March 25th, 2007
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Whether there is really a “primal wound” that occurs after a baby is separated from its mother at birth is a popular topic for discussion in adoption circles. The theory of a primal wound is not reserved exclusively for babies who are adopted. This theory also includes children who are separated at birth from their mothers due to serious medical issues and/or prematurity.

However, the premise of the primal wound was conceived by adoptive mom and therapist Nancy Verrier due to the experiences she noticed raising her two daughters. One daughter was her biological child, and the other was adopted. Raising her daughters, she noticed a difference in the way her adopted daughter responded to her, and ultimately related it to a primal wound from her early separation from her birth mother.

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Some like to dismiss the whole theory by saying that Nancy Verrier was looking for excuses as to why the one daughter reacted to her differently. It is unlikely if you have ever met Nancy Verrier that you could dismiss the theory that easily. She simply does not appear to be a victim who needs excuses. Nancy Verrier is a gutsy, yet soft spoken woman who exudes strength of character and a caring nature.

Her motivation in writing about a primal wound that adoptees experience was not to enable adoptees to be stuck in a helpless victim role for eternity. In fact, she admonishes adoptees to take charge of their lives and learn how to heal. She believes that there are ways to help repair the wound of separation that she believes adoptees experience when taken from their first mothers at birth.

I have spoken to her about how her book is perceived and I can tell that it bothers her somewhat that her motives for writing the book are so often misunderstood. She knows that reading The Primal Wound is difficult for birth parents, and yet believes that it can benefit them, and adoptive parents in dealing with their child.

Adoptees seem to regard the theory in three main ways:

1) They dismiss the entire theory and think it is nonsense.
2) They embrace the theory wholeheartedly and believe it explains so much of their pain in life; or
3) They embrace part of the theory and feel that although it explains some adoptees, it does not fit every adoptee. However, it makes sense to them.

Nancy Verrier believes that birth mothers can help their children heal at reunion. Her second book, The Adopted Child Grows Up – Coming Home to Self, offers ways for adoptees to heal, and offers advice to birth parents on how best to help their children at reunion.

18 Responses to “Healing the Primal Wound in Adoption”

  1. Faith Allen says:

    I read the book “Primal Wound” when my adopted son was a baby after reading about it on the adoption forums, and it really freaked me out. I talked to my adoptee friends about it. They fell under #1 — dismissing the theory as nonsense — and told me not to worry about it.

    What freaked me out the most was that I related so much to what she describes adoptees as feeling, even though I was not adopted. However, I was abused by my mother as well as other adults in my life as a child. What I have come to realize is that what she describes is really attachment issues experienced by abused children and neglected children as well, and these symptoms are not limited to adoptees.

    I, personally, think that the primal wound is about bonding and attachment issues, and that some babies experience more difficulty in attaching to an adoptive mother than others. The reasons for an abused child having attachment issues are obvious. I am not sure why a newborn who was not abused might have an issue attaching with a birhmother. From what I have read re: adopting out of orphanages, a child is less likely to have attachment issues if he bonded with ANY loving caregiver. In my personal experience, the adoptees I know who were adopted into loving homes do not struggle with a “primal wound.” I am in no way pointing a finger at the author — just noting my own personal observations.

    I believe this explains why there is such a varying reaction to the book by adoptees. Those who experienced attachment issues embrace it — those who had no trouble attaching reject it outright. To me (especially as someone who has worked on healing a “primal wound” from abuse), the question is why some adoptees struggle w/this and others do not. My son has certainly had no issues w/bonding w/us as his parents. I will be interested to see his reaction to this book as an adult.

    Take care,

    - Faith

  2. jpdakota says:

    I think Faith makes some good observations. Nancy’s premise is that ALL adopted babies separated from birth mothers at birth have a Primal Wound, though. She leaves no room for us adoptees to contend we did not suffer this wound. That’s frankly offensive. I think Faith is closer to the mark, because her hypothesis better explains how some of us grew up without the Primal Wound and its signs and symptoms while others did not. Nancy would say that we did experience it and we just don’t know it. From my standpoint that’s ridiculous.

