Adoption and Pre and Perinatal Psychotherapy

by Michael Candon 


Adoption is described as a lifetime of loss and searching. These two processes – the experience of loss and a lifetime of searching are two of the main processes that will affect every conscious and unconscious action that the adopted person will make through her or his lifetime. The adopted infant is traumatised by its separation from mother. It has to find a way to compensate for the often-called primal wound that may make the infant feel that part of it has disappeared. A newborn baby will encounter in the perinatal stage of their life, a separation from mother that will lay down imprints on the baby’s brain that may never be wiped clean. I believe the imprints will have been laid down at a much earlier stage, during the embryos time in the womb. Imprints are tracks or grooves that all newborn babies lay down and by which they will live their lives. Every relationship and experience a child will have will be built upon or around this imprinting (Janov). A baby that is separated from their birth mother at birth will experience a life shattering flood of experiences such as rejection, abandonment and not being loved (sometimes not being cared for) leading to feelings and emotions like fear, anxiety, hopelessness, not worthy of being loved, inferiority and distrust, that the newborn cosseted in the safety of their mothers arms will never experience during their early life. According to Erik Erikson’s model of the life cycle in which each stage must be resolved in order to healthily move to the next, it is my opinion that the adopted persons life already stands to suffer at the hands of a wrecked infancy.

What happens?

When were you told that you are adopted? This is a question that I have consistently answered with “I always knew”. Life in the womb for the baby that will be adopted is different to that of the baby being kept by mother. During every moment of that pregnancy a woman who is deciding to relinquish her child for adoption conveys that message to her unborn. These signals are received by the embryo in hearing the speech and plans of the mother and also by the impregnation of mothers’ hormones, feelings and emotions and her reactions to events in her environment through the umbilical cord (David Chamberlain, Frank Lake). In my experience these events were to leave imprints as mentioned in the introduction, that would dictate many nuances of my behaviour throughout infancy, childhood and adulthood.

What’s the difference?

To see a new mother bond with their baby is magical. They do this in many overt ways, through their deed, speech and gooing and gaaing. Covertly it is happening also, one can almost see the baby merged physically and psychologically as one with mother as they were during the nine months that mother carried baby. To be deprived of the birth right to bond with mother and to be rejected by her is to deprive a person of the innate abilities to trust, love unconditionally, and to learn the ability to deal with stress. Bonding, trust and rejection issues will surface time and time again for the adopted person. The first time may be with the caregivers wherever baby has been placed. They might be the adoptive parents who will now encounter their first difficulties of the adopted child. ‘He will not let me change him’, ‘I cannot do anything right for her’, ‘He does not want to be hugged’ are many of the ‘complaints’ adoptive parents will make about their child. The ability to make and to trust friends and peers at school may seriously be affected followed by relationship difficulties through adolescence to adult relationships. The adoptee may well be suffering still from the rejection and lack of maternal bonding as an infant. According to British Psychiatrist John Bowlby in 1969; ‘secure attachments early in life are good predictors of emotional health later in life’.

English therapist Harry Guntrip believed that the anxiety infants experience when separated from their birth mothers cause them to actually withdraw from outer reality; ‘The basic nature of the infant, the natural self that is the potential for the true self, retreats after being flooded with fear and anxiety, the infant can only retreat within’.

My experience of the anxiety caused at my separation from mother certainly resulted in me splitting off my original self, feeling unborn, hollow and needing to adopt another self.

This divided self becomes a tool and a cross to bear. ‘My birth mother wanted me but didn’t keep me’, ‘I am my parents child but do not really belong to them’, ‘I love my birth mother but how could she do this to me?’ ‘I hate my adoptive mother for taking me from my real mother yet I love her for saving me’. The questions run into thousands. They make no sense and there does not appear to be answers. Most times they are not even voiced for fear of upsetting the new parents and facing rejection, abandonment and all the other feelings and fears originally encountered. The psychic energy that goes into all of this is immense; psychically it is possible to split off from this reality. Nightmares, bed wetting, acting out and lying are very common to the adopted children.

They may reveal to parents the fears and uncertainties that are under the surface of the child who possesses an almost self less desire to please all, particularly the adoptive parents that have saved them and have the control and power to send them back. This dissociation or split is characteristically  associated with  such thoughts as ‘This is like a dream”, “I can’t believe this is happening”.

