Trauma in Adoption – a Parent's Perspective

In this paper I shall explore what have often felt to me to be some of the most challenging and at the same time the most important elements to trauma in adoption. My aim is to examine the presence of hateful feelings and dangerousness in the adoptive parent-child relationship. I shall discuss the presence of the child’s concept of their own toxicity and their perception of their existence as both a damaged and a damaging object in relationships, and the manifestation of this through often physical acts of projective identification and through other intense acts of communication through action. My hope is that this paper will elicit some further discussions regarding the potential for parents to work therapeutically with these experiences and may be of interest to adoptive families or to others working with parents who are subject to these experiences. Some of the concepts that I explore in this paper are evocative and are perhaps not ordinarily so openly associated with a consideration of the experience of adoption. I do believe, however, that these experiences are very important. It is also my belief as an adoptive parent myself that working with these feelings, however difficult, is invariably very helpful.

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Authored on :
12/03/2021by :
Tony Burch

Containing Groups

Trauma in Adoption, a Parent`s Perspective

In this paper I shall explore what have often felt to me to be some of the most challenging and at the same time the most important elements to trauma in adoption. My aim is to examine the presence of hateful feelings and dangerousness in the adoptive parent-child relationship. I shall discuss the presence of the child’s concept of their own toxicity and their perception of their existence as both a damaged and a damaging object in relationships, and the manifestation of this through often physical acts of projective identification and through other intense acts of communication through action. My hope is that this paper will elicit some further discussions regarding the potential for parents to work therapeutically with these experiences and may be of interest to adoptive families or to others working with parents who are subject to these experiences. Some of the concepts that I explore in this paper are evocative and are perhaps not ordinarily so openly associated with a consideration of the experience of adoption. I do believe, however, that these experiences are very important. It is also my belief as an adoptive parent myself that working with these feelings, however difficult, is invariably very helpful.


The concepts I outline in this paper have developed both from my own experience as an adoptive parent and from the work I have undertaken in support of other adoptive families. These observations have demonstrated to me that for many adopted children words are simply not enough to allow them to communicate the depth or the sheer weight of the emotional burden that they feel. This is often simply a case of being unable to articulate the complexity of their experiences, and of therefore needing to be more demonstrative in attempting to be heard and felt. I have observed that these active communications can manifest in the adoptive family setting as an almost tangible presence which, in some way, accompanies the child. I have often heard this experience referred to in families as if it were ‘another child who arrived with them’.

Some of the concepts outlined in this text have been drawn from a consideration of previous discussion around the themes of hateful and destructive feelings in the parent-child relationship. Here I have found helpful the work of Robert Stoller and of Estella Welldon. I have also drawn extensively from the work of Donald Winnicott and, more specifically, from his paper Hate in the Counter-Transference (1949). This paper has helped me to take a more specific and focused look at the context of the adoptive parent and child relationship.


Some of the content of this paper will be presented from my first-hand experience as an adoptive parent and as such some of the language I find myself compelled to use may carry with it a sense of familiarity, or perhaps even a sense of the deeply personal nature of these experiences. I have tried wherever possible to limit this usage to allow the concepts I am trying to convey to come through without an overpowering sense of intrusion. There are times within my writing, however, when I feel that the personal nature of these experiences should be touched upon, to allow the reader a true sense of the experience for adoptive families, and also perhaps a sense of how sometimes without this intrusion into the very personal our understanding of these experiences is inherently limited. In saying this, there is perhaps also a suggestion that in my opinion some of the current thinking around our approaches to adoptive relationships could benefit from critique, particularly with regard to the tendency for current training and preparation to encourage parents to use mechanisms which are based on coping with difficult behaviours rather than attempting to work therapeutically with what is being presented and with what the child is attempting to communicate through action. This causes a situation where communication from the child is missed and where the child’s bids for understanding are left unfulfilled and unmet. I do not openly explore these elements here as they are outside of the scope of this paper.


Some background


When my wife and I adopted our daughter she was six years old and she had been in the care system for nearly two years. I remember feeling very aware of how ‘tiny’ she was, not just physically, but emotionally also. At the time of writing this paper our daughter has been with us for just over four years. I remember, very early on in her placement with us, spending a lot of time wondering about the feeling that something important was missing somewhere, some vital element of her was lacking, an element that would have enabled her growth into a somehow larger, and more ‘whole’ child. I spoke to friends and colleagues about this awareness in the hope of finding some kind of definition for it but, at that time, my own understanding of her experience and of my own relationship to that experience was not developed enough for me to be able to articulate any kind of a definition which felt anything like close to appropriate. Eventually, after a great deal of reflection and exploration, I began to realize that the only way I could categorize the missing element was to call it ‘Pre-Trust’. It was something even more basic than the notion of ‘who looks after you?’ It had a more primitive quality, it was before this idea. My experience as an adoptive parent was constantly overshadowed and influenced by this notion. It was ever-present and it manifest in confusion, aggression, hateful feelings and deep distress.


