Relinquishment and Adoption Are Different, by Ron Nydam, Ph.D.

This post tells about the confusion between adoption and relinquishment and the benefits of knowing the differences.

This is a guest post by friend and colleague, Ron Nydam. Here is a brief bio:

I stumbled onto the dynamics around relinquishment and adoption by failing to be helpful in two marital cases where one of the partners was an adoptee. I discovered grief unknown. That turned into a PhD dissertation on birthparents fantasies at the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver. That turned into a video production with Bethany Christian Services, entitled More Than Love. And that turned into a book entitled Adoptees Come of Age: living within two families.  Along with the book, I have written a variety of book chapters and published articles on the dynamics of relinquishment and adoption.

Language itself is often a problem in the field of adoption. Seldom is it simply a matter of semantics. For all too long the literature has failed to carefully distinguish between relinquishment and adoption as two separate, parallel processes which interface with each other in adoptive development. And the consequences of this unfortunate muddling of thinking is that relinquishment, with all its negative power, is quietly unnoticed and adoption, as a process of attachment to another family, is unfairly loaded with societal stigma. Let me explain.

One thoughtful and articulate adopted woman told it to me this way: “I hate my relinquishment; I love my adoption! ” She, unlike other adopted people, was able to see the important difference between the two events/processes in her life story. Relinquishment is both an historical event and a lifelong process in adoptive experience. The event is the once for all birthparent decision to let go of a baby/child and possibly, make a plan for adoption. That moment in a relinquished person’s history is powerful and painful and may mark a real injury. In terms of the early development of the self of a person. But relinquishment is also a process in several ways. As the days and years o by the relinquished child is called upon / reminded to grieve the loss of real but ghost birthparents, people who exist in both reality and fantasy for adopted children. Letting go hurts. Most often it takes many years of openness and mourning to truly come to terms with the pain of rejection that the thought of relinquishment triggers. In adolescence the process of relinquishment continues as a person struggles with carving an identity out of the kaleidoscope of personal parts that having four parents entails for adopted people. So, relinquishment as a separate developmental process continues on in adolescence.

But there’s more. It goes on further. Young adults and older adults who were relinquished as infants or children often enter intimate relationships with great ambivalence. In what may be compromised forms of relationship they create connections that may guarantee security bulletproof dependency on either side, which of course, insures connection. Or else, they may form relationships in such a way that they recreate a very primal rejection in the drama of divorce. In either instance it is the ongoing process of relinquishment which serves as a guiding force in terms of the way that they form relationships. So relinquishment, with its own painful power, goes on and on into adult life.

Betty Jean Lifton has been a refreshing insightful voice in the field of adoption. Her recent contribution to the literature, The Journey of the Adopted Self, is a comprehensive and significant gift to all of us in the struggle. But, she too makes the mistake of language. In her book she describes accumulative adoptive trauma as:

It begins when the (adoptees) are separated from the mother at birth;

builds when they, learn that they were not born to the people they call

mother and father; and is further compounded when they are denied

knowledge of the mother and father to whom they were born. Lifton, 7.

There is a useful portrayal of difficulties in adoptive development. However, I believe that she means “cumulative relinquishment trauma.” The term adoption does not deserve to be loaded with the painful dimensions of relinquishment. All of us need to think about relinquishment more carefully … more separately.

Adoption, on the other hand, is a term that needs to be employed more narrowly to refer to the event of initial bonding and the process of ongoing attachment and detachment with adoptive parents in the formation and life of the adoptive family. This, of course, is a critically important part of successful adoptive development as it serves as the basic source of nurture and support for adopted children. All along the way as these connections ebb and flow in adoptive family life they keep adopted children emotionally and spiritually alive on their way to their own adulthood. Adoption as a term should be used to make reference to the blessings and the problems that are part of these relationships. Again, adoption is a separate process of connection and disconnection to a person’s adoptive family.

Once this distinction is clear, the interface between relinquishment and adoption comes to the light of day in a useful, liberating way. They affect each other in both positive and negative ways. For example, relinquishment protested and unresolved may stop the initial bonding and attachment of adoption in the first place. An adoptive mother who struggled for years with connection to her daughter painfully recalls the protest of four hours of screaming upon arrival in her new home in no way the adoptive mother’s fault. On the other hand, the power of initial bonding and attachment to adoptive parents serves as the fuel needed to do the grieving that healthy relinquished children must do. Insufficient attachment may mean that an adopted child shuts down inside and defensively avoids getting the job of mourning done because, without sufficient connection, it hurts too much to (consciously) know the injury of rejection. Adoption as this separate process is the psychic salvation of the relinquished child just as parental care is the critical foundation for mental and spiritual health for the rest of all of us. In this sense, adoption is a critically important, wonderful thing for relinquished children.

Sorting out the important distinctions between relinquishment and adoption allows for the light of new awareness and greater self-understanding for adopted people. It helps them separate the many and confusing emotional responses that they have to what’s going on inside and outside. Understanding how these separate, parallel processes interface with each other brings clarity to the psychic task of both grieving and attachment. So, keeping this distinction may mean the development of healthier adopted adults and a more empathic appreciation for the dilemma from our larger community.

An Unexpected Prescription for Grieving Adoption Loss

This post handles the problem of adoption grief and proposes the added dimension of worship for healing.

It is extremely difficult for those touched by adoption–whether adoptee, birth parent, or adoptive parent, to keep their balance in the midst of deep grieving and loss. I was surprised to find how Job (of the Bible) handled it. And, he ended up in the latter part of his life being better off than before loss–he was given double blessing.