  3. I fall somewhere in the middle of the above two commenters. I completely agree the “wound” is more about attachment. And I also completely agree that some kids attach well and others don’t. I think the earlier a child is placed, the better, but I have certainly seen “healthy white private infant placements” involve serious attachment issues, even when the child went straight into the arms of the caring, supportive, nurturing adoptive parents. I also have met Nancy Verrier and I agree, she is not looking for a scapegoat. And I have met healthy, functional, loving adult adoptees who learned about attachment and then said to me… “Finally I understand why there is a part of me that has difficulty giving my entire self to my God, my spouse, my (adoptive) parents…” The first time that happened I was blown away. This person didn’t know he had “issues”… he just knew he had “walls”.

    Interesting stuff…

  4. Jan Baker says:

    Whether you accept the theory entirely or not, the fact is that many adoptees have felt the explanation very comforting. It has helped them understand themselves better and provided a path to heal.

    Other adoptees are resistent to acknowledging that adoption has affected them in the least. Like jpdakota, they are offended at the suggestion that they are any different from a non-adopted person. Mention denial to adoptees and they often get really testy.

    Faith’s comments made a great deal of sense as well. I do believe that adoptees with attachment issues in general embrace TPW more readily. It is a mystery why some adoptees find adoption so difficult, and for others it is a mere blip in their lives.

  5. Faith Allen says:

    “It is a mystery why some adoptees find adoption so difficult, and for others it is a mere blip in their lives.”

    That is the part that fascinates me. Clearly this is an issue for **some** adoptees.

    The adoptees that I personally know who struggle w/primal wound issues are those who were adopted into abusive households. I believe that the abuse had much more to do w/their issues than their adoptions. I think the adoption compounds an already bad situation because they view their adoption as a “rejection” by the birth parents and then the abuse is a further “rejection” by the adoptive parents.

    I think the reason the book is so controversial is because it claims that **all** adoptees experience a primal wound and that they live in denial if they don’t have these symptoms. I think we are overreaching to tell people what they do and do not feel just because they are a part of a group. Also, “all” is such a broad statement. There are very few things in life that affect “all” people in a group the exact same way. Also, reading about it on-line might skew the numbers because someone who is hurting is more likely to be on-line talking about his adoption in the first place. None of the happy and well-adjusted adoptees that I know off-line feel the need to go on-line and talk about adoption because it is just a “blip in their lives.”

    Good topic!!

    - Faith

  6. Jan Baker says:

    Faith, if only adoptees who had bad/abusive homes were severely affected by adoption, i.e. a Primal Wound, etc. it would all make so much more sense to me.

    However, I know several adoptees who brag about the great adoptive parents that they have who are still conflicted and highly affected. They are happy and well-adjusted EXCEPT for adoption issues.

    Sometimes I think it is not being adopted that is really the issue, but having been relinquished. Even when intellectually the adult adoptee knows that not all birth mothers intend adoption as a rejection, the hurt child stills perceives adoption as abandonment.

    I try to avoid the use of “all” just for the very reason you stated. As for only hurting people only being on line and talking about adoption, maybe, maybe not. Hurting people do vent more. Are all these adoptive mom bloggers hurting? Is adoption merely a blip for them? I see talking on-line as healthy and productive, and/or an attempt to resolve issues, not a negative sign.

  7. Faith Allen says:

    “I see talking on-line as healthy and productive, and/or an attempt to resolve issues, not a negative sign.”

    Me, too, which is why I am here. :0) My personal motivation for blogging and being active on message boards is (1) to resolve issues; and (2) encourage others who are going through something painful that I have already worked through. Infertility and adoption were particularly painful and difficult for me, which is why I encourage others on-line on these subjects. I also like to read about other sides of the adoption triad to educate myself, even though I have not experienced being adopted or placing a child for adoption. Educating myself helps me to have more empathy for my son and his birth mother, in addition to other members of the adoption triad that I meet.

    My point about the skewed numbers is that people who do not have an issue w/something in their lives generally don’t feel the need to go on-line to talk about it. Yes, there are exceptions, but in most cases, those who are on-line have struggled with or continue to struggle with issues related to that topic.