The concept of ‘Pre-Trust’ is something that I have found very challenging to define. I believe that it is best described as a request, from the child, for an alliance which could provide a potential ‘lack of danger’ (not safety) in exchange for a kind of perceived acquiescence to the role of child. This request is mobilized through the child’s fear that they are somehow in danger. This request for alliance is then perhaps the first step to moving into a position where that fear can be dealt with intersubjectively in the relationship between adoptive parent and child. ‘Pre-Trust’ has an exceptionally tenuous quality and can be perceived as somehow deceptive. I have found something close to a description of its quality in Bion’s descriptions of contact with psychotic patients:


`(T)he analyst does not meet a personality but a hastily organized improvisation of a personality, or perhaps of a mood….It is an improvisation of fragments`. (Taken from Lévy, 2020).


The child presents as an assemblance of pieces, an organization of elements which are drawn together to facilitate the safest possible outcome for the child in that moment. I think that perhaps the best way for me to illustrate this experience for you is through example. The following is a question asked of me, by an adoption social worker with whom I was discussing my experiences:


`If a looked after child is playing in the street and they fall over and hurt themselves, who do they run to?` Initially, my first thought in response to this question was that the simplicity of the potential answers actually belies what is a much deeper, more profound and more devastating truth. Upon considering this statement, I associate images of children with bloodied knees running to their mothers, or children frightened when play becomes too real, hiding their faces in the folds of a parent`s clothing. It was an image that should have qualities of reliance and safety. At an even more primitive level it was an image that should have qualities of survival. It wasn’t, ‘who looks after you?’ It was, ‘who protects you?’ The question really at its most primitive level is ‘where do I set projections? Is anywhere safe enough to hold, contain and transform this fear for me?’ In a good enough parent-child relationship this is established early and can be relied on. For a looked-after child, however, things look very different. This realization brought with it a deeply felt and never forgotten horror. When I realized that for most children who have experienced the kind of trauma that leads to becoming looked after, the answer to the question of who protects you is no-one. It is perhaps only from a consideration of this position that the fragmentary and tenuous nature of ‘Pre-Trust’ can be discerned. A child who has experienced trauma cannot hope for safety, but perhaps they can hope for a lack of danger if they can establish an alliance. For me, this realization was a turning point. It not only enabled me to begin to try to develop an understanding of the behaviours that I was witnessing on the basis of this realization, but I also began to realize just how ill-prepared I felt to cope with this.


Our daughter has always been close to me, finding it easier to bond with the father she never had than with an adoptive mother who she perceived to be just another mother who would consistently fail to meet her needs. In that bond, however, I was aware of a superficiality. It was a constructed bond, screwed together through something that edged into compulsion. She kept me close, to keep herself safe. I may have been the father she had never had, but men were unpredictable, they could be dangerous. If she kept me placated, if she pandered to the needs she felt I had, then she would keep me docile with no need for me to attack. In this state I couldn’t protect her; she had to protect herself, from me. I couldn’t be her father if I was also the enemy. Her anxiety in existing in this conflict was palpable and often became unmanageable. It spilled over into external expressions of destructiveness in defence against the threat of annihilation that a relationship with a paternal figure represented. It was not just due to the threat of further abuse, but also to the overwhelmingly difficult, and almost incomprehensible, prospect that the possibility of a loving relationship could ever exist for her. She had no gained experience on which to base any possibility that this could be true. Stanley Ruszczynski explores something very similar to this concept in his chapter The frightened couple:


`(They) may be thought of as having no internal psychic space within which to manage their anxieties, impulses and conflicts and, as a result, have to use, through processes of splitting, projection and projective identification, external space into which they evacuate these unprocessed feelings`. (Ruszcynski, 2014)


Our daughter’s relationship with my wife, her new adoptive mother, was very strained. The causal links here, however, were more obvious to see. She had been severely neglected and abandoned by her birth mother countless times. No wonder then that she found it hard to believe that ‘this mother’ would actually be there for her. In this relationship her need to externalize feelings of destructiveness and hatefulness was never overtly present. It was manifest in less obvious ways; through disregard, and an apparent determination to test her ‘new’ mother`s capacity to survive, with any and all attempts at a deeper relationship met with often incredibly subtle hostility. It would be tempting to say that she was punishing her maternal object through these often very challenging interactions. I do not believe this was the case, however, as at this point in time she had not yet been able to separate herself from the potential of a reunification with her birth mother. She had equally not yet been able even to begin to address the circumstances that had led her to become looked after which would, in time, demand consideration of her birth mother`s capacity to meet her needs. This was a hostile rejection on the basis of loyalty to her birth mother. Our daughter’s experience of this divided loyalty was the primary contributing factor to the difficulties we experienced in her relationship with her adopted mother.


