Possible Adverse Psychological Effects of an Adoptee
on Birth Family Siblings

by John A. Speyrer

"The origin [of trauma] consistently seems to be in the pre- and perinatal period."
--Leah Lagoy, An Imprint for Life

"There is no doubt in the mind of several patients that they had already passed the limit of tolerance of pain during this descent in the second stage of labour. They had already
lost all trust in the world into which they were being thrust out. They would
much rather have been annihilated on the way."

-- Frank Lake, M.D., Clinical Theology: A Theological
and Psychiatric Basis to Clinical Pastoral Care
(1966), p. 624.

There is much literature on the psychological effects of adoption on the adoptee but one comes up almost empty handed while searching for studies on how the birth siblings can be negatively influenced by the presence of the new member of the family - the adopted child.

With other variables being equal, the age of the siblings obviously makes a difference as to whether or how much the adoptee's presence in its new family influences the mental health of its siblings. Because of the independence of the older siblings they endure less psychological and psychosomatic disturbances as a result of presence of their new brother or sister. A new or exacerbation of an existing psychosomatic or psychiatric condition is an altogether different issue, although it may be considered by the parents to be a temporary condition or act out.

However, when a sibling has psychiatric symptoms prior to the adoptee entering the family circle, it is often inevitable that their pre-existing psychological problem, sooner or later, suffers a worsening. Some neurotic reactions, such as mild jealously, are almost inevitable with the introduction of a new sibling. However, this paper is concerned with more severe depressive-type symptoms in a sibling, such as chronic insomnia, inability to concentrate, loss of appetite, anxiety, depression, etc.

The symptoms which arise in childhood do not simply continue into adolescence and adulthood. There is usually much waxing and waning in their strength regulated by the rising and falling of our defenses versus the similarity of the present hurts to the old ones. Even when the present day feelings, which triggered an outbreak of the old issues abate completely, those old traumas don't simply disappear.

As we live are lives these old hurts lie around with undiminished power always ready to pounce and remind us that they are still around. Childhood emotional problems, even if hardly ever triggered again, will continue to exist in our subconscious mind. Unlike, teenage acne they can never be simply outgrown. These mind parasites will awaken whenever a similar feeling arises to remind us that they remain in our minds with power undiminished. They will lie in wait for our defenses to be strained and when that happens, they will again work to make us miserable.

In a sense, one cannot claim that the introduction of the new family member created the problem, as the symptom almost always was present in an incipient and almost undetectable form. A tendency for the sibling to me morose and depressed had always been present but perhaps easily manageable. After the adoption, the child's sadness and insomnia may increase in severity. The suffering sibling truly feels he has lost his place in the family constellation as his psychological sufferings increase.

No, rather he feels that parental love has become diminished and that he is in direct competition with the intruder sibling. Assuring the depressive child that this is not so is of no avail. Symptoms which were previously only bothersome or seemingly non-existent begin calling out for professional attention.

Even the simple presence of and severity of the symptom of depression in an infant or child points to the severity of the trauma of his birth. However, it was not until the late 1970s that depression was recognized in young children and even infants. A child's defenses are of sufficient strength to keep the depression away until adolescence or more typically until adulthood and during our decline into the illnesses of old age, when they are often at their height. Suicide is most common in the oldest of us. The older the person, the more pervasive is its incidence.

When considered from a primal theory viewpoint, theoretically there are two sets of problems which may become activated or exacerbated in birth children as the adoptee begins to secure his place in the family. These are his perceived maternal rejection and the accompany triggering of his unconscious traumatic birth memories. Although seemingly separate, the two sources are closely related.

Maternal Rejection

Parents are often very puzzled when a child who seems to have been happy and reasonably well adjusted up to a certain point begins, during the school years, or in early adult life, to accuse the parents of attitudes of rejection and harshness which certainly could not
have been reasonably deduced from the later years of consciousness.

-- Frank Lake, M.D., Clinical Theology: A Theological
and Psychiatric Basis to Clinical Pastoral Care

From a Dr. Gabor Maté presentation at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, in 2009, (Material is loosely quoted):

"Any woman who has to give up her baby for adoption is by definition a stressed woman. She is a single mom, an addicted mom, an abused mom, a poor mom or a teenage mom. For nine months the hormones of stress, such as cortisol, affect the fetus' development. When birth occurs the human child is completely attuned to the mother's body and that relationship was meant to continue. Even apart from its traumatic physical qualities birth means that the maternal relationship is totally cut off. Anybody who was adopted will admit to a profound sense of rejection by their birth mother.