‘ The body may go on acting in an outwardly normal way, but inwardly it is felt to be acting on its own, automatically’ R.D. Laing.

This splitting off was my coping mechanism to deal with the pain and trauma (symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder are often present) of it all and it served me well. It allowed me to get away from the reality of what had happened to me and to fantasise (spending lots of time doing this) about how it could be or should be, what my real parents were like – rich, poor, better than these two, maybe even stars that I saw on television. Or was that my mother that I passed on the street – she looked nice. Adoptees spend a lifetime searching and waiting for the return of mother.

Boy or a girl – “It’s a secret”

Secrecy is a silent partner to the adopted person from childhood. Mother’s pregnancy may have been a secret and baby may well be aware of this. So begins a trail of secrets that will result in repression and concealment. The adopted child often in the past was never told that they were adopted, the adoptive parents may not want for people outside the family to know about the adoption. Let us not forget that legislatures have colluded in the secrecy that is a lie within the terms of closed adoptions. Secrecy disconnects the adopted person from their parentage and history. Repressed feelings of anger, grief, and sadness at this loss will be stored within the psyche and body, often surfacing throughout the adopted persons life. Repression has now been proven to cause stress and disease in the body and mind. It is a defence mechanism used to banish or eject painful memories or feelings. To repress a feeling or an emotion takes an incredible amount of energy that would normally be put into the creative act of living life to the full.

Statistically figures for the amount of adoptees that commit suicide, appear in juvenile courts, become prisoners and spend time in psychiatric wards are significantly higher than the average.

I want to be loved by you

My desire to please and to be liked and to be accepted, determined the quality of all my relationships in life. It is impossible for me to intimately reveal the true person I am for fear that you will not like me. The above have been crucial determinants for the creation of friendships and one to one relationships (including relationship with adoptive parents) in my life. ‘No one will ever do this to me again – I will do first or else’. In my search for who I am I have had to conceal my true self because I do not know who I am, or where I come from. It is like not being real, like a fictional character in a story. Who do I look and act like? I recognise myself in no one that I know. Control was taken from me so therefore I will gain control of you. Trusting you is so painful for me. I will abandon you before you abandon me. I will do anything so that you will not leave me. These life scripts are some of the scripts that are played over and over in the life of many adopted people. They may present themselves at any time in the adopted persons life. As the infant that is wetting the bed, the young child that is acting out and or lying, the adolescent who is traumatised by the identity crises that all teenagers encounter, the young adult experimenting with drugs, love and relationships, and the adult having difficulties in relationships with husbands, wives or children.

Adoptees who have spent their lives covering over their real feelings often avoid intimacy for fear of being discovered for the impostors they know they are.’An intimate relationship is characterised by warmth, mutuality of feeling and deep commitment’. Erik Erikson. One of the difficulties for the adoptee is to reveal their true self in order to be truly mutual. Nancy Verrier says that when adult adoptees come in for psychotherapy, the usual presenting problem is difficulties in relationships. I believe that all persons contain an innate predisposition to realise potential, a life force to live and the ability to build on the pain, injustices and sadness that life throws at us on our personal journey. For the adopted person the search and reunion with birth parents may be the key to unlocking the energy required to live healthily and creatively which is the birth right of human kind. Remembering that adoption has created a primal wound in the new born means that it will be necessary to release the repressed memories, pain, rejection, etc. that are controlling and driving our needs and our lives. One must retrieve, re experience and integrate these past needs and injustices against us. Pre and perinatal psychotherapy can help an adoptee do just this.


One of the fundamental tenets of psychotherapy is the giving of time and safe space for the client to discover and be who they really are. Many adoptees have never had the opportunity to do this before. The adopted child or adult in a healthy psychotherapeutic setting can say what is on their mind and be understood. Pre and perinatal psychotherapy is a therapy that is built around the fact that most of us carry around with us wounds and pains that we never seem to heal. These are primal pains and wounds that contained more pain than was possible to bear at the time and therefore it is repressed and recorded as imprints, for use in the future. These imprints dictate how we will respond to similar situations – pain, stress, sadness, in the future. Mainly it is needs and feelings that are being repressed. As we have seen may adopted people have created two selves and pre and perinatal psychotherapy can unify these two selves. It can allow one to feel again the parts that have been repressed. To feel, means to go back and to experience the exact needs of the infant and experience all of ones self. It is when these are felt that real healing of the primal wound occurs emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically right down to the cellular level, and nerve endings. This in turn creates and promotes health – physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually.