In many ways the situation reminded me very much of the stages of change outlined in Winnicott’s work on evacuated children (Winnicott, 1945). Once the initial illusory state of an idealized version of reality gives way to the presence of the faults which have always existed, either ignored or unrecognized, the child begins to test the resilience of the ‘structure’ they find themselves within, and of the objects that inhabit that structure, including the strength and resilience of any alliances or relationships that exist. The purpose of this testing is to reveal any weakness which would suggest that the structure is unsafe and therefore which puts the child at risk. A part of this process often involves the request for an alliance with one parent to the exclusion of the other.


What I am interested in here is a psychological state in which the child is actively reaching out for an alliance from a position of ‘knowing’ that they are in danger. They have formed themselves as a kind of facsimile of a child, tenuously held together and able to shift and re-form into a new shape which serves the alliance better. They are actively seeking the horror which they firmly believe exists around them somewhere, because for them it is easier to exist in full knowledge of the reality of that horror than it is to exist with the horror that the unknown presents to them. It is from this position that the relationship begins, with the child in full and total belief that you, as the parent, are a part of that horror.


In adoption there is something that often remains unspoken, through training and preparation, through placement and the subsequent adjustments that are made by all. It is an idea that carries with it such a stigma for adoptive parents that it is instantly disabling.


‘Don’t get angry’.


It is a mantra that adoptive parents try to recite again and again in an attempt hold onto composure when facing apparent irrationality and the extremes of emotional challenge that adoption can bring. It is perhaps the biggest fear that parents have.


‘If I lose my temper, I am no better than the abusers who did this to you. If I lose my temper, I become the perpetrator. The wound will never heal and you as my child will never love me.’


It is a crazy idea.


Yet, one of the comments we always hear when adoptive parents are going through difficulties is:


‘I lost my temper, I never thought I would be that kind of parent.’ I’m going to re-write that statement as I read it from personal experience:


‘I failed.’


Nothing else in adoption is as destructive for parents, as the idea of failure. Throughout assessment, prospective parents assimilate the idea that they need to be parents who are willing to go the extra mile; they need to be exceptional. They need to be resilient and possess huge emotional strength. This is not perhaps a conscious act, nor is it perhaps an inaccurate suggestion as there are without doubt elements to adoption that require a depth of understanding and reflective capacity that are not commonplace. This suggestion has teeth, however, conscious or otherwise, and those teeth bite. The idea of ‘being the best’ stays with you as adoptive parents and the knowledge of the experiences that these children have had before they came to be with you make those teeth ever sharper. It seems to me little wonder that so many adopters find this fall from realistically unattainable grace to be so distressing. Adoptive parents are being actively taught to idealize omnipotence.


I should like to add something further here, a brief but very important discussion about grief in early adoption.


It has been my experience, both as an adoptive parent myself, and through working with other adoptive parents, that there is often a moment early in adoption, when the illusion of the imagined child, who has been growing in your life through assessment, through the matching process and often, in cases of infertility or miscarriage, from much earlier, gives way to reality. When, much like Winnicott’s stages of change discussed earlier, the faults in the delusion open enough to be disregarded no longer, through whichever psychic apparatus has been utilized thus far, and the ‘true child’ is finally made real.


This reality often brings with it great grief as the loss of the imagined child is mourned, and also feelings of guilt, as the expectations having been placed on the child to fulfil this fantasy are realized. This only adds to the sense of failure. I associate this idea with the construction of a false concept of self particularly created for the task of meeting the requirements of exceptional parenthood as suggested by the assessment process. I wonder if this consistent pressure to be exceptional creates a splitting in the parent, which leads to the establishment of an idealized self which supports the fantasy that they can and will meet the needs of the child and thereby allow for the imagined child delusion to continue. The continued existence of this fantasy is difficult to sustain and requires an active disavowal of the child’s unmet needs, which can take the form of disregard, denial or strengthening of other defences such as the need to remain unassailable.