Because of this early separation they easily feel abandoned by their birth mother. This sense of rejection can be profound They don't consciously remember, but their implicit memory system records the relationship feeling even before birth, like telling an adopted person that you're going to call and then don't, they can feel a profound sense of rejection. For adoptees a sense of rejection is much greater than in the average person.

Remember that for nine months the mother is stressed, and the hormones of stress are going to her placenta, potentializing the baby's nervous system. That is not controversial information. At birth that connection is totally cut. The baby/child, all of its life, remembers being separated from its mother. Anybody who is adopted will tell you that their sense of identity is highly attuned with the mother's body. For the adopted baby that's been totally cut off, any separation of mother at birth has a huge traumatic impact."

But this article is about the effect of a adopted child upon entering the new family, so why emphasize the plight of the adoptee? Because the greater needs which the adopted child brings into the family can cause resentment in its siblings. This is so since they may feel displaced and rejected by the greater need of care and compassion which the new family member requires.

The adopted child becomes very sensitive to being ignored as its being placed for adoption confirmed its feelings that she was not like from the very beginning. They can even imagine their rejection when it is not happening as its new family interaction brings up unconscious memories of his own early development with resultant effects on the birth siblings.

Feeling rejected by one's mother as a child or infant exists on a continuum of feelings both conscious and unconscious. The mother will claim that her love for the affected sibling remains constant, but the conscious and unconscious feelings and symptoms of the affected siblings may be at odds with her protestations.

In some cases, when the birth child begins displaying feelings of being replaced from his earlier position - such feelings are often derived from totally unconscious origins -- from inutero, during the birth process and during early infancy. Even before birth the fetus is cognizant in many incredible ways and knows that there is another being (its mother) nearby. The entry into the family of his new brother or sister sometimes awakens some of the earlier subtle feelings he had experienced whether or not there had been overt rejection or unwantedness. Accidental pregnancies are usually unwanted pregnancies and often produce unwanted children.

The closer the feeling content of the present negative feelings are to the earlier pre-birth feeling, the more probable that a connection to the earlier rejective feeling will be made. The birth sibling may become guilty, angry, or feel unwanted which was the original "bad" feeling in utero. He unknowingly is triggered after the arrival of the new brother or sister with uncomfortable emotions which were similar to those he had experienced much earlier. It almost seems as though he sets up himself to re-experience his earlier hurt. Actually, the early hurt had been repressed and is hidden and thus beyond his ability to recognize the real origins of his present day hurtful rejective feelings.

"In those days (circa late 1950s) my 'scientific caution' tended to reject, a priori, the notion that the unconscious mind could contain valid memories of the traumatic experience of birth. I am now convinced, by overwhelming evidence from my own and my colleagues' practice, as well as that of psychiatrists in many parts of the world, that birth traumas are not only memorable, but that these painful events often constitute the direct or indirect causes of neurotic affliction."
--Frank Lake, M.D. - Clinical Theology (1966), p. 693.

Birth and Peri-Natal Trauma

The emotions encompassing infantile rage, inadequacy or guilt have very early roots and the rejective feelings triggered by the arrival of the newly adopted sibling only reinforce these early unconscious traumas by the deeper traumas which were suffering in the process of being born or even during the months of inutero development. The rejective despair felt in the here and now as a child, actually had its origin during birth and before. The "bad" feelings of infancy do not spring forth in isolation. Their ultimate source is usually the traumas of pre- and peri-natal existence. The developing fetus, has a functional brain and absorbs the feelings of its family which often reinforce the much earlier feelings it had derived about whether the world would be an accepting or rejecting place. [See Birth & Pre-Birth Trauma on TV - ( A review of an early Oprah Winfrey show.)]

In his final work, Mutual Caring, (1982) psychiatrist Frank Lake writes how inuterine crises in one's early life can be uncovered and break out from repression during some childhood, adolescent or adult crisis. Such nervous breakdowns can be of a negative miserable failure or rejection, which, due to the strength of the memory, becomes impossible to re-repress again. [ ibid.. (2009), p. 76.] The reaction, occuring perhaps many decades after the original assault, is disproportionate to the severity of the present day hurt which nonetheless contains the kindred feelings of the original primal trauma which provide the essential resonance in the present.

In a study which appeared in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, (19,6,1991) the authors (below) reported that although stomach aches and headaches are usually thought indicative of children with anxiety disorders, other physical symptoms are more characteristic and appear more frequently. These are symptoms which are usually present in panic disorders. [Deborah C. Beidel, Mary Anne G. Christ, and Patrician J. Long, Somatic Complaints in Anxious Children. Also see my article, Panic Attacks: Symptoms & Dangers - Their Origins in Early Traumas, in which I posit that the somatic complaints present in panic disorders are the recapitulations of earlier birth traumas.]