How do we do this?

Pre and perinatal psychotherapists do this by using all the tools of a psychotherapist along with bringing the client or regressing the client back to the earliest traumas that may lie behind the presenting issue. This is done by creating an altered state in which the client retrieves the repressed memories, feels the feelings that were present and is provided with the opportunity of changing that original situation by way of reacting differently to it this time. For the adopted person it may be a matter of releasing the sadness that they trapped at the time of relinquishment that may bring a lot of tears. Anger at the mother may need to express that which was not allowed, by screaming or kicking and beating a cushion. What ever the emotion or situation the re -experience takes, the energy that is behind the trauma is released within the confines of a safe environment.

I have dealt with a long list of feelings that surfaced as I lay on a mattress in my therapist’s room. They were feelings that were buried so deep that I knew before I stepped inside a therapist’s room I would have to work my issues out this way. I could have talked for years and still avoided and projected (projection is to cast upon another person the attitudes, ideas, feelings or impulses that belong to oneself) the pain and needs that were controlling my life. I have along the way retrieved my true self and suffered the pain of losing the false self I created to deal with my primal wounds. Early on, while regressed, I experienced the deep love and connection that I had with my mother and her sadness at the relinquishment. I experienced the anxiety, sadness, rejection, anger, and fears connected to my adoption. I do not believe this to have been possible using any other form of psychotherapy. Those imprints that were laid down and upon which I lived for so many years had the opportunity to change and to be reprogrammed.

Making the connection

As an adopted person I know how pre and perinatal psychotherapy has, and can, change the life of an adopted person. As an adult I knew that adoption issues lay behind my problems and neurosis.  Many adopted people do not. Even more, adoptive parents, teachers, medics and birth parents do not realize the impact adoption has on the infant and child. I have met adopted people who are attending therapists that never connect their clients presenting issues with adoption.   Parents of adopted children need to be aware of the difficulties they may encounter.  They need to be empathic to the needs that their child has, and be able to assist them in any way possible.  For a parent to detect and to act on the suspicion that their child is suffering as a result of adoption is important.   Can you imagine the benefits to such a child if they can resolve and heal the wounds that have been inflicted as a consequence of adoption? It is our responsibility as parents, teachers and therapists to help that child to have the best start in life possible.I believe that if a child or infant has been traumatized at such an early stage of development it is necessary for that child to re-experience the trauma – through pre and perinatal psychotherapy.   It is only through looking back can we move forward.

A good pre and perinatal psychotherapist will be able to work gently with an adopted child and its parents, using play therapy, gestalt, psychodrama and many other tools, not just regression techniques as discussed above.  The therapist will know and understand, that the child knows innately what he or she must do to feel better.   From that time on the adopted child will know that she is understood, she will be able to live from her real self and be able to feel the full spectrum of emotions that humans encounter.   This adopted person may build on the lessons that she has learnt through adoption in a healthy, creative way.   She will be able to engage her energies in living in an exciting world she does not need to control and which does not revolve around searching and loss and waiting for mother to return. She will not live a life as a victim of adoption but will live as a survivor of adoption.

Michael Candon is completing his training as a psychotherapist and is an advocate of best practice for the needs of children in adoption and fostering. Michael may be contacted at Ashfield Cottage, Beauparc, Navan, Co Meath, Ireland



Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and Loss. Vol 1. New York: Basic Books.

Chamberlain, D. (1998) The Mind of Your Unborn Baby. North Atlantic Books. Berleley. California 94712

Erikson, E. (1982) The Life Cycle Completed New York: Norton.

Guntrip, H. (1961) Personality Structure and Human Interaction. London: The Hogarth Press.

Janov (1990) The New Primal Scream. London: Abacus.

Laing. R.D. (1990) The Divided Self. London: Penguin Publications.

Lake, F. (1981) Tight Corners in Pastoral Counselling. D.L.T.

Lifton, B.J.  (1994) Journey of the adopted self, A Quest For Wholeness.  New York: Basic Books.

Verrier, N. (1996) The Primal Wound Understanding the Adopted Child. Gateway Press.