Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

​1.5.6 The Impact of ‘Loss’

The following is an extract from a paper (Major Assignment-Otago University) by Alkes Ioannou titled “Adopted Children: The Impact of Loss”.  The paper was based on a literature review on the subject.

Kaplan (1990) outlines that in society losses tend to fall into four major categories.  The first category is the loss of a valued or loved person. The second category is the loss of health, attitude or social role. The third is the loss of external objects such as money, toys, clothing etc and the fourth are those losses that occur during the normal development processes.  

“Grief is the emotional reaction to a loss” (Robinson, 2003, p. 101).  Melina (1998) draws on the writings of Dr Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a psychiatrist and authority on death, who identified five stages that people go through when dealing with death. These stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Most if not all the authors are in agreement that losses other than death give rise to grief reactions. Every time someone experiences a loss, they will go through these stages of grief although in the case of a minor loss they may go through the stages quickly.  There is no standard time frame for experiencing these phases of grief as each individual is different.

There is universal support amongst adoption experts and researchers that ‘loss’ occurs in adoption and that it is a primary issue. Melina (1998) notes that adopted children are forced to break some ties with people or surroundings to which they have become attached and it is not uncommon for a child to grieve when separated from someone that he or she cares about or from a familiar environment.  Kaplan (1990) states that the losses that arise in adoption are “fundamental, traumatic, life altering events that are intergenerational in scope. It isn’t just our children who are affected by adoption, it is their children and their children” (p. 26).  Brodzinzsky, Schecter and Marantz-Henig (1992), underscore this point by noting that the loss inherent in adoption is unlike other losses we have come to expect in a lifetime, such as death or divorce.  “Adoption loss is more pervasive, less socially recognised, and more profound” (p. 9).  

The types of loss that adopted children suffer include the lost chance to be ‘normal’ like their friends who are growing up in their birth families, loss of birth parents, birth history, medical history, family traditions, and stories about family ancestors. The child also may have lost siblings, birth order, somebody with a physical resemblance, and other connections with the child's biological family (Smit, 2002). In the case of children adopted intercountry there may be additional ‘losses’ such as loss of culture, language, birth country, heritage, traits, familiar foods.

Brodzinzsky, et al., (1992) have observed that when adoption arises as a salient issue in a person’s inner life, the most pervasive feeling is an overwhelming sense of ‘loss’.  If not dealt with then the results can be, depending on the severity of the loss, unresolved anger and depression.  Melina (1998) cites Bowlby that children can work through their grief provided their questions are answered and their memories not discouraged.  

Unfortunately, for a number of reasons grief does not get resolved and certain behaviours result which can also continue into adulthood.  Adopted children have not been encouraged to express their grief as the expectation by society was that they should be grateful to their adoptive parents for rescuing them.  There is also a lack of awareness of how children mourn. Melina (1998) cites Bowlby “… even though children mourn in much the same way that adults do, there are differences. Children have less control over their grief process –they may not be as able as adults to get the information they need to help them understand their loss and it is not as easy to for them to seek comfort from other people if those whom they depend on for support fail to provide it”(p. 39).

Leon (2002) argues that the effects of loss in adoption (such as those mentioned by these authors) are absent with regards to adoption in some non Western cultures.  The writer believes that the point that Leon is making here is not that loss doesn’t exist but that the social practices of these cultures (e.g. greater care with regard to the child’s emotional and social development, knowledge of origins and identity etc) contribute to lessen the effects of loss.  Leon appears to be saying that the grief resolution practices are better in these cultures.

To what extent does ‘loss’ negatively impact adopted children and what are the outcomes?​

The literature reviewed suggested several negative outcomes for adopted children resulting from ‘loss’:​

Loss of Birth Mother

There is growing support for a theory described in the book The Primal Wound (Verrier, 1993) that a bond between mother and child grows during pregnancy and that there is a resultant impact on the child of the separation from the mother (something that Verrier describes as a connection between biological mother and child that is ‘primal’, ‘mystical’, ‘mysterious’, and ‘everlasting’). According to Verrier the severing of the connection causes a primal or narcissistic wound which manifests in a sense of loss, basic mistrust, anxiety and depression, emotional and/or behavioural problems and difficulties in relationships. The writer does not support this theory.  There is no empirical evidence to support the theory and the descriptions such as ‘mystical’ and ‘mysterious’ are very subjective and will be difficult to ever measure and thereby gain universal support as a mainstream developmental theory.  Leon (2002) refers to mainstream adoption researchers and specialists (such as Brodzinsky et al., 1992; Nickman, 1985; Brinich, 1980) not conforming to the theory that infant adoption constitutes an immediate loss at placement that inevitably disrupts early attachments.  Leon’s reference to the absence of the effects of loss in non Western cultures also supports this view.  Certainly all the authors unequivocally support the view that adopted children do grieve the loss of their birth mothers, however the view universally supported is that adoption ‘loss’ emerges later in childhood as the child begins to understand about adoption.  