Other than the more common difficulties in falling asleep, children are disturbed by night terrors, frequent awakenings, sleepwalking and various phobias, especially fear of the dark and difficulty of falling asleep in the dark. Tics may also be present. Other problems, such as eating idiosynchronies and a restless body during sleep can be present in both children and some adults who had severe birth traumas. All these have their origin in very early traumas, particularly the trauma of birth. Dr. Janov relates the fear of the dark to experiencing suffering because the trauma of birth occured in darkness and light becomes identified with relief from the terror. (A. Janov, The Feeling Child, p.169.)

Probably, the earlier the onset and persistence of insomnia, the more severe were one's birth traumas. Chronic insomnia in a child often reflects severe pre- and peri-natal trauma. Severe symptomology in children, often have their origins in very early severely traumatic events. Often they do not produce symptoms until there are external events which triggers a breach of one's psychological defenses. (See Phobias As Persistent Remainders and Reminders of the Traumas of Our Births )

Czech-American psychiatrist Stanislav Grof writes in, Beyond the Brain, (1985): "Although the entire spectrum of experiences occurring on this level cannot be reduced to a reliving of biological birth, the birth trauma seems to represent an important core of the process." (p. 99) If the explanation for symptomology is not pre- and peri-natal trauma, Grof believes that early profound childhood and infantile illness, when there was a chance of dying, is the cause.

He believes, as does clinical psychologist, Arthur Janov, that the roots of depression can be traced back to birth. This common experience of tracing one's emotional disorders to the process of birth (or early life threatening illness) is a common occurrence in the regressive therapies (ibid., p. 247).

Fixation on One's Mother

In cases of severe birth trauma, the contemplation by the child of of the mother's death is often phobic in nature, with the child obsessively sharing with his mother and others his anticipatory fear of her death. The distraught feelings from which the child suffers when contemplating its mother's demise sometimes cannot be contained and is compulsively shared with the mother and with others. This is not the operation of the so-called oedipus complex, but is rather emblematic of the strength of unresolved early traumas of the sibling relating to his mother.

Indeed, this unresolved fixation on the mother, is one of the more potent issues in all of psychotherapy. In the regressive therapies, where extremely early problems can be relived and ultimately resolved, its existence is often presented as an entry point for the reliving and ultimate resolution of early parental traumas.

In later life, such a person would have difficulty in emotional detachment from the mother and transference of its ties to a girlfriend or wife and can present itself as a fear of marriage and of sexual relations. (See Cuddling and Holding As Stress Reducers and . . . As Possible Stress Increasers ). This is so because the later close relationship of the person with a love object is an unconscious reminder of the earlier traumatic relationship with the mother. (For its birth trauma implications, see my article, The Origins of the Fear of Female Genitalia).

When an adopted child enters family constellations as described above, buried primal feelings are brought to the surface in a sibling because of his earlier unconscious feeling of not having the love of its mother. For such a child, attempts at assurance of love do not suffice. The attention paid to the adoptee, who is considered to be an intruder into the family, can be a potent source for the beginning of the birth child's overt symptoms, but it is often that the distress of the birth child's own pre- and peri-natal traumas which are ultimately the source of his present suffering.

Dr. Grof believes the origins of depression are derived from the second phase of his schema of birth stages. His form of regressive therapy, which he calls holotropic breathwork, makes it possible for one to relive the actual feelings and physical sensations of one's birth process. Many claim the earlier one is able to relive these experience, the better the results with the more recent trauma yielding its tenacious hold in the subconscious more readily.

He writes,

"Many people have to process experiences of near drowning, operations, accidents, and children's diseases, particularly those that were associated with suffocation, such as diphtheria, whooping cough, or aspiration of a foreign object." He admits that this therapy methodology is not currently accepted in mainstream psychiatry, nevertheless, "(w)hen our process of deep experiential self-exploration moves beyond the level of memories from childhood and infancy and reaches back to birth, we start encountering emotions and physical sensations of extreme intensity, often surpassing anything we previously considered humanly possible.