The bids for real contact being made by the child cannot be met by the omnipotence of the parent in the false self-state as this would require acceptance by the parent of their inability to fulfil the needs of the child from within this state and would therefore require an acceptance of the failure of that omnipotence. This represents a threat which cannot be allowed and is therefore actively resisted, often leading to the development of hateful feelings towards the child. This then leads to splitting in a child who is already essentially a fragmentary collection of child-like pieces, in order to attempt to assemble the correct fragments to meet the requirements of the ‘acceptable child’ being projected by the parent. The consequences of this for the child can be severe as the child is forced essentially to assemble only the parts that conform to the needs of the parent and to deny the remainder. Something which is all too often simply a new configuration of old experiences with birth families. It is an act of destruction of self and can lead to severe mental health difficulties. A more detailed exploration of these processes can be found in R.D. Hinshelwood’s book,Clinical Klein, the chapter on The Paranoid Schizoid Position being particularly useful. (Hinshelwood, 1994).


The grief that is mobilized as a result of the loss of the imagined child is a very necessary part of the adoption process and it is from this grief that real contact can grow. If this grieving state is not realized or is disregarded or suppressed, the consequences for all in the relationship can be severe.


The experience of hating


These parents have often dedicated a great deal of time to the intensive personal development and reflection necessary to parent a traumatized child effectively; they have developed a keen understanding of the realities of the trauma these children have faced and how it can affect their lives. They have an often-intimate understanding of the specifics of their child’s experience and they live through the emotional realities of that existence on a daily basis. They ‘know’ the effects of trauma on their children as well as anyone outside of that child’s own personal experiences can. When the child then identifies them as the perpetrator, the apparent opposite of the nurturing, responsive and attuned being that the parent is trying to model, there will of course be resentment and anger at the suggestion.


Freud suggests that a child believes answers they find satisfying, or maybe a child’s personal development of an internalized concept of self is influenced by the receipt of satisfaction. Individual reality is therefore formed through discovering satisfaction, through making wishes and in some way having them fulfilled (Taken from Phillips, 2010). From the omnipotence of creating the breast to satisfy hunger through to the receipt of the attentions of a calming and soothing parent during expressions of collapse the wish is the intention and the actions of the parent are the successful fulfilment of the intention in something that results in satisfaction for the child.

Adopted children are unfulfilled wishes, they are a demonstration of broken hope, they are a developing reality that has been interrupted by an inability by their primary carers to fulfil their basic wishes for survival and safe development. Our jobs as adoptive parents are to, on the one hand endure the challenging nature of the relationships that this creates, and on the other to confront this reality in such a way that enables the child to experience a satisfactory fulfilment of their intentions in a safe, attuned and empathic manner. This gets complicated. Particularly when you begin to consider who they feel they need to be kept safe from. Sometimes that person is you and, more often, that person is them.


My daughter has on more than one occasion told me that I shouldn’t love her because she doesn’t deserve love. For her, that love is something that she has to earn and she can only justify feeling the satisfaction of love if she has fulfilled the conditions imposed on that love by her experience of what relationships are. In this statement I include her relationship with herself, the enemy is inside her.

This is a common occurrence in adoption and permeates more than just the right to receive a loving parental relationship. Children come to view themselves as not damaged, but as damaging, therefore not worthy of any amount of positive recognition. This is very succinctly described by Rollinson in his reflections on Towards Belonging.


`It is not surprising that they can continue to attribute falsely to themselves a negative active agency and responsibility whenever things go wrong or do not seem to `add up`…….`I’m not good enough; it must be my fault; that good life, out there, is for others, not for me`. (Rollinson, 2015)


I should like to draw attention to what I feel are two very important points in the above text:

Firstly, the suggestion that the good life is ‘out there’ is, I think, a reflection of how internal this dialogue is, and also, how secret. Secondly, what I feel is so clearly demonstrated in the above is how shameful this experience is.


The toxicity of shame is powerful and utterly debilitating. My experience has shown me that for adopted children the concept of their own value as defined by their previous relationships, and the resultant shame this has manifest as in their sense of self, is a major contributor to emotional difficulties in the relationship between adoptive parent and child. These children have a pre-defined concept of who they are, and of the seemingly innumerable reasons why who they are makes them worthless. Their perceived ability to damage is central to this. There is a raw and un-tempered experience within them, not only of their own hatred and their ability to be hateful but also as a manifestation of the questions around why they have been adopted. There is an inherent belief that they bear a responsibility for their circumstances, and that these circumstances are in part due to their own ability to act destructively. They believe in their own toxicity and can readily take their own life histories and their own inability to ‘meet expectations’ as demonstrating this. Often, their firm belief is that it is only a matter of time before this new family realizes how toxic they are.

I once asked my daughter to tell me more about why she felt I couldn’t love her. Her answer was that she was ‘no good’.


So, then we are left with a situation where we are trying to meet the child empathically and contain them in a conflict which may involve as the primary perpetrators, us and them, or them and their currently dominant (although destabilized, hence the conflict) sense of self.


I am going to examine these situations in turn.


