Saturday, May 31, 2008

Primal Wound? What is It?

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Mother-Newborn Separation

Throughout generations of routine obstetrical, hospital, and adoption practice in this country, the attitude has been, "Why would the separation from its mother affect a newborn baby?" But with the advent in the last twenty years of prenatal and perinatal research, we have astounding findings about what a fetus experiences in the womb, what a strong connection it has with the mother long before birth, and how intelligent, aware and remembering a newborn is. Researchers currently feel the more appropriate question to be, "Why wouldn’t separation from the mother to whom he or she was connected for nine months affect an infant in fundamental ways?"

"Many doctors and psychologists now understand that bonding doesn’t begin at birth, but is a continuum of physiological, psychological, and spiritual events which begin in utero and continue throughout the postnatal bonding period. When this natural evolution is interrupted by a postnatal separation from the mother, the resultant experience of abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds of these children, causing that which I call the ’primal wound’." So wrote Nancy Verrier in her landmark 1993 book, The Primal Wound Understanding the Adopted Child. Rather than deeply question whether the experience of separation in adoption is traumatic, we as a society tend to believe that enough love and care can make everything right. But psychologists have taught us that the first stage of psychological growth includes the development of trust, as a foundation for secure relationships with others, and ourselves. Babies who are separated from the only connection they’ve ever known-their primordial biological and psychological matrix—have had their nascent sense of trust deeply violated.

Adoptees may unconsciously feel that it’s too dangerous to love and be loved authentically and deeply; all of the love and care parents give them sometimes has a hard time "getting in" past the child’s defenses against the hurt and abandonment that they are internally "hardwired" to expect. As Verrier says of her own relationship to her adopted daughter, "I discovered that it was easier for us to give her love than it was for her to accept it."

The trauma of newborn separation is registered largely on the physical level, leaving the nervous system predisposed to getting stuck in survival mode: fight or flight,or freeze. In babies, these powerful feelings are thus expressed physically, through inconsolable crying (or the other extreme, virtually no crying at all), extreme startle responses, arching or stiffening at being held, "spacing out" or sleeping all the time, severe colic or other illness. The primal sense of loss, abandonment and rage that results from the trauma of separation is overwhelming to a newborn, who hasn’t yet developed an ego, much less ego defense mechanisms. Left unacknowledged or unaddressed, these unresolved nervous system patterns permeate the psychological and personality realms, and can manifest in such ways as hyper-controlling behavior ("the little tyrant") and intense emotional volatility, or the opposite, a superficially cheerful adaptiveness ("the pleaser").

Children often split themselves off from the injured parts of their psyche, and develop a functional,acceptable, "falseself." This concept of the false self is often the explanationbehind what seems like "wonderful adjustment" on the part of an adoptee, or traumatized child who has responded to the deep fear of further abandonment or trauma by becoming compliant and adaptive to the needs and expectations of the parents or caregivers. But their grief and anger is simply buried in the unconscious, curdling their social and emotional lives.

One of the most powerful healing forces is available to everyone, free of charge: empathy. Empathy allows a person, even a tiny baby, to feel their feelings, rather than repress them, so they can be released. Adoptees need to express their feelings of grief and loss. They need our help to do this, and this help needs to take the form of active empathy saying the words, out loud, and let them know that what he or she is feeling makes sense and is allowed.

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