...At this point, the experiences become a strange mixture of the themes of birth and death....We can feel the anxiety, biological fury, physical pain, and suffocation associated with this terrifying event and even accurately recognize the type of anesthesia used when we were born. This is often accompanied by various postures and movements of the head and body that accurately recreate the mechanics of a particular type of delivery. All these details can be confirmed if good birth records or reliable personal witnesses are available." -- S. Grof, M.D., The Future of Psychiatry: Conceptual Challenges to Psychiatry, Psychology, and Psychotherapy,(article)

"Children are killing children at an alarming rate. Child abuse is epidemic. Children are harming themselves, committing suicide, at increasingly younger ages"
--Barbara Findeisen, Foreword in Roy Ridgway and Simon H. House
The Unborn Child, Beginning a Whole Life and Overcoming Problems of Early Origin

Clinical psychologist, Arthur Janov, Ph.D., in his latest book, The Janov Solution (2007), emphasizes the important relationship between depression and birth trauma. His book has seventeen beautifully written case studies of persons who were treated at his therapy center and they form an important and instructive role in pointing out the origins of the person's depressive symptoms. Each is quite different, and yet similar, in illustrating how the foundations of depression were laid down very early in life.

Janov writes that physician researcher, J.K.S. Anand, believed that birth and pre-birth difficulties can often be a matter of life and death, and that the most severe repression takes place during fetal life. This very early near-death trauma will remain with us as long as we live. Medication can temporarily alleviate some symptoms, but the imprint is very early and is about coming close to death. It is a severe trauma with resultant symptoms that interfere with our enjoyment of life.

The birthing baby had felt as though it was dying. For some who came close to death at birth, wishing for death had been a solution to its suffering even before it was born. This solution to suffering and consideration of suicide as a way out of present-day psychological and physical pain often have their origins in this process. The unconscious memory of the stubborn imprint returns when we are stressed in the present. Just about any severe present stress reaches back to its pre- and peri-natal roots.

In the first pages of his book, Dr. Janov suggests that early traumatic experiences are almost always causal factors in depression and that their effects can continue to resound throughout one's life. And it's not just birth, as intrauterine development gone awry can also wreak havoc with the normal parameters or set points for our physiology which influence our susceptibility to depression and other mental illnesses. See Janov's blog article, Life Before Birth: How Experience in the Womb can Affect Our Lives Forever (revised) .

In regards to the genetics of depression, Janov writes that, sometimes, in rare cases, inheritability can play a role. He believes that,

"...by and large, birth trauma and early life experience are the root cause. There are changes in physiology during our life in the womb. The set-points of so many hormones are being established. One may think that such deficiencies are genetic, but there are events that can cause them that are not always obvious. They are only obvious when the patient in therapy descends to the antipodes of the unconscious where the crucial explanation of one's depression lies....A near death trauma experienced during gestation, or at birth, dogs us for the rest of our lives as an imprint held within the brainstem and limbic/feeling centers." (Janov, ibid., pps. 11-12)

Often, their birthing mothers had been heavy anesthetized. Indeed, he believes that anesthesia given to the birthing mother is the most common trauma which a baby endures.

Since the anesthesia is administered to the mother in relation to her weight, the dose is often more than the fetus can safely handle and can cause massive shutdowns of a multiplicity of the birthing baby's body systems. The anesthesia can traumatize the birthing fetus by slowing down its birth and thus can interfere with the primal reliving of one's birthing experiences. Anesthesia administered for the sake of the mother's physical pain can, therefore, deal a triple whammy to the birthing baby!

The early pains of our past are strung together like knots on a cord. A later hurt, such as jealousy, feelings of being rejected, or feeling a lack of love becomes part and parcel of that universal hurt of our beginnings - even sometimes extending into the process of our gestation. These later hurts/pains of infancy and early childhood provide a pathway or opening to our more severe traumas of which the trauma of our birth is the most common. Janov describes the process in his blog of 3/21/09: "Feeling pain in the present can trigger off related pain going all the way back to the womb. That early pain can join the current feeling and become absorbed into the system, eventually leading to connection and resolution."

Evolution gave us our upright position but in so doing guaranteed that each member of mankind must often suffer the sometimes unbearable pain of his birth with its life changing consequences. This becomes so because, unlike other mammals, it became imperative that we are born before sufficient developmental time has passed. At birth we are still fetuses. More growth and development of our brain would require a larger bony-pelvic opening in the female of our species in order to give birth more easily. But if she would have developed a somewhat larger pelvic opening she would become eviscerated by simple gravity. Because of the inadequate size of women's pelvic opening, unlike other mammals, we are born before we should be and remain extremely dependent for a longer period of time than any other mammals.

The evolution of bipedalism had the important benefit of freeing our hands for other activities, such as seeking food and caring for offspring, but it also subjected the child being born to overwhelming trauma because it placed a limit on the size of the pelvic opening. For information about how birthing can produce PTSD in the birthing mother herself, read, on this website, my article, Maternal Birth Trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.


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