive parents have called the book and the theory “terrifying” because they feel it sets up a scenario for failure from the beginning.

One huge issue for many adoptees is that the debate in and of itself is yet one more way others dictate to them about how they should feel about their adopted lives – especially when many wish to see simplistic descriptions of what are far more complex and nuanced experiences.

What is the primal wound theory?

The premise is that all newborns come into the world with already deep and knowing bonds biologically and psychologically formed with their mother in utero. Babies in the womb hear and know their mother’s voice and those around them. They become accustomed to the smells and cuisine of the mother as it is their sole source of food and sustenance. It has also been theorized that seeping through the amniotic fluid are hormonal messages conveying the mother’s emotional state around the pregnancy. 

In return, the baby is sending stem cells into the mother’s blood stream throughout pregnancy, causing the mother to instinctively react to the minute changes and movements of her unborn child. Therefore, within the first moments of birth a known, tangible bond exists between this new life and its mother.

As infants, all humans are completely dependent upon those around them. So, when that infant is then passed over to a “new mother” for care and feeding, on a deep level that baby knows it is not with the same mother. Intricately woven into that bond is also the idea the mother will automatically seek her baby and work hard to obtain him or her over any other. 

But then, what does the subconscious mind of that infant register when the mother it knows does not appear no matter what it does? That is one of the many questions raised by the theory – what is the unconscious reaction to this perceived abandonment?

This is the root of the primal wound trauma. The natural mother is made bereft by an adoption, and the infant has also experienced a profound loss. Since an infant cannot clearly express itself, what it feels or thinks, is unknown.

Critics of The Primal Wound

Adoptees are not all in agreement everyone has vast and deep wounds of separation. Some clearly bond with the message while others reject it whole-heartedly. That debate divides the community, creating a rift in philosophy and varied views on adoption. Those who believe the “wound” theory will dismiss those who do not saying they are in denial. This same bias has the potential to influence and affect the validity of any serious study of the concept.

Some professionals dismiss the premise entirely. Dr. Charles Nelson is a Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a leading expert on how early childhood neglect, abuse, and other negative parental environments affect children. He said in an interview in 2013, “there is no scientific evidence to support the primal wound theory that all adopted people carry a scar from being separated from biological parents.”[1]

He states countless people who have been adopted especially in the first two years, but even beyond, are doing great, and “a theory that says just because they were separated from their birthmother leaves a permanent wound is just false on the face of it.”[2]

Dr. Ellen Kempt, Ph.D., who has forty-three years’ experience in pediatrics and is the former director of the Oak Adoptive Health Center, says, “I disagree with the thought of a “wound.” To me it’s an opportunity. I mean, adoption is a choice and desire, they (adoptive children) spent nine months in the middle of the environment of a birth mom who gave them love and nourishment. But the next step is a forever adoptive home. So, I just don’t at all see it as a wound.”[3]

Clarity is needed around the very word “wound” itself. The trauma that Verrier is getting at is the trauma an infant may feel by being relinquished, which is different from calling adoption a traumatic event.

At issue also in this debate is the difference between clinical evidence and scientific evidence to verify an idea or premise.

Clinical evidence is defined as a psychologist or other mental health professional making broader observations about the patients he or she is working with and forms a basis of opinion from that work. This is highly suggestive because of personal bias and the types of patients that a clinician is attracting to their practice. In other words, those in the adopted population who define themselves as happy, well-adjusted people are unlikely to seek clinical intervention, and by that selection become a “silent majority”.

Scientific evidence sets a higher bar as a variety of independent studies are created to evaluate behavior and assess root causes in an impartial review of a wider cross-section of individuals for study.

Many believe that because Verrier’s research for the book is based in part on her own experience along with largely clinical evaluation, that this alone leaves the premise suspect. 

