What Adoptees Need to Know About Pre-Verbal Stress

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The Adoptee Journey Newsletter #001

What Adoptees Need to Know About Pre-Verbal Stress

Letter from the Author

Dear Reader,

I have a firm conviction that growing up as an adoptee gives you a unique opportunity to learn about human nature in its rawest form. Still, this is a thin silver lining to an otherwise dark beast of an institution which robbed us of a fundamental building block in our psyches. 

But despite our high suicide attempt rates, many of us adoptees survived in our millions and continue to do so. Maybe one of our bigger destinies is to contribute what we know about that missing block. It’s angles and texture.

The one we feel it by its stark absence.

Presumably you’re reading this because you thirst for knowledge about the black nothings in your life. The whys, the hows and the whos.

I also share that thirst. So I hope my research helps you shine a light where you need it most. 


Note: If you need to share the password with friends and family to support your healing, please feel free to do so. Having said that, please don't replicate this newsletter or spread it in the public domain.

I've written plenty in public which is shareable. But activism is my work and passion, in order to do it full time I need to earn a living from it. You can recommend that they also sign up and support the work, by directing them to any of the blog posts on adoption on this site.

The Stats Are In


We’re allegedly 16% of America's estimated 500 serial killers whilst we represent only 2-3% of the population.

We’re serial killer Ted Bundy.

We’re more likely to have addiction problems; an average of 25 to 35% of the young people in residential treatment centres are adoptees. That’s seventeen times the norm.

We’re pop icon Blondie.

We're overrepresented in mental health settings, at two-and-a-half to six times the rate of non-adopted children and we’re four times more likely to attempt suicide.1"All adopted offspring were permanently placed in their adoptive homes before 2 years of age (mean: 4.7 months; SD: 3.4 months); 96% were placed before 1 year. Parents provided both offspring country of birth and ethnicity; this information was not used in recruitment. Participation rate at intake was 63% among adoptive and 57% among nonadoptive families, which was a nonsignificant difference.

The adoptee sample reflects adoption practice in Minnesota during relevant birth years, that is, 74% were born outside the United States, most of whom were female (60%) and from South Korea (90%)"

We’re femme fatale Marilyn Monroe.2Adoption as a concept is represented as a piece of paper, a transfer of parental duties and ownership. Yet many children, like Norma Jean, are never formally adopted but have remarkably similar experience as those who have the piece of paper. They are removed from their mother at a young age, brought up by extended family, friends or strangers, and lied to about their heritage.

But we’re also Steve Jobs and Bill Clinton.

All of these folk are almost mythical figures in our culture who demonstrate both extreme charisma and utterly destructive, even vile behaviours at the same time.

Over the years piqued by our single common experience, I read their dramatic stories, casually wondering what made those few adoptees fly so high and fall so hard. But since there were many more mythical figures who had demonstrated similar behaviours and who had not been adopted, it never occurred to me to take a closer look. So I only seriously started to piece together decades of reading and research which shed light on these and many more narratives, when I read a curious article published by scientists in Cambridge, in 2009.  It was about a grasshopper.

The first version of this research was written in up 2014, for the viral HuffPo article: 5 Hard Truths about Adoption, Adoptive Parents don't want to hear.

A Lesson from the Humble Grasshopper

The article described the transformation of the simple peace-loving grasshopper into a swarming locust. Until 1921, they were considered by scientists to be a separate species because their behaviours were so radically different. These grasshoppers were green, solitary and harmless.

They were like Pooh Bear, creatures of very little brain.

But it was found that in desert regions where vegetation is scarce, grasshoppers were forced to live in close proximity to one another even though out of preference, grasshoppers like to live by themselves. When this occurred, their systems were flooded with the hormone 'serotonin' which transforms them within a matter of hours from harmless Dr Jekyll into horrific Mr Hyde.

They become locusts. Gregarious and social. They swarm. They even take on a different colour to their peers and of course viciously ravage the countryside where they live. They migrate in search of food and actively seek the company of other locusts as a matter of survival because they are forced to live together and have more chance of finding food for the increased population, together. The grasshopper and the locust are the same insect, but have the genetic instructions to become either, packaged within a single genome.

Our genetic code is contained within our DNA. But if you probe a little deeper, you will find that the expression of those same genes can be altered according to our environments so that even identical twins with the same DNA, become different people with different motivations and different behaviours.

We are the result of both nature and nurture with the capability to survive and thrive in very different circumstances, sometimes even through different representations of the same DNA. We are born with a certain blueprint of elements which can be switched on and off as a result of the presence or absence of various hormones, the production of which is stimulated by changes in our environment.

