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Adoption: Parenting Through the "Primal Wound"

My wife and I have an adopted bi-racial son. We couldn't imagine life without him. We also know the ups and downs of the adoption journey.


What In The World Is The "Primal Wound?"

A "Primal Wound?!!" Even in the first two years of his life we saw a painful three-step pattern quickly emerge.

  • First, my wife and I would leave our adopted son and be gone for a half day or one night.
  • Second, we arrived home and walked into the house after being gone. Our son would see us, smile wildly, crazy with joy, (you came back to me!!!) and wrap his little arms around us—as if he thought we weren't ever coming back for him.
  • Third, punishment. About 30 minutes after our reunion our little adopted son would throw a fit to communicate his displeasure with having left him. His fits would include some or all these symptoms; yelling, screaming, biting, or throwing stuff at us. That is the pattern we have gradually had to overcome throughout his life.

Nancy Verrier is the author of a book called The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child. She defines the "Primal Wound" as the wound which is given to an adopted child when they are separated from their birthmother. I don't have to say my adopted son has a "Primal Wound," all I know is that our son has wrestled with a deep emotional wound and pain since infancy unlike anything I've experienced with my two biological daughters.

Let's return to our adopted son's infancy...

Did it seem like this infant was punishing us for having left him? Oh yes, very much so. He was letting us know we had committed the sin of leaving him. Our departure triggered his pain, a pain he couldn't understand but had to "get out" of his system. He clearly didn't understand the pain he was in, and seemed to have a need to just vent the pain. The pain had to come out, and the pain came out on his mother and I, and even more so on my wife. Hitting, biting, and screaming His angry episodes were storms we just had to endure, how do you discipline or talk to a one year old?? But then the fits would end abruptly and he would quietly snuggle into our arms, like the sun suddenly coming out when it was dark and rainy the moment before.

The worst episodes dealing with the "primal wound" were in our son's early elementary school years. At times he would have a "fit" or episode about every other night. The slightest thing would set him off and he would be slamming doors, screaming, and throwing things. He would call us names, yell at us, and it was terrible. (Big understatement) We didn't know what to do, there was no guidebook for this. There was absolutely no reasoning with him when these episodes occurred. We tried talking, threatening him with discipline, telling him how much we loved him, and praying, but these episodes just seemed to have to run their course. It seemed like he had emotional poison that he had to vomit out. He had pain and anger which had to be released from his little soul and he had no way or ability to release it except by punishing us.

At first we were confused, is this just normal disobedience or acting out? But over time we became convinced he was responding to an inner pain he didn't know how to manage. (i.e. the primal wound)

What can a little baby know, understand, and feel? Even in the womb? The primal wound theory says a little baby knows, understands, and feels rejection, loss, and abandonment and thus has 'a primal wound' and a need for healing. The baby hears, feels, experiences the life and closeness of the birthmother and then that relationship is severed producing a loss with accompanying grief, sadness, anger, and fear it will happen again. But the infant is unable to process or deal with these emotions. Not all adopted children will experience "the primal wound" to the same degree or extent. But my wife and I sure believed in a "primal wound" before I heard of Verrier's material.

Our son is now almost a teenager and doing well. When my wife and I are leaving to go somewhere he will still ask where we are going, when we will be back, and how long we will be gone. Recently he actually said to us, "I felt like you weren't coming back" when we got home one night. So that fear of abandonment lingers on, and may always, but he has learned to handle it so much better. He has made amazing progress and the road ahead looks good. May it be so for you too!

Discipline And Consequences and "The Primal Wound"

One of the big decisions my wife and I faced was do we discipline and how much do we discipline our son for his fits of emotional pain? First, once we had settled our belief that this was inner emotional pain working itself out our decision was easier. The punishment and consequences didn't need to be as severe. But we had to have compassionate consequences due to his hitting, scratching the wall, saying mean things, etc. He had to learn, even in his pain, that he was still responsible for his wrong behavior.

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Here is what we did. He had to give a verbal apology out loud to us and sometimes to his older sisters also. If there was something particularly painful he said or did he had to apologize for the particular offense. We didn't deny his pain but he had to learn he was still responsible for 'acting out.' We gave him consequences such as time off electronic devices and TV. Good behavior sometimes would shorten the consequences.

We chose not to try to explain "the primal wound" we believed he had, we thought it would just be over his head. We didn't want him to perceive himself as a victim or damaged goods for the rest of his life. But we did challenge him that he had to choose to talk to us when he was angry and choose not to act out.

Today we feel very good about having imposed some measure of discipline on him to teach him to wrestle with and control his emotional responses.


Review And Research Your Adopted Child's Life Before Birth

Find out as much as you can about what your adopted son or daughter may have felt or experienced in the womb. Did their birthmother try to hide her pregnancy from family and friends? Was she filled with fear and shame and how may that have affected your child? Was the birthmother angry over this unwanted inconvenience? Did the conception take place in violence or non-consensual sex? Find out as much as you can for clues as to why your adopted child may struggle at times.

My wife and I went back and reviewed all we could find of statements from his birthparents in our files from the adoption agency. We spent time praying over what we knew and praying over things we wondered might have happened. We prayed for God to heal whatever pain, anxiety, or trauma may have been passed from birthmother to our son. It was something we could DO, and we found comfort and hope in doing this. We would keep believing that our love would be greater than whatever he may have experienced or felt before we took him as our own.

The Power Of Perseverance

When your child is sick with the flu you can't just make it magically disappear you have to manage it, persevere with your child, and wait for the flu to run it's course in your child's body. That's the way I think about our son's primal wound and his fear of abandonment. The pain has to run it's course and it's going to take some time.

It's like emotional pain that must be vomited from his spirit, and it can only be MANAGED, PERSEVERED through, and WAITED OUT. Just as you do your best to love, console, and help your child get through the flu you help them deal with the primal wound. In the season of life when our son was having these episodes we were so worried, exhausted, and fearful it would never end. We prayed constantly, searching for answers, reaching out for help, and we kept loving him, assuring him, and persevering. Sometimes during these fits I would have to physically hold him tight, to keep him from hurting me or himself, and then suddenly he would relax, cry, and sink into me in loving embrace. As parents, as adults, we can outlast their pain, they need us to endure and outlast them as they release their grief and pain.

We Will Talk About This One Day

Our son still isn't ready to discuss the abstract concept of a "primal wound" or issues of abandonment and the accompanying anger and fear. But as he has gotten older and matured he does understand more clearly now that "we are coming back" and "we are never going to leave you." And these are the words we tell him often.

But one day we will have that talk about a "primal wound" and it will be okay. I hope this article helps you in whatever stage you are in adoption. I hope your struggle hasn't been as challenging as our was, and if it's harder I hope you find some encouragement from a fellow traveler on the adoption journey.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 David Winters

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