Another critic of her work is Dr. Michael Grand, author of the book The Adoption Constellation (with Jeanette Yoffe). He criticizes not the premise itself so much as the solution she proposes. He says, “[The Primal Wound] captures for some adoptees the experience of pain and grief and loss that so many others have denied to them and in that sense, it’s a very important and moving book. I was moved as I read it.”[4]

He points out that the notion of attachment upon which the idea is based means the child who is adopted experiences that loss of the first parent, and then always carries that forward to the new parent. Verrier’s assessment that the pain of separation can then potentially (or always) be solved by reunion. But reunion is not always helpful for either party. He further states that “The research shows clearly that the relationship between one’s early experience and the predictability of later behavior, that the relationship is weak (it’s not a strong relationship).”[5]

Also of concern is the conclusion many draw from the book is that it creates a “victim” mentality for adopted children. There is a significant difference between feeling you were victimized by something that happened to you, versus being a victim taken on as a personal identity. 

How significant the primal wound trauma may be and the extent of its impact, the validity of its existence, and how universal that may be, is what fires up such a vast debate – even by people who have read and appreciate Verrier’s work. 

Supporting Research

What is interesting is when one seeks independent research about the primal wound premise, the study leads one into biology and natural science explorations rather than psychology. Significant research has been done on maternal and infant separation on mammals ranging from mice to monkeys.

Many studies have been done on rodents, showing early life stressors including maternal separation “affect both acute and long-term development of neuroendocrine, cognitive, and behavioral systems”[6] In studies on rats it has been shown that separating the pups from their mothers, even when receiving feeding and care from other rat “mothers”, behavior changes are observed similar to anxiety or depression. Prolonged separation appears to increase these results when compared to the control group, (not separated pups). Even as adults, the maternally separated rats displayed abnormal behaviors, particularly in lowered food consumption and an increased startle response, indicating anxiety.[7]

Other models with rhesus monkeys show when separated from their mothers within the first six months of life, these subjects “demonstrate increased distress and passive behaviors” compared to their peers who were maternally raised. The monkeys also have increased cortisol (stress hormone) and display “diminished ability to handle stressful events and exhibit numerous exaggerated behaviors” compared to those raised by their mothers.[8]

Another study on rodents does show differences in these responses based upon the gender of the animal. In general, maternal separation appeared to affect the female rats more than the male rats when exposed to the same types of traumatic stress. Both male and female rats, however, were more likely to develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as adults if they have experienced early life stressors. [9]

One article produced in Australia regarding newborns to two years of age, says trauma of all sorts can have a “serious effect on babies and toddlers”, and that, “many people wrongly believe that babies do not notice or remember traumatic events. In fact, anything that affects older children and adults in a family can also affect a baby, but they may not be able to show their reactions.”[10]  

The article also notes regardless of the cause of the separation, the infant will not only register the loss of that parent, but the infant is also coping with their situation. The stressors induced by having to manage that within a baby whose mind and nervous system is not capable of understand what is happening, is in and of itself, potentially damaging. Furthermore, this trauma can make its ability to bond with its parental caregivers more challenging.[11]

In comparing the mental health of adopted adults with the general population, clearly something is amiss. Adoptees are four times more likely than the general population to attempt or commit suicide.[12] Beyond general feelings of unhappiness or depression, identity disorders are also nearly four times more common in adopted adults compared to non-adoptees.[13] According to a survey of adult adoptees done in 2019, “With the large percentage of adults in this study who reported dissociative experiences, it appears that dissociation may be a coping mechanism which is well established by the time an adult client seeks treatment.“[14]

The debate continues around the number of studies done and the credibility of the methods, but most of the study done to date certainly at least implies that adopted children and adults are experiencing more difficulties than their non-adopted counterparts.  

The Way Forward

Assume for a minute Verrier’s work is correct and accept the notion that any infant separated from its natural mother will know, and its forming subconscious mind registers this as a traumatic event. Also assume this can impact the infant’s ability to bond with its new adopting parents.

What now? In the work shared by Michael Grand, Ph.D., he points out while being adopted is certainly pivotal in the developing psyche of a child, is it the sole factor? Almost all children have pains, struggles, and events that will affect them in their growth and development. In other words – adoption is certainly not nothing, but it may not be everything, either, in the psychological formation of that human being.