The story of the grasshopper was shocking for me. Because I wondered; if a simple change in environment can lead to a massive influx of serotonin which changes it to a locust within mere matter of hours, what impact might a sudden change in environment have had on a baby such as myself?


What Do Babies Know?

Babies know very little at birth, if you define knowing in terms of consciousness and self-awareness. This requires rational thought which emanates from the pre-frontal cortex at the top of the brain and in a new born this is mostely undeveloped. We still do not know how consciousness works, but we do know that human consciousness at least is impossible without the pre-frontal cortex, which is the centre for our rational intelligence. And yet as any mother will tell you, babies do ‘know’ many things.

Babies experience pain, they have reflexes and it is they instinctively know who their mothers are; after all if there is anything they might recognise as familiar, it would be the smell and body in which they have been incubated over a period of nine months.

It’s also true that all babies have a certain amount of stress when they are born. Imagine being pulled out of the safe, warm cocoon of your mother’s womb into the harsh lights, noises and physicality of a hospital. We know this is stressful which is why dim lighting and water baths have in recent years become more prevalent. But the birth, which might be stressful for many babies, is usually compensated for by a quick reunion with a caring adult, the mother. In the majority of cases, the child has something, or rather someone, in his immediate vicinity which calms him. Her smell, her milk… and even her face.

‘Babies Remember Birth’ a book by Dr Chamberlain is the result of a decade of painstaking work, which collects hundreds of pieces of research on the responses of new born babies. Chamberlain claims ‘minutes after birth a baby can pick out his mother’s face – which [the baby] has never seen – from a gallery of photos’. This theory has been tested by two other independent studies (Bushnell et al 1980 & Pascalis et al 1995). In the latter, the ‘results show that even when the recognition test included none of the stimuli other than the mother’s face and head, neonates [new-borns] recognised their mother.’

Furthermore babies also recognise the voice of their mothers. They have been listening to it in the womb ever since they started hearing noises at about thirty weeks old. And ten weeks is a long time in foetal terms.

Barbara Kisilevsky, a nursing professor at Queens University in Ontario, conducted the research with a team of psychologists from Queens, and obstetricians in Hangzhou, China. Sixty women were tested in the final stages of pregnancy. All the mothers were tape-recorded as they read a poem out loud. Then the mothers were divided into two groups. Half the foetuses heard the recording of their own mother. The other half heard another mother, but not their own.

In both cases, the poem caused a change in the baby's heart rate. The heart rate accelerated among those who heard their own mother's voice, and decelerated among those who heard a voice other than their mother's. Why?

Research suggests that the deceleration of the heart rate is "an attention mechanism” (think, mindfulness!). The heart-beat among foetuses who heard an unfamiliar voice slowed down, Kisilevsky says, because they were paying close attention to a voice they did not recognise. In other words, they were trying to figure out who was talking because it wasn't a voice they recognized.

This theory had already been put forward in 1980 (DeCasper & Fifer) and published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They found that ‘within the first three days of postnatal development, new-borns prefer the human voice, discriminate between speakers, and demonstrate a preference for their mothers' voices with only limited maternal exposure’.

It’s also widely believed that babies already have a finely tuned olfactory sense, a fact that had been pointed out to me personally when I became a mother myself.

When Maya, my own daughter was born, the midwives placed her on my stomach... and inch by inch like a little caterpillar, she crawled her way up to my nipple sniffing out her first feed. She might not yet have developed a pre-frontal cortex, but she instinctively knew what she needed to survive and where she could get it, because she was born with a fully functional reptilian brain where our most basic survival mechanisms reside.

What Do Foetuses Feel?

Other studies go even further back. They show that foetuses can remember and learn.3This section of the newsletter has been developed from the book The Secret Life of the Unborn Child, by Dr Thomas Verny with John Kelly This was demonstrated by a study where researchers exposed the pregnant mothers to a loud sound several times which made their babies kick, and later introduced a vibration at the same time (which would not normally cause any reaction). The babies quickly created an automatic association between the vibration and the sound, so that after a while they kicked even when exposed to the vibration, and after the sound was taken away (this is called a conditioned or learned response, see Pavlov's dog).

Even more astonishing is their nuanced emotional landscape. It appears that the mother's experience of pregnancy, whether a happy or an unhappy one, wanted or unwanted, is also directly passed down to the foetus. How so?