Us and them


Being loved and hated at the same time is difficult, it is something that does not seem to fit into our collective understanding of how relationships are supposed to exist. Often, when I am considering these situations, I think about statements from the point of view of both parent and child:


Child: There is a part of me that wants you to protect me. There is a part of me that wants you to grant my wishes. These wishes are subtle and ill-defined, but they are insistent. I don’t understand why I want you to protect me. But something about you makes me almost believe that you can, but there is another part of me that knows you can’t. There is yet another part of me that knows you are a danger to me. I need to protect myself, from you.


Parent: I am reaching for you with love, but you see me reaching for you with other intentions. Sometimes you almost believe I can love you, but you do not believe you should be loved, therefore sometimes my intentions seem alien to you, or even threatening. There is a part of you that is missing; it is the part that allows for my intentions to be good. I must somehow step across that void and be loved and hated at the same time.


Child: I am frightened and angry, but I have no definition of what these emotions mean or of why I feel them now. I have felt this way for a very long time, but now, with you it is different. Somehow these feelings are more abrupt, as if they don’t fit. I need you to know this, but I don’t have the words to describe it to you. If only you could accept my anger and my fear, show me that it is okay to be angry and to be afraid. Maybe then I could experience these feelings as justified, maybe then, in meeting me in these feelings you could offer me satisfaction in a response that fulfils their presence in a way that is as real as they feel to me.


Parent: I am afraid of how I feel. You look at me as if I am your enemy and I only want to love you. You are inviting me to become something I am not, and that invitation is insistent. I feel angry and hateful and I don’t want to feel this way, especially with you. I feel as if I am failing you, as if I am unable to contain the depth of your trauma. I am not strong enough to hold on to my composure. If I break, it will destroy us, and I shall have become the thing I fear the most, the parent who failed you again.


Them and their sense of self


Child: I could belong here, this could be my family. I want them to be my family.

Self: You can’t betray your real family. Besides, if these people knew the truth about you, they wouldn’t want you.

Child: They are trying to protect me. They do want me.

Self: They stole you, stay hidden from them. They will only do you harm if you show them anything more.

Child: They can keep me safe now.

Self: No, I can keep you safe, but only if you stay hidden. We’re not like them.

Child: But we could be, couldn’t we?


These conflicts, and many like them, have formed a part of the adoption experience for my wife and me since the beginning. Their management, their evolution and their transformation, are for me the essence of what it means to be an adoptive parent.


How can we possibly understand?


Children are subject to emotions un-tempered by experience. For a child, the presentation of the emotion is immediate, intense and less informed by the accompanying experience, or by an ability to understand reparation and resolution which is gained through repetition of these experiences. Does this mean that the experiences of a child are more traumatic? Or does it mean that the experiences of an adult are equally traumatic but with more structures in place to create the illusion of resilience? The question I am really asking here is can we discern a difference between the raw ‘feeling’ of a child and the informed ‘experience’ of an adult in any given situation involving us as adoptive parents and our children?


A notion which is ever present, particularly to adopters who are less experienced with difficulty, is the idea that their ‘hurt’ is incomparable to that of the child’s. This suggests that as adoptive parents we have no way of understanding the true nature of the trauma of our children as we ourselves have not necessarily shared those same experiences. I do not believe that this is true. In my experience, we, as adoptive parents, have all shared some sense of our children’s experiences . We are all capable of accessing these feelings and utilizing them as fuel for our own empathy and it is in fact in these often brief, bewildering and profound moments that we are actually able to be present enough for our children to experience the true nature of the relationship that we are able to offer them. It has been my experience that these moments are key in creating the biggest shift in the sense of belonging for both parent and child. But being present to these often profoundly disturbing moments is not something which comes naturally to us. Perhaps it is a discomfort or a lack of ease which has its roots in our culture, or in our sense that we must be unassailable in the face of such calamity. That we must somehow forge the path that states plainly and clearly that we are strong enough to withstand this difficulty. That such feelings, such experiences, should not be dwelt on, we must simply carry on regardless. But we are all built of the same components; we are all fashioned from the same emotional stuff, from the same needs, the same instincts. Our ‘who protects me?’ is a question with the same strength and potency as our child’s ‘who protects me?’ And if the root is the same then the drive is also the same. What supplies us is the same.


The seminal Russian theatre practitioner and character actor Konstantin Stanislavski puts it this way:


`The musical scale has only seven notes, the sun’s spectrum only seven primary colours, yet the combinations of those notes in music and those colours in paintings are not to be numbered. The same must be said of our fundamental emotions which are preserved in our affective memory, just as things seen by us in the external world are preserved in our intellectual memory; the number of these fundamental emotions in our own inner experience is limited, but the shadings and combinations are as numerous as the combinations created out of our external experience by the activity of our imagination.` ( Stanislavski 1985).