Plenty of children struggle to bond with distant or emotionally unhealthy biological parents, act out in school, have huge struggles through the hormonal barrage of their teen years, and feel unheard, unloved, and unseen by their families. Sadly, many people desperately lack emotional connections with those around them.

However, those “looking in” at adoption often fail to understand this population for whom is denied a blood, familial or close connection – they are the only group told how “grateful” they should feel for their situation. Imagine being told someone should feel lucky for their loss, their trauma, or even their abuse? It is this frustration at not being validated for their feelings, that has so many adopted people later in life rising up with the need to shout, rather than continue to whisper their pain.

Maybe the truth lies somewhere else. The scientific debate around the concept may never be agreed upon. Even researchers who have done the above-mentioned work on primates cite that to conduct the same research on human infants would be too cruel.

With that acceptance, maybe the way to look at the primal wound is less literal, and the profundity of Verrier’s prose lies elsewhere. For those who keenly feel the premise explains their thoughts, what if the power is in asking adoptees to “lean in” to the psychological pain they feel rather than hide from it? If large numbers of adopted adults have rallied around the book and its ideas, then they should not be dismissed. Many adoptees state that when they were young there was no language that matched their experience. Then as adults, they seek to define their feelings in clearer terms, there are still no words. Verrier’s book gives them those tools.

If one accepts that philosophy, then psychologists and parents who completely dismiss the primal wound, do so at the peril and well-being of their children. If those surrounding adoptees are open to more insightful ways to help them hear and respond to these children, then, more the better.

Language has always evolved around updated needs of expression, and if the book has done nothing else, it has brought a completely new verbiage that carries significant value to the foreground of the adoption conversation. What has been buried and undefined is now visible at the surface – ready to be healed.

Which then begs the question, does healing exist for those who need it – and how is that achieved?

As Dr. Marcy Axness, PhD writes, “There are those who consider the primal wound to be a platform for adult adoptees to do yet more blaming and complaining, rather than ‘getting on with their lives’…But only having walked into that emptiness inside me, and felt it – finally, deeply – and grieved it. This in my hard-won experience, is what effective healing is about: not ‘fixing’ it, but facing it.”[15]

When talking to Sharon McNamara, Ed.D., L.P., adoptee, and adoption competent therapist, she shares, “You’ve got these kids, the relinquishment trauma is primary. Then you’ve got other trauma on top of that. And then the acting out… I do the grief work of this really, really, horrible thing that happened when you were a baby, and you have feelings about that. Let’s touch those feelings and let you cry. You need a compassionate therapist who is capable of hearing that level of pain.”

Regardless of the primal wound discussion, themes emerge around healing that are consistent. There are also common strategies parents can follow to help infants who become children, then teens, and finally adults to process these emotions more successfully. They revolve around love, openness, respect, forming a positive narrative with the child and most importantly letting them tell the adults in their lives how they feel, instead of the other way around. That they matter just for being themselves.

A parent may say, “I love you as if you were my own.” What the adopted child thinks is, “Why am I not your own?” Dissolving that barrier is not easy, but essential to help them feel safe – and it’s a concept that will have to be reinforced continuously.

Amy D. Alessandro, LMHC, adoptee, birth mother, and adoption & trauma therapist says, “Can the trauma of infant separation be healed? I wouldn’t do this work if I didn’t believe that was possible.” Her practice, Adoption Savvy, specializing in almost all facets of adoption competent therapies, says, “Will they be as if they had never had adoption trauma? To me, it’s like if your arm was severed in a terrible accident, could you still live a fulfilling life? Yes. You wouldn’t live the same life if you had both of your limbs. You would have to adapt. It’s going to look different, but you can have a happy functioning life. We can get there, but it is hard work.”

Some may cringe at this analogy, but anyone who has experienced some life-altering event will say they are forever changed by it. They carry it with them and must learn to thrive either because of, or despite, it. The world needs to understand that regardless of how one views adoption – lives are forever changed by it – sometimes for the good, but often with a mix of darkness within. Adoption is paradoxical, always.