If you could talk to someone who could tell you how to keep your balance in the midst of grieving adoption loss, would you listen?

Are you desperate enough to listen?

Desperate to listen to God?

If so, what do you think he would prescribe for painful adoption loss?

  • Stiff upper lip?
  • Game of pretend?
  • Happy face?
  • Bite the bullet theology?
  • Attend every adoption convention in the world?

I was relieved to discover that Scripture indicates the opposite.

Instead of the above, God prescribes worship.

I can hear my fellow adoptee friends saying, “You must be kidding, Sherrie. Why would God prescribe worship for painful adoption loss? And, besides, what is worship, anyway?”

Let’s take a closer look at Job and at the same time, see if we can identify with his suffering.

  • Job’s servants were knifed to death
  • Sheep were killed by lightening
  • Camels were stolen
  • All of his children died in a monstrous tornado (he lost his family….sound familiar?)

Job’s pain was unimaginable, just like many of you.

“Yet in the midst of the pain, Joe responded with worship.

Yes…worship….go figure!

How did he worship?

Did he belt out all of four stances of the Great Is Thy Faithfulness hymn ? Did he sing a religious song on his knees? Did he quote Romans 8:28 repetitively?

No…Job did three simple things:

  1. He verbalized his primal pain. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.”
  2. He acknowledged blessings as well as the losses.”The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.
  3. He offered a sacrifice of praise: “May the name of the Lord be praised.”

This is how God defines worship.

Surprising, isn’t it?

How about us?

Are we willing to enter into transparent, Job-like worship by verbalizing our primal pain to God? Are we willing to acknowledge the painful losses of adoption along with the blessing? Are we willing to offer a sacrifice of praise and thank a good God that our lives have been sovereignly touched by adoption?

If Job, a blameless and upright man worshipped God in the midst of suffering like this, dare we you any less?

Selah (Think about it).








What Adoptive and Foster Parents Can Do When Kids “Out-Stubborn” Them

When Your Child Resists Talking about Adoption there are ways to get them to open up and share.

All my child says when I try to connect with her about adoption is, “You don’t get it.”


Truth be told, parents don’t “get it” because adopted and fostered children look at life in a totally different way.

I used to think that we as adoptees and fostered had this unique view because we are so gifted (haha).

In reality, we look at life through a lens of trauma. Pre-birth trauma and post-birth trauma.

Here are some tips that may help adoptive and foster parents “get it” and gain access to their child’s world.

What will prevent access to your child’s world?

  • Avoid the topic of adoption as long as possible. Hope that your child will never ask about his or her past.
  • Deny the differences between your adopted child and your biological family. “You are just like us” or “You look just like your daddy” are prime examples.
  • Correct any expression of uncomfortable emotions about adoption by accentuating the positive: “Count your blessings” or “You’re so lucky to be adopted; you should be thankful.”
  • Pretend your child’s life began on adoption day. Don’t mention her birth or birth family—it will only upset her and you.
  • Enforce an unspoken “no talk” rule through your body language. A quivering lip or a clenched jaw speaks volumes.
  • Be sure to take offense if your child uses words like “real parents.” Interpret them as a rejection of you rather than an innocent expression of your child’s curiosity.
  • Foster silent shame about your child’s need to consider searching for his birth family. Say “Why not let sleeping dogs lie?” or “Let bygones be bygones.”

How to Gain Access:

  • Acknowledge the reality of adoption, from day one if you can. When diapering your infant or cuddling your older child in your arms, use adoption language: “I’m so glad we adopted you. I’m so glad you’re ours.” This way, the subject becomes familiar instead of denied.
  • Initiate conversation about your child’s pre-adoption perceptions: “Do you ever wonder about your birth mother? Do you ever wonder if you look like her? I wonder about that sometimes.” Or, if you have adopted an older child who spent part of his life with the birth family, you might say: “What was life like for you with your birth mother/birth father? Whenever you want to share your memories with us, we are always ready to listen.”
  • Validate the fact that your family has been touched by adoption and has special challenges. The definition of the word “validation” sheds a lot of light on what your child needs: “to substantiate, confirm, to make valid, authenticate, to give official approval to.” One adoptive mother of five says that adoption is a daily topic for her and her children, for adoption impacts their daily lives and is not just a one-time event.
  • Create a non-judgmental, safe environment in which your child feels free to express any emotion, thought, or question. Learn to say to your child, “It’s all right to feel as you do. Tell me more about it.”
  • Celebrate the differences between your adopted child and your biological family: “Your creativity brings such an added dimension to our family. How blessed we are to have you!”
  • Be sensitive to your child’s possible unspoken need for a tangible connection to his biological past. One birth mother I know gave her daughter a silver bank on adoption day—a reminder that she will never be forgotten. On every anniversary of their daughter’s adoption, the adoptive parents put a $1 bill in the bank, telling their daughter that the money is a reminder of the gift of life the birth mother gave to them.
  • As your child grows older, respect his need to consider searching for or reconnecting with his birth family someday. Verbalize your support. Even if your child joined your family because of abuse or neglect in his birth home, he may need to reconnect in some way with his first family in order to resolve past trauma. Trust your child’s instincts about what he needs while providing safety and security regardless of the outcome of his journey into his past.

Just FYI, there is a FREE workbook that accompanies the Twenty Things book. It will appear soon on this site as a free download for those that choose to follow the blog.