    For example, I am a woman who has not experienced much gender discrimination. There are other women who have. Those women are the ones you generally see on message boards talking about equal rights, etc. Even though I am a woman, my gender is not an issue for me, so I feel no motivation to go on-line and talk about it. I believe this is true with many adoptees who are at peace with their adoptions. I base this on knowing several adoptees off-line who are at peace with their adoptions. All of them were extremely supportive of my choice to adopt, and none of them ever go on-line to talk about their adoptions. Having been adopted is simply not a focal point in their lives.

    “Sometimes I think it is not being adopted that is really the issue, but having been relinquished.”

    Yes, I think you are right about this.

    I am enjoying this post and discussions. :0)

    - Faith

  8. Jan Baker says:

    Funny isn’t it, Faith, how it can be enjoyable to discuss a topic, even when disagreeing, when all parties are reasonable and not attacking eah other, huh?

  9. Faith Allen says:

    Yep. :0) I find that I learn a lot more from others when we can be respectful and “agree to disagree.”

    Have a good evening.

    - Faith

  10. Linda DeBrango says:

    When I read “The Primal Wound”, I found so much that resonated in my life. I can understand that the primal wound applies to to any infant
    separated from her mother, not only because of adoption. In my case, I now understand the intimacy issues in my life. My reaction was exactly just what Nancy Spoolstra described in her comment. Far from being a victim mentality, the primal wound is a means to begin healing.

  11. Rosemary M says:

    I’ve previously written articles concerning my personal adoptive history in this magazine. I know from personal experience that effects of adoption vary according to the attitude and motives of the adopting parents. I’m not sure if I suffered from primal wound or being adopted into a traumatic family.
    I can understand there are people who feel that some adoptees use this “condition” to feed their self-pity complex. However much I try to sweep the effects of my difficult start in life “under the carpet”, it continues to come back and haunt me.
    I am grateful for anyone who can shed some light on this phenomenom so I can finally find answers to my confusion and deal with it and move on (at age 61).

  12. Parent of 2 says:

    I appreciate the thoughtful and personal responses of those above. As a parent of two adoptees (at ages 3 and 11 months)I can only share my observations 5 years into the process. Our two children bonded immediately to us and not long after to each other. They both “know” they are adopted but still don’t really understand. They don’t seem to have the primal wound – yet.

    While I haven’t read the book, I have a simple theory: Is it possible the primal wound is something one “learns” by contemplating one’s life history, and absorbing the subtle and not so messages one receives about adoption? This doesn’t minimise it in any way, but shifts the cause from soemthing universal to adoptees to something specific to the person and their experience.

  13. mzryluvscmpny says:

    Isnt this diagnosis just another name for Reactive attatchment disorder which is recognized by mental health professionals. I had to do research on this matter a few yrs ago because the schools and teachers were trying to claim my stepson had ADHD but in reality he suffered from reactive attatchment disorder which is caused when a newborn thru toddler doesnt get the attention, nurturing or emotional care they need and deserve which causes damage to the areas of the brain that allow us as humans to express and feel emotions and show them properly. his birthmother didnt hold him he was left mostlyin a car seat and left with this person or that never getting what we as mothers give to our babies and after being abandoned out right by her for 2 yrs then her coming back and telling him how I wasnt his mom (he was 4 at this time) i was his stepmom and she the birthmom he acted out he didnt understand because i was the only one who had shown emotional love and support (as a mother figure) it took til he was almost 7 for them to properly diagnose this on him now he is 14 and periodically abandoned repeatedly by her , he better knows how to deal with the failures so it does get better.

  14. csatory says:

    I am a 49 year old “adoptee” and ironically, March 25 is my adoption day. The issue of the “Primal Wound” is much more complex than Nancy Verrier discusses in her book. I agree that not all adoptees experience or have the issues/problems concerning birth separation—each person is different.

    However, new reseach in fetal development and Mother/infant bonding supports to a great degree the problems many adoptees AND children that had abusive and or ambivalent attachments with their babies. There is a growing acceptance of the “DYAD” of mother/infant during the first year of life. That is, the infant is “sees” itself as “part” of the mother for a minimum of three months and over the course of the first year, he/she gradually becomes aware that he/she is a separate being. Failure to thrive is directly tied to this emotional and mental growth of the infant. Furthermore, new research has found that the infant begins the bonding process in the womb, which is why in repeated studies, newborn infants can identify their mothers from other females. After all, we too are mammals and we need look no further than female dogs, cats, etc. and how their infants instinctively know “mother”.