There is another worthy lore that might be useful. Within the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve-Step teachings, when trying to cover vast ideas that will apply to some, or many, but not all, there is a phrase, “Take what you want and leave the rest.” Maybe this outlook has some value as applied to the adoption community and these discussions with so much generalized opinion around so many individual lived experiences. A theory or explanation can fit part of one’s life, and not others – let that be OK for one another in the community.

No one should have the language of the primal wound thrust upon them, most especially as children who may have trouble reconciling its depth, and then pre-disposing them to the bias of being “victims” or “damaged goods.”

What it comes down to for many is to give emotional space. Children deserve to speak their minds and express their feelings in productive ways that do not revolve around a narrative, or what their parents or society expects of them. That includes their feelings about being or looking different, or not fitting in, and curiosity about a first family or another mother.

Adoptees all process their experience differently. Their views are as vast as the stars. Moreover, that will likely change throughout their lives as they age, possibly become parents themselves and pass key milestones that cause them to re-evaluate their feelings about being adopted. It is a lifelong journey for most.

What they are fighting for, more loudly and clearly than ever, is the right to define their own experience. In so doing, it is worth noting that dismissing any individual’s point of view for not fitting a narrative, whether an old one or a new one, is harmful to the larger cause – to be heard, valued, and understood.

[1] Davenport, D. (2021, April 26). Does the primal wound really exist?. Creating a Family. https://creatingafamily.org/adoption-category/does-primal-wound-really-exist/ 

[2] Davenport, D. (2021, April 26). Does the primal wound really exist?. Creating a Family. https://creatingafamily.org/adoption-category/does-primal-wound-really-exist/ 

[3] YouTube. (2012, February 8). Can an adoptee ever overcome his or her “Primal wound?” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLcH4wT2nKQ 

[4] YouTube. (2020, November 5). Primal wound new theory with Michael Grand author of adoption constellation | Jeanette Yoffe. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZgsbk17UQw&t=80s

[5] YouTube. (2020, November 5). Primal wound new theory with Michael Grand author of adoption constellation | Jeanette Yoffe. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZgsbk17UQw&t=80s 

[6] Neurobiological consequences of childhood trauma – the Journal of … (n.d.). https://www.psychiatrist.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/15380_neurobiological-consequences-childhood-trauma.pdf

[7] Neurobiological consequences of childhood trauma – the Journal of … (n.d.). https://www.psychiatrist.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/15380_neurobiological-consequences-childhood-trauma.pdf

[8] Neurobiological consequences of childhood trauma – the Journal of … (n.d.). https://www.psychiatrist.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/15380_neurobiological-consequences-childhood-trauma.pdf

[9] Knox, D., Stout-Oswald, S. A., Tan, M., George, S. A., & Liberzon, I. (2021, November 12). Maternal separation induces sex-specific differences in sensitivity to traumatic stress. Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnbeh.2021.766505/full 

[10] Department of Health & Human Services. (2010, January 27). Trauma and children – newborns to two years. Better Health Channel. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/trauma-and-children-newborns-to-two-years

[11] Department of Health & Human Services. (2010, January 27). Trauma and children – newborns to two years. Better Health Channel. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/trauma-and-children-newborns-to-two-years

[12] Keyes MA, Malone SM, Sharma A, Iacono WG, McGue M. Risk of suicide attempt in adopted and nonadopted offspring. Pediatrics. 2013 Oct;132(4):639-46. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-3251. Epub 2013 Sep 9. PMID: 24019414; PMCID: PMC3784288

[13] McLamb, Lee J., “A Survey of Dissociation, Identity Distress, and Rejection Sensitivity in Adult Adoptees” (2019). Honors Undergraduate Theses. 606

[14] McLamb, Lee J., “A Survey of Dissociation, Identity Distress, and Rejection Sensitivity in Adult Adoptees” (2019). Honors Undergraduate Theses. 606.

[15] In appreciation of the primal wound – creating a family. (n.d.-a). https://creatingafamily.org/wp-content/uploads/in%20appreciation%20of%20the%20primal%20wound.pdf

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