For a long while it had been hypothesized that because a pregnant woman is so very uncomfortable when trying to sleep at night, the baby is also uncomfortable and kicks a great deal (thus making everything even more uncomfortable). The mother's physical discomfort is communicated via an unsettled and elevated heartbeat as well as via hormones through the placenta acting "like a circulating fire alarm". The same is true for emotional discomfort (stress & anxiety). Even if the foetus has little notion of how to interepret the hormonal signals being sent, it "knows" that this is not a resting state, and is therefore unusual. What little developed brain it has, will try to find out why. Through association with other sensations, it starts to associate stress hormones with discomfort.

Yet not all foetal experience of emotional discomfort is equal. Sometimes, the uncomfortable experience appears to be mitigated by the attitudes of the pregnant mother. Of particular interest to adoptees, must be the studies which involve 'maternal attitudes to their unborn children' because biological mothers who intend to relinquish their child through adoption might be disproportionately more likely not to want the pregnancy (this opinion is my own, but surely an obvious one).

In 1973, it had already been established that negative emotions adversely effected physical health. So in a series of studies conducted by a Dr Stott, he thought "a child's physical and emotional state at birth and in the years immediately following it, would provide a good idea of the kind of maternal messages he received in utero - and how accurately he perceived them."

Unsurprisingly, short-term stresses had not affected babies as much as long-term ones. But he was further able to distinguish between two types of long-term stress:

Prolonged upsets that did not directly threaten a woman's emotional security, such as the illness of a close relative, had little or no effect on her unborn child whereas long-term personal stresses frequently did.

The environment of the womb itself sets up an emotional predisposition (fearful or optimistic) and also expectations of how the world will operate in general, that's to say either friendly or hostile.
As a conclusion, Dr Stott believed children were able to sense whether the mother's distress was threatening to them at a personal level, which after all would perfectly align with the way our survival mechanisms operate. Then in 1975, Dr Lukesch followed a sample of 2000 women through pregnancy and wrote her thesis on maternal attitudes in pregnancy. These results were definitive.

All her subjects were from the same economic background, all were equally intelligent, and all had the same degree and qulity of prenatal care. The only major distinguishing factor was their attitudes towards their unborn children, and that turned out to have a critical effect on their infants.

This was again corroborated by another study around the same time by a Dr. Rottman. Through psychological testing, he divided his group of women into four categories (ideal mothers, cool mothers, ambivalent mothers and catastrophic mothers). Ideal mothers, i.e. those who wanted their pregnancies, had the healthiest physical and emotional children, whilst cool and ambivalent mothers who had mixed feelings about their pregnancy had less healthy children, and finally catastophic mothers who did not want the pregnancy "bore the highest rate of premature, low-weight, and emotionally disturbed infants."

The implications of this now classic study are enormous for an adoptee because it means "our likes, dislikes, fears and phobias" begin to form in the womb. The environment of the womb itself sets up an emotional predisposition for a baby (fearful or optimistic) and also expectations of how the world will operate in general, that's to say, either friendly or hostile.

A baby's mental modus operandi, constructed with a fearful predisposition, and the expectation of a hostile world, will therefore be reinforced when the next major event to occur is his birth, which is stressful for the majority of women and which is then followed by the loss of his mother and any familiar environment. More current professionals like Paul Sunderland, clinical consultant on emotional health issues, agree. "It is hard," he writes "to imagine a more devastating wound than a child being separated from its mother at the beginning of life."4Understanding the impact of an early psychological wound

The Use of the Word "Hostile"

For a baby, the initial and expected environment is therefore the biological mother. And, I thought that changing this environment in an instant—as the story with the grasshopper and locust showed—would make a huge impact.

Research in adoption called it a hostile environment. But hostile, I thought, didn’t necessarily mean abusive (at the time I hadn't realised my parents even were abusive, and the implications of that word prevented me from admitting it for years). The adoptive parents could be loving caregivers, but they were still strangers. There is a definition of "hostile" which correlates to this--when it's used with plants and equates to inhospitable. The environment is unknown. And the reptilian brain is driven by instinct to fear the unknown.

If you or anyone experiences a threat to your survival, your organism will generate a lot of signals in the form of stress hormones to prepare you to mobilize in response to the threat. The reptilian brain has four distinct responses to threats (more about this later).

  • Fight
  • Flight
  • Freeze
  • Fawn

But a baby is unable to act on any of them immediately. And yet when it is removed from all it has ever known into another environment, its survival instincts logically must be on full alert.

