Counselling Families With Adopted Children

Sheri Coburn

adoption, counseling adopted children, family counseling, mental health, self-care, anxiety, depression

[Excerpt from Counselling in Relationships]

The following excerpt comes from our upcoming book, Counselling in Relationships: Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections. The “Adoptive Families” chapter illustrates the varied storylines that are part of any adoptive family. The importance of attending to both individual as well as relational storylines are highlighted with wit and guidance.


The pathways to adoption are unique for everyone involved. Each family member is on their own journey in search of belonging, and the desire to give and receive love can be complicated, painful, unexpected, and unimaginably joyous. Every family has a story that captures their successes and struggles as they work together and independently to build meaningful and supportive relationships, which continuously evolve from the onset of adoption.

The overly simplistic dictionary definition of adoption is the act of legally taking another’s child and bringing them up as one’s own. However, the realities of adoption stories are much more complex than just transferring caregiving responsibilities. The path to adoption can include years of planned steps such as exploring, researching, and painstakingly waiting for a child. Or it can be sudden and unplanned, as happens when the unexpected death of a biological parent requires someone else to take on the caregiving role. Not every adoption is anticipated or welcome, but neither is every adoption born of tragic circumstances. Rather, the roads are complex, as are the children and families who are represented in adoption stories.

Many tools are available to help adoptive families heal and grow into healthier versions of themselves.

Because adoption stories themselves can be multilayered, so too are the strengths and struggles that arise in families in which adoption is part of their foundation. In an ideal world, every infant would have a healthy uterus to grow in, a healthy and loving caregiver to be born to, and a structured, safe, and predictable home in which to develop. However, this ideal is not achieved in many biological birth stories, and adoption stories are often filled with even more exceptions. Adoption stories are also often influenced by larger social and structural barriers that can unfairly impact the beginnings of conception and birth stories. These aggravating factors can create and sustain very different adoption patterns based on the presence or absence of privilege. As caregivers and counsellors, we must equip ourselves to assist individuals and families to both recognize and repair the innate bonding and attachment interruptions present in every adoption story while also considering the intricacies and diversity of each adoption story.

Counselling work with adoptees and their families requires identifying existing strengths and empowering families with newfound awareness and skills to build secure attachments and emotional wellness. Balancing a strengths-based approach with a trauma-informed perspective allows us to acknowledge both the innate strengths that exist within adoption stories and the trauma that precedes them.

In her book The Primal Wound, Nancy Verrier (1993) argues that every adoption story is inevitably also a trauma story. Verrier’s work was considered groundbreaking in its day and remains highly influential. Verrier provided one of the first works that stressed the importance of using an adoptee-centered, trauma-informed lens when working with adoptive families. In Coming Home to Self (2010), she continues to educate and offer hope to helpers, families, and adoptees while normalizing the importance of being trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive when considering the influences of adoption. She also stresses that the traumatic elements of adoption are not erased simply because the outcome involves a child who may have more people loving them or who is possibly given a privileged head start in life. Additional authors continue to build on her work and highlight that the inevitable trauma in an adoption story is that it begins with the severing of an attachment bond (Golding, 2008). However, Verrier and others also acknowledge that this inevitable early bonding and attachment injury, although significant, does not exist in isolation. In many adoption stories, there is also love, hope, healing, and unconditional commitment to repairing attachment connections. Such a multifaceted story of trauma, hope, healing, and connection captures the more dynamic and diverse realities of adoption narratives.

Counselling work with adoptees and their families requires identifying existing strengths and empowering families with newfound awareness and skills to build secure attachments and emotional wellness.

I find it necessary and helpful to accept the traumatic impacts that are inherently present when I’m counselling an adoptive family. That way I’m better able to facilitate individual and family awareness and empowerment for managing and mastering these impacts.

Many tools are available to help adoptive families heal and grow into healthier versions of themselves. Current theoretical frameworks that stand out as being helpful in addressing the impacts of adoption on the individual members, as well as all the interacting relationships, are attachment, family systems, and strengths-based theories. These frameworks can assist counsellors to support building stronger and higher-functioning adoptive families. When intentionally applied, they introduce meaningful concepts and practical areas for application. Attachment theory guides helpers to recognize patterns of connection and disconnection and facilitate repair of these bonds when needed. Family systems theory offers a way to see the family as a multilayered social system with interacting members, all of whom are influencing and being influenced by each other and external contexts. And ultimately an intentional foundation of a strength-based framework directs the helpers and families to focus on identifying and capitalizing on what is working well.

I have found working with families to be an amazing opportunity to play a part in building a healthier social system. I don’t take this opportunity lightly, and I have felt incredibly privileged to be invited to participate in creating meaningful impact for the families I connect with. Working with families whose members differ in their experiences and interpretations of adoption challenges me to remain grounded and present in the diverse realities of all members. It also demands consideration for the additional influences on adoption that were beyond the scope of this chapter, such as transnational and transracial adoption stories and the many other layered contexts of broader adoption narratives. Although these broader narratives were not explored directly in this chapter, I remain mindful of working to better understand these additional influences on families and their members and encourage all helpers to do the same.

For me, family work – particularly when adoption is a defining family characteristic – has been one of my most rewarding and humbling counselling experiences. Working with adoptive families has demanded that I use and continually expand on my skill set while also highlighting the healing influence of healthy human connection and compassion.

Read the full chapter in our upcoming book, Counselling in Relationships –  Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections, available for pre-order on our website.


For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.

Author: Sheri Coburn (MSW, RSW)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

Sheri is a co-author of CTRI’s upcoming book, Counselling in Relationships –  Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections. The book is available for pre-order on our website.

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