We do, all of us, have the ability to explore these feelings and we do all of us have the capacity to understand the emotional turmoil that our children can experience. That is the truth that we have to be strong enough to withstand, to be unassailable in the face of, because it is also something that we can so very easily choose not to know. It is through good quality containment that this position can be held and worked from.


An invitation to exist in dangerousness


In discussing the concepts of transference and projective identification in adoptive relationships, I wonder if perhaps there is room for a further concept which incorporates an often subtle and uncomfortable excursion into dangerousness.


Let us for a moment consider at a very basic level the general experience of adopted children:

They often have a very real and very distorted internal model of parents and subsequently of the possibilities that relationships bring. This model is based on their internalized experience of primary care-givers who have generally failed to meet their needs. These experiences have been normalized and are treated as the structure upon which their understanding of relationships must be built. In short, their expectations of us as care-givers or as parents have their basis in inadequacy, neglect, abuse and manipulation. We are in receipt of these experiences through the transference and through projection; we are expected to live down to these expectations, to satisfy them, and so strong is the conviction of these suggestions that many adopted parents do begin to identify with them:


`I never thought I would be that kind of parent!`

`They make me feel so angry, that’s not like me at all!`

`They wanted to give me a hug and I suddenly felt really uncomfortable`

`I felt like I was the perpetrator`


All of the above statements have been made to me by adoptive parents, and I have heard many more similar statements.


For a child in a sound placement, these introjects are called into question quickly. As parents to adopted children, we model behaviours and parenting approaches which do not reflect our children’s internalized models. We actively confront this model and attempt to encourage a new understanding of what a parent should and could be. In this action, in this approach, we create a conflict for the child. We become the opposition to the accepted normal. I wonder how a child can then choose what to believe.


If we state we are not that kind of parent, if we actively oppose the concept, if we actively seek to establish the existence of a parenting that is right and a parenting that is wrong, how does the child test this new proposed truth? Perhaps the only way to test this truth is to project the proposal that it is a fiction. For the child actively to seek to elicit the wrong parenting from you, to push the limits of what you can accept. But I also wonder about the intention of this action. Is it simply to test the resilience of the new paradigm being proposed to the child? To see if it crumbles when things get tough and the ‘real truth’ is revealed? Or is it perhaps something a little more complex?

Winnicott suggests that a child must be in receipt of hate before they can be in receipt of love (Winnicott, 1949). This notion has haunted me ever since I first encountered it. For me it is the most horrifying and at the same time the most elegant and truthful statement about adopted children that I have ever read. This is the invitation into dangerousness, a call from the child for you to fulfil their projection, to satisfy the limitations of their ‘normal’ object experience. I have heard many social workers refer to this idea as ‘The Trauma Trap’. It is a subtle and yet insistent request for you to identify with the suggestion, to satisfy that reality, and it is incredibly disconcerting in its invitation. On the one hand it is a request for you to step into hatred, to demonstrate to them that you are capable of hatred, because for them that hatred is powerful and very present. I have often heard it described as, ‘all they know’, but I wonder if this statement is perhaps a little naïve. It is certainly true that they need to know that you are capable of that hatred also. They need to know that their experience of that hatred is not exclusive and therefore not grounds for their discrimination and they need to know that hatred can be accepted, that even in their hatred they are not beyond the reach of love.


Winnicott suggests something very similar to the notion above when he describes his doubts with regard to the capacity for a child to develop a tolerance for their own hate in a sentimental environment. The child requires hate to be able to accept their own hatred (Winnicott, 1949). I also wonder, however, if the intention of the action is actively to ‘create’ the wrong object, the ‘bad parent’, to allow for both the child and the parent firstly to experience and recognize the reality of existence under the restrictions of this model and secondly to allow the relationship to destroy it.


Estella Welldon in her book Mother, Maddona, Whore relates this concept very clearly through discussions of the emergence of perversion in response to childhood trauma as an expression of hatred or revenge against the maternal object. (Welldon, 1988) I am suggesting here that these feelings of hatred or a need for retribution against the bad parent manifest through the relationship between adoptive parent and child.


Let us consider the projection of the ‘bad parent’ as an apparition that appears in the relationship between the adoptive parent and the child. One which manifests as an interference in the lines of communication that exist in the relationship on all levels with the ability to influence that communication, but which is now drawn into question by the developing relationship between the adoptive parent and the child. This interference is drawn into conflict as the truth of its influence and its very existence as a reliable and truthful model is tested over and over. Is it plausible to consider that both parent and child might express anger at its existence? Is it possible that in this situation it may in fact become a suggestion that has been created, or is sustained, in order that both parent and child can destroy it?


That destruction requires recognition of the suggestion as being external to both parties in the relationship and it also requires a push back, to match the child’s own hatred and anger.