Your muscles tense. Your heartbeat quickens. Your stomach shuts off from digesting and all resources are directed to the areas of the body which might better help you defend yourself. These are facts. But a baby is not capable of acting effectively further than this. She cannot fight or flee, she cannot express herself, she cannot meditate or perform a sun salutation. In fact she only has one way get rid of stress. The adopted baby cries, but the person she has known all her life, the birth mother, has gone.

*Fawning as a survival mechanism and/or trauma response is examined more closely in The Adoptee Journey Newsletter #005

Harvard Scientists Examine the Effect of Stress on the Developing Brain

A working paper developed by scientists in Harvard defined three types of stress for the purposes of examining the impacts of stress hormones on the architecture of the developing brain. The stress hormones are adrenalin (largely responsible for the immediate response and an increased heart beat to obtain more oxygen), norepinephrine (largely responsible for increasing our immediate awareness and focus), and cortisol (which helps regulate and suppress other less needed bodily functions under stressful situations).

  1. Positive stress which is moderate, short lived and necessary for healthy development. This may include the challenges of meeting new people, dealing with frustration, entering a new child care setting, getting an immunisation, or overcoming a fear of animals.
  2. Tolerable stress where stress responses have the potential to negatively affect the architecture of the developing brain; This can include the death of a loved one, a frightening accident, an acrimonious parental separation or divorce, persistent discrimination, or other serious events which can lead to tolerable stress but always in the context of ongoing supportive relationships to adults.
  3. Toxic stress is strong, frequent or prolonged stress without children having access to support from a loving and supportive environment. This type of stress can, especially in early sensitive period of brain development cause the overproduction of neural connections in the regions of the brain associated with anxiety, fear and impulse control.

Exposure to toxic stress can change the stress system so that it responds at lower thresholds to events that might not be stressful to others, and, therefore, the stress response system activates more frequently and for longer periods than is necessary, like revving a car engine for hours every day. This wear and tear increases the risk of stress-related physical and mental illness later in life. And it means that the unconscious default of anxiety, for those who experience toxic stress, becomes more readily accessible. 

I was an anxious child. I was an anxious teenager. But I didn’t realise it, because it was my normal, resting state. I only realised it after the birth of my daughter. She was utterly dependent on me and I was immediately conscious that one slip, one mistake and I could be guilty of causing her enormous harm. The anxiety spiked. My friend Lydia visited me when Maya was two weeks old and told me I looked like a trauma victim. In fact I didn’t know it then, but she was right. Staring zombified eyes, glazed over in horror. What had I done?

It wasn’t normal, she told me, that I couldn’t leave the house. I developed what Morten, my boyfriend, laughingly called a ‘wheel phobia’, which manifested itself in an irrational fear that cars in the street were trying to attack my newborn baby, and even that the pram was a murderous, jolting, torture device which would snap her neck in two. I stayed up all night counting the minutes until sunrise, and screamed at him if he spent an extra five minutes in bed. The second hand of the clock beat down, like a dripping tap on my forehead. I was in the grip of an emotional trauma flashback which lasted for months (and took years to recover from).

I plucked up the courage to seek help. But the British medical profession told me that giving me pills would only ‘normalise’ the fear and indicated that if they did prescribe them, the social services would be round to evaluate my capability as a mother. This threat didn't go down too well with me, as you can imagine. And anxiety ridden, I decided against it. I could not risk losing my child. But after about six months of what was unbearable torture, on a night out I turned to tequila got blind drunk and immediately recognised that I was doing exactly the same thing as I hadn’t realised I’d been doing as a teenager. Seeking relief from my anxiety through alcohol. Love for my daughter and my own terror at my patterned survival instincts, motivated me to research harder. To heal myself.

Where Adoptees Might Fall on the Continuum (& Why)

Data on the adverse consequences of stress experienced in childhood is stacking up. If a child has adverse experiences, which can include poverty, abuse and oh so many other things, they will experience stress (amongst other trauma). They are anxious children. But adverse experiences also explicitly include whether the child lived with a parent or guardian who got divorced, separated, died, served time in jail or in prison. Separation is part of the adverse experience. But the types of experiences included in these studies don’t include adoption, since adoption is not considered an adverse experience. Yet adoption like death, is often the most extreme separation. It is the permanent separation of the mother and child.

Adoptees would therefore fall necessarily into stress category two—tolerable stress—because the removal of a mother is akin to the ‘death’ for a baby or young child. She cannot know or properly understand the cause of or easily recover from the removal of her familiar environment. The initial separation is frightening, and intense. Furthermore, I thought many might fall into toxic stress category three.