Emotional and Behavioural

Brodzinzsky, et al., (1992) comment that school age adoptees struggle with the conflicting concept that adoptions for them are family building yet involves family loss (i.e. their birth families). The conscious and unconscious grieving that goes along with this sense of loss causes many of the behavioural changes that they and other professionals have observed.   These behavioural changes include: increase in anger, aggression, oppositional behaviour, uncommunicativeness, depression and self image problems.  Lifton (1994) cited by Robinson (2003) in her book Journey of the Adopted Self  in which Lifton explores the impact of adoption on adopted people, describes two opposing responses of adopted people: “…the compliant adopted people who, because of their issues of unresolved grief and loss, ‘…pay the price with eating disorders, phobias and an underlying depression’ while others , ‘...take an oppositional stance to anyone who tries to control them, be they parents, school teachers or legal authorities” (p. 117).

Psychological Development, Social Development and Self Esteem

Bowlby (1991) states that for a developing child, when conditions dictated that they were separated from attachment figures, they will be more usually prone to be anxious and fearful. The principal condition for the development of an unstable and anxious personality is a constant uncertainty about the accessibility and responsiveness of attachment figures. 

Brodzinzsky, et al., (1992) utilising Erik Erikson's model of the life cycle describe how the search for self and the experience of loss show themselves at different periods of the adoptees’ psychological development.  The issue of being adopted is one that will be returned to, consciously and unconsciously, at various points in an adoptee’s growth and development and they believe adoptees have an increased vulnerability to psychological problems which can be explained largely by their experience of loss.  Brodzinzsky, et al., say that for the adoptee, the experience of loss is usually felt in the context of the search for self (an understanding of self is one of the primary factors of psychological development). 

Depending on how issues are resolved when they arise can impact on the child’s awareness of themselves in relation to how others see them, and their self esteem which plays a major role in psychological well being. 

Kaplan (1990) states that loss in adoption and the feeling or fear of rejection also can lead to issues of shame and guilt. Many adoptees feel ashamed of being different or feel guilty that somehow they did something wrong that caused them to lose their family. 

Rejection and Attachment

Robinson (2003) states that for many adopted people, the fact that they were not raised by their natural mothers causes them to feel rejected and abandoned.  Brodzinzsky, et al., (1992) builds on this by describing that at ‘middle childhood’ the adopted child’s understanding and awareness of adoption begins to impact on the sense of self and the full impact of loss is usually first felt “…the child can infer the flip side of her beloved ‘adoption story’ – that for her to be chosen, she first had to be given away” (p.18).  This perception of abandonment by their natural mother or care givers affects their feelings of self worth in a negative way and may cause a constant fear of abandonment. 

Constant fear of abandonment or rejection can affect the adopted child’s future relationships. Kaplan (1990) comments that many adoptees (particularly those adopted at an older age) seem to hold or keep themselves back, avoiding getting close to others and/or going from one relationship to another.  Other authors such as Verrier (1993) and Robinson (2003) say that the fear of abandonment results in hyper–vigilance on the part of the child which can lead to illnesses. Lifton (1994) cited by Robinson (2003) says that some adopted people deliberately choose to become indispensable to their adoptive parents to ensure they will not be abandoned by them and therefore not have to undergo another separation. 

Adopted children form an attachment to their adoptive parents because they quickly come to realise that their survival depends on it, but they may never truly bond with them (Verrier, 1993). 


Kaplan (1990) identifies that one of the main areas where we get our sense of identity is from the knowledge of where we come from and our family of origin.  Lifton (1994) cited by Robinson (2003) supports this view by stating that where there is a lack of knowledge about their origins this interferes with the child’s struggle to form an early sense of self. Iwanek (1989) comments that adoption practices that are based on pretence (i.e. the legal fiction that the child was ‘as if born to’) and the suppression of personal information (under the guise of protecting the adopted person) gets in the way of personal growth.​