One might say, `You’re so angry right now, and I hate that someone’s failure to protect you has made you feel that way. I am angry too, we are allowed to be angry about this, we can both be angry and it’s okay. Our anger will not bring the world to an end, we will survive this.`


But not everything survives. In this balanced state, where parent is meeting child with a resistance which equals the force of the projection. The internalized presence of the ‘bad parent’ is recognized as an apparition and is slowly degraded, ground down between the opposing and balanced excursions into dangerousness over and over again, until it can be disregarded, until it becomes boring and inconsequential. Hatred and aggression being met with suitable balanced opposition gives satisfaction to the child and therefore allows the parent to grant their wish for satisfaction, to fulfil the role of ‘who protects you?’ When considering this idea I am reminded of the role of anxiety as the destructor of pleasure, and I wonder if in this repetition as described above, each iteration lessens the force of the anxiety and leaves the child free to pursue the pleasure inherent in exploration of the fantasy that they are loved.


Again turning to Bion, who perhaps makes similar suggestions in terms of Alpha-Function, the process by which a mother is able to transform the primitive Beta elements projected by the child, through the act of reverie, into Alpha elements which can be reintegrated into the self. There is within this process a great deal to be learnt from considering the role the child plays in accepting the transformation offered by the mother:


`Whether it is a matter of what the infant experiences in his body or of the way he receives or does not receive the response offered by the mother, he is involved in the repeated experience of a situation during which many emotional aspects will appear. These intense emotions, as we have seen, cannot be assimilated as such by the psychical apparatus and need to be transformed by means of the mother’s Alpha-Function`. (Lèvy, 2020)


I wonder if in this state we as their adoptive parents are protecting our traumatized children from re-internalizing the driving force of the suggestion. The experiences still exist, but we are actively confronting the introjection of that experience as being ‘all they know’. We are confronting it, balancing the force of it and in so doing we are transforming its all-encompassing quality. We fear that anger, we fear that hatred, and yet I believe sometimes it is exactly what we are being asked for. To return to Stanley Ruszczynski’s The frightened couple once more:


`Aggression is in fact necessarily part of the life force and, when connected to concern for the other, is the engine behind passion, potency and authority.` (Ruszcynski, 2014)


This state is in itself the engine which fuels creative change, and is perhaps an active factor in the creation of the beginnings of a concept of value of self for the child. It is my experience that the informed resistance I am trying to describe here is incredibly containing for a child who has experienced the kind of trauma that adoption often brings as it begins to define for them a firm sense of boundary and containment which enables us, as their adoptive parents, to be considered as reliable objects which can offer real contact, safety and protection. This is, however, also perhaps something which is not easy to teach. The force of the suggestion is incredibly strong and the temptation to identify with it is compelling. I believe that in order to achieve this effectively the parent must be able to achieve the following:


Firstly, they must be able to accept the experience of the suggestion through the transference, which means allowing their own experience of what it would mean to identify with the suggestion to manifest.

Secondly, they must be able to empathize with the experiences of the child which have led to the internalization of their parental model. This does not mean sharing the actual experience, but I believe that it does require a reflective capacity of sufficient depth to be able to draw on their own experiences of rupturing or threat to those same primitive needs that underpin the experiences of their children, even if the parents’ experiences are drawn from much more seemingly superficial sources.

Thirdly, they must actively recognize the suggestion and their potential identification with it as a third-party apparition that influences the relationship.

Fourthly, they must be able to mobilize suitable resistance, but not force, in a balanced response to the hatred and anger of the child. This can take the form of a need for a very dynamic modulation of position and approach during this encounter. It has been my experience that the resistance you are being asked to mount can often bring with it a physical sensation of the forces in opposition. It requires a hard-earned mastery of tone and timbre which is, I suspect, fairly specific to the relationship. Similarly, body language and physical proximity to the child in this state has to be equally dynamic. Donald Meltzer in his paper Temperature and distance as technical dimensions of interpretation explores these ideas in more detail.


Revisiting omnipotence


When considering the above I am drawn to the idea of omnipotence and how as a state it is destroyed as a consequence of the arrival of hatred. Let us for a moment consider omnipotence as being the quality of having unlimited power, or of existing in a state where all desires are met and all wishes are granted. In this state, hatred does not exist as it has no purpose. It is only through the lack of fulfilment, or the emergence of a state in which desires and needs remain unmet for long enough to create a sense of the potential for personal destruction, that hatred has a purpose. The purpose of hatred in this state is to mobilize a response determined enough to prevent that destruction. I’m wondering what happens in a state where even the emergence of hatred, or the desperate cries for survival are unheeded. What happens when the overwhelming experience of hatred is ultimately futile? For so many adopted children, this has been their experience in one way or another, and within this statement I am considering not only their physical needs, but the futility of mobilizing anything to attempt to fulfil their emotional needs also.