Firstly because, the stress of separation not always, but often occurs when the child is pre-verbal and the only support the new caregivers can provide initially is human contact, bottled milk and cleaning. The best kind of supportive relationship needs a certain level of communication to create the ‘supportive environment’ needed for the stress to be reduced to a tolerable level and verbal communication is impossible with infants (even of an older age, although the data shows that adverse childhood experiences have a very strong impact on all children who are minors whether they are verbal or not [see earlier paper on ACEs]). 

Secondly because the new adoptive parents might have one overriding factor which perhaps prevents them from being the perfect supportive adults needed in this situation, just by virtue of the fact that they are not the biological parents. They represent the smells and sounds that the infant has already associated with a hostile environment – they are the danger that the child fears. They are stressful. Furthermore the adoptive mother does not have those pregnancy hormones in her system; she may not have the ability to overcome our natural inclination of self-survival and respond so readily to a baby’s needs.

Thirdly because at such a young age any stressful event is more impactful than it might be for an older child whose neural circuits have already been established. ‘The neural circuits for dealing with stress are particularly malleable (or “plastic”) during the fetal and early childhood periods’ [see earlier paper on the architecture of the developing brain].

And if the separation is one of the first experiences which occurs in the life of the child it is also one of the only points of reference for its mental model. The earlier it happens, the bigger the impact. A baby does not have the ability to predict or consider that perhaps this is a one-off event. Its mind is experience-dependant. It knows only one thing; it is not in an environment which is safe and familiar. Therefore all that they can know of life is that it is dangerous. Whether we consciously remember these events or not is irrelevant because our mind stores these experiences in the subconscious.

Lastly because the natural mother usually knows in advance that the child is to be adopted. Mothers who give up their children might not be calm and happy about the pregnancy which in turn affects the baby in utero. Many may not have life circumstances conducive to raising a child. It is entirely probable that their pregnancy is therefore shrouded in secrecy, worry, shame and high stress, generating stress hormones which are passed directly through the placenta. Research shows if there is significant maternal stress during pregnancy, that this can affect the developing stress system and alter genes that are involved in the brain leading to mood disorders in later life.

Thus many adoptees might be stressed in the womb, born into a potentially stressful situation and many very soon afterwards endure a toxically stressful separation from the only environment they have ever known where even with the best intentions in the world, there are only limited supportive structures available to help them deal with it. Some families are better equipped for whatever reason, to help an adopted child adjust. Some, like mine, were not.

These factors have not been considered by many as stressful in the past because of the false assumption that a baby is a blank slate. It’s life is seen to begin only when the adoption begins, until which time it is treated as an object which can moved without consequence from one mother to another. But you only have to look at the ‘flip the script’ campaign5An adoption campaign supported by The Lost Daughters, a coalition of adult adoptees wanting to speak and be heard. Often, the National Adoption Month conversation solely focuses on celebrating with youth who are united with their forever families, and sharing the sentiment of new parents. Flip the script urges us to also look to the input of adult adoptees; to recognize their journey, celebrate their experiences, and value their voice. driven by many adoptees worldwide to realise that adoption, even as a one-off event and without the abuse that might so often precede it, has had in many cases, far reaching consequences. Like the flap of a butterfly’s wings, that single event can start off a chain of repercussions which develops into a hurricane.

So here are new parents, willing to give it food, cuddles and warmth. Research suggests one of two likely strategies an adopted baby might follow is to attach to its new parents, but insecurely so, because these caregivers must not, at all costs, be lost. Thus when a baby cries, stressed and scared because it is it a ‘hostile’ environment, the mind might have a greater sensitivity regarding for reactions from the caregivers which may foretell loss. Take for example the expressions of frustration and anger (as all new parents adoptive or otherwise are bound to display occasionally).

  • Are these signs of potential loss?
  • Does crying risk rejection?
  • And an even more hostile environment?

Adoptees will attach somehow to their caregivers as a matter of survival, but will still be on their guard with hormones constantly rushing round their system, in a state of anxiety.

Of course all mothers who are stressed during pregnancy will pass stress hormones through the placenta. All children who suffer from adverse experience are more likely to be anxious. And as all children grow more aware, it is likely that the more they are exposed to stress, the more they might understand that ‘negative’ emotions are not pleasing to their parents. Yet adoptees are in a unique position to experience all these aspects.

They are already fearful and insecure. They risk rejection, so they modify their behaviour as a survival mechanism. They are more likely to fawn*. And just as water follows the paths already laid down, so we default to our most ingrained survival mechanisms as a matter of course - thus setting the course for a life which is inherently unsafe.

I wrote about this feeling, before I researched the science behind it : Is Adoption 'Need' At First Sight?