    For those interested,
    here is an article about this:
    http://www.psychology.sunysb.edu/attachment/online/karen.pdf

    here is a fantastic, though very thick books which supports Nancy Verrier:

    Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love (Paperback)
    by Robert Karen Ph.D.

    Our concern should include all natural and adopted children AND the “unadoptable”—our children left in the foster care system that are considered too old, since most adoptive parents want infants.

    And yes, I am one of those adoptees that was relieved to read Nancy Verrier’s Primal Wound. I thought she must have based her book on me! It was the first time in my life that I could get a grasp on how to “heal myself” and not be a victim of my unconscious behavior! And no, I will not be searching for my birthmother. I am at peace.

  15. KC says:

    Great discussion.
    The one thing we must remember is that all adoptees are both adopted and relinquished. Relinquishment is the primal wound. The feelings (conscious or unconscious)associated with relinquishment exist regardless of bonding and attachment. How one copes with and accomodates those feelings have a great deal to do with the environment they grow up in. But we can’t deny (and shouldn’t allow our children to deny) their relinquishment.

  16. csatory says:

    Thank you KC for your honesty and acknowledgement of the struggle many of us adoptees go through. I am so thankful that there are many adoptive parents willing to recognize the “hole in the heart” that many of us live with. Generally speaking, and please understand, I am not representing all adoptees, only the ones I’ve been fortunate enough to share friendships with over the course of the my lifetime. This grieving has nothing to do with our love for our adoptive parents. Instead, its the small things: going to a friends house and hearing how she acts just like her boisterous Aunt Martha and the nose and hair come from her Grandfather. My friends had their links to their past, an intact birth story, and a sense of place in the world. School assignments: I dreaded the Trace your Family Tree. Other little things: a common insult among children when one acts “weird” or is troublesome: What’s wrong with them? They must be adopted! For 49 years I have never had a day where I haven’t been confronted with my lack of history. The first blood-relation I saw was my son. I will never know the answers to a million little questions. I will die never seeing my birthmother’s face or knowing my birth story. Did she want me? of was she the evil, soulless fallen woman that I was lucky to be rescued from? I was told both, not necessarily by my adoptive parents, but day by day in the little things; school, church, kids playing. Sadly, the adoption myths continue today. Whenever I try to explain the loss to a non-adopted person I am reassured that I was chosen and special. Really? I honestly will never know what is true. That is the lifelong impact of the primal wound and closed adoptions.

  17. Michelle34 says:

    I read TPW about seven years ago and didn’t really get much from it. I am adopted, but was taken from my mother at age two. I had already bonded with her she was the only mother in my world.

    When I was placed with my adoptive family, I stopped talking and eating. It wasn’t about them, rather the abrupt separation from my mother, grandmother and uncle(we had all lived together). I don’t know what this separation did to my psyche, but I do know that years to follow when I wanted to see my mother and know her and my father, and was told I couldn’t….really did a number on me. My needs as a human being were dismissed over and over (like banging my head against a wall but nobody could see that I was in pain — I hid it well)…. and I could never understand what the big deal was about not letting me know my people or anything about myself. There was even a law that said I couldn’t know my mother and father! Crazy-making!

    I grew up to feel that what I wanted was not important. I was not entitled to know my own mother and father….how then, could I be entitled to anything else in life? I became a bona fide people-pleaser….always afraid that if I said “no” that people would reject me. I still managed to get an education and be in a long-term relationship….but I was suffering in silence, I couldn’t let others know what was really going on inside of me….I had to make sure everyone else was fine.

    I think the separation definitely plays a part in adoptee-angst, but also the years of being compliant (expectations to be the child of adoptive parents, not the “other mother”) and not being able to build an identity based on one’s genetic links in the world, also contribute to the adoptee’s concept of self and how they perceive the world.

    I also was terrified that I would be taken away….it wasn’t a fear of being taken from a speicfic set of a-parents….just the fear of being “abandoned” – again.

    Adoption issues, I have learned, are very, very complex and no single event can explain away why certain adoptees feel the way they do. I think adoption laws that conceal a person’s identity are cruel, in fact, inhumane. They create negative enery and warped perceptions of people and circumstances when it is not at all necessary.

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