`What is the point in crying? No-one will come for me.`


I believe that when hatred fails to mobilize anything in response, it becomes devastation. It becomes the antithesis of omnipotence, having all the properties of omnipotence save for one very important factor; unlimited power becomes unlimited powerlessness. It may be that this reality is presented to the child as a state of unconscious omnipotence, within which change cannot be effected to fulfil needs or desire, and therefore the individual in this state can only experience themselves as having absolutely no purpose, or no value. They experience themselves as being of so little consequence that their survival is of no concern to anyone. I think that this is the very definition of ‘alone’.


Concluding Comments


Earlier in this paper I suggested that within our daughter, I had a sense of something that was missing. I think that perhaps that missing element was a concept of personal value, a non-zero sum of self-worth. In this state of absolute powerlessness, we receive our children. I wonder if from their point of view we ‘grant’ their continued survival. In considering this, I somehow always associate images and ideas of slavery. A slave has no value as a person, no worth as a human being. Their only value is as a commodity. Their continued survival is entirely dependent on their fulfilment of their commodified value as enforced by an all-powerful other. I wonder if in adoption our children consider their continued survival being dependent on us as their parents recognizing some value in their existence in our lives. Often, I hear of adopted children early in placement stating that they must `try to be good so that their parents will want them`. Perhaps then, in this state, our attempts as adoptive parents to instil within our children some sense of self-worth, or of a personal value that is not commodified, would seem so alien as to be perceived actually as an affront to their reality, and this has certainly been my experience. So then, we are not only suggesting that their experience of parenting is wrong, but that their experience of reality is wrong.


I wonder then, how does one exit a state of absolute powerlessness? Either the actual powerlessness that many of these children will have experienced with their birth families, or the fantasized powerlessness that leads to their concept of themselves as utterly worthless. Can that power only ever be gifted or bestowed? Bestowal involves the implication of honour, a concept which has at its core the recognition of value, whereas a gift can be passed on through pity which can reinforce worthlessness. Perhaps it is in the tendency of the adoptive relationship to question reality that the first few seeds of doubt are sown. That inception being enough to cause the child to consider the possibility that a different state could exist and that within that potential other state they may have some power. This possibility is enticing, but it involves a re-imagining of the emergence (beyond all-powerfulomnipotence) of the existence of an-other who can fulfil needs and desires, into an emergence (beyond powerlessness) of an existence where an-other can bestow upon you the value inherent in receiving fulfilment, and in being met as an autonomous and free individual who can receive satisfaction through the recognition by the other of the justification for their anger, their hatred and their desires. In this emergent state, their concept of their own destructiveness, their concept of their own damaging nature, is called into question. Their own intrinsic value is slowly realized and in turn they are able to begin to disregard the previous introjections of their own toxicity. Perhaps it is in considering this that we can offer the true sense of belonging that these children deserve.


I am going to conclude this with a quotation from Christopher Bollas regarding the emergence of the capacity of the mind to process difficult and disturbing thoughts through the Oedipal situation:


`The mind is a problem-solving agency even if it stages the representations of self-traumatizing ideas and feelings. Likewise, the group can function as a container of disturbed processes, even if its structure often invites distress`. (Bollas 1992)


I believe that in this context the conflict itself is an integral part of the transformation from a family that exists as an autonomous group exclusive of the child, to a group in which the disturbance is integrated and forms a part of the autonomy of the group. It is perhaps this integration of disturbance and distress over which the family claims ownership in the present, as a shared trauma, that allows the child to experience their own emergence into membership of this group.

Jason Mitchell


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Future of Psychoanalytic Practice. London. Routledge.


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Rollinson, R (2015) Some reflections on “towards belonging” for children in care: guided journey or “wandering lost”? In Towards Belonging. London: Karnac, pp. 41-62.


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Stoller , R, J. (1986) Perversion, The Erotic Form Of Hatred. London: Routledge.


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Welldon, E.V. (1988) Mother, Madonna, Whore. London: Routledge.


Winnicott, D. (1945) The Collected Works of D.W. Winnicott: Volume 2. London: Oxford University Press.


Winnicott, D. (1949) Hate in the Counter-Transference. The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 30:69-74.


Susan Maciver


I really appreciated this paper and the many innovative ideas in it.It looks at the experience of child and parents at a very deep level and gets hold of unconscious processes to which Jason gives words.

Please read it!

Thank you for posting this. I have read it through just once and I think I understand a smattering but it has given me the taste for re-reading it and beginning to digest some of the ideas. Thank you for posting