The idea of studying and systematizing the unconscious material of children having adoptive parents and who are in therapy came to my mind after one of the parents came for consultation. Questions considering upbringing of his own child worried him. It was a 40-years old man, intelligent, accurate, he was married for 12 years and had a daughter who was 11 years old. His daughter was developing rather intensively a leaving behind the norms for her age and the father could not cope with his feelings caused by acute negative rejecting relationship with his daughter. It seemed to him that the daughter was doing and saying everything against his will and that she was not listening to his advice. He felt very sad about the situation that had established because has always been a father who took part in the process of upbringing of his child and before that time he could always find common language with his daughter. Asking him about his own separation from his parents, his adolescence and appearance of his own interests I received a very unexpected answer: as an adolescent he was a very good boy, he had friends with whom he sometimes played but he did not resist requirements of his parents. He respected his father very much (his father was a military man) and was a little bit afraid of him. But when he entered the faculty of chemistry at an institute situated in another town and was far from his family he started leading a student's life to its full extent including the use of alcohol and drugs. It was not a long but an intensive period of time. Parents knew about their sun's adventures and once they came to visit him to the student's hostel in the middle of one of the parties. Probably this event influenced to a big extent their opinion about their child and they decided to tell him the truth. The truth was that the parents with whom he lived since the age of 9 month have adopted him. They also knew the story of his mother who has died from alcoholism. And now they were worried that the boy will repeat the life story of his biological mother. I do not know what were the parents feeling at that time but for a 19-year old adolescent the world has turned upside down. Even at the age of 40 when he was talking about that story he was vividly showing all the emotions he had at that time. He had a feeling of betrayal and deceit as if everything was not for real: the closest people at once turned to be far and strange, his family did not belong to him and as if he was never needed by them. He was asking his parents why they had taken him. But they could not give him an answer that would satisfy him and would make it possible for him to stay. He stopped all the relations with them, stopping all the attempts to contact him from the side of the parents and now after years have passed he has no contact with them. For him it was a second loss of parents.
This case touched me and caused an interest for studying the conscious and unconscious processes in adopted children. Unfortunately such children come to a children's therapist's practice quite rarely. That is why my reflections are based only on two cases of children. In this article I made an attempt to generalize my observations about adoptive parents, their motivations and fears, about the symptoms of adopted children and the reflection of the early experience of being abandoned in the actual situation of a child.
There were two adopted children in my practice: Misha – a boy of 5 and Tolik who was 3.
Misha. The parents came to the consultation because the child rejected any cognitive activity, he could not complete the tasks at the kindergarten, did not paint, refused to listen to fairytales, though earlier he loved to do it. By the time of consultation the boy was 4.5 years old. It seemed that the symptom was rather controversial: at this age every child who develops normally from time to time refuses doing the tasks that are not connected with the play. On the other hand such a state of this child lasted for 4 month already and it could mean an unconscious refusal to grow and develop. Parents were thinking almost the same thing. At the first consultation it became clear that the parents had a tendency for experiencing anxiety about the development of their child. They came to a specialist's consultation when he was 11 month old (he was adopted at the age of 5 month). The cause for that was a slow development of speech. What can make the parents seek the help of respected specialists, go to special institutes with a child of such an early age, the age when the speech is only starting to develop? This fact makes it clear that parents have a very strong anxiety, that they unconsciously try to find those problems that the child does not have. Unfortunately the specialists confirmed the suppositions of the parents and diagnosed the speech retardation, though the boy was already pronouncing "ma". What is the cause of such a strong anxiety? It seems that although consciously the parents took a decision to take care about the child and they really love him, there is an unconscious fear in them that there can be some trick, that the biological predisposition will show itself at some point as it has happened in the story with the grown up man that I described earlier. The parents could not stand his negative behavior, they did not think that his behavior among children of his age could be caused by the negative influence or that in such a way the boy is separating from home and is growing or that for example that the child needs a more attentive attitude from their side. They connected his behavior with his "bad" genetics. I think that such an unconscious fear accompanies the development of adopted children in whole. The parents are afraid that in some unexpected moment their child will "come up with something", that could be some dysfunction in physical development or in his behavior. Parents are also afraid of aggression in the child's behavior as from their point of view that is the first sign and as a result the child often represses his aggressive attempts that evidently break out at some moment of time in a form of alcohol consumption or refusal of some activity. The same thing happened with Misha. There was an angelic child in front of me. He smiled and was very nice. He agreed to do everything the grownups offered him, the parents were saying that everyone around loves him. It seemed that they could not even imagine how someone could not love him. Misha also could not imagine that before he met a nanny at the kindergarten who was indifferent to him. He was lost and it took him quite a long time to get used and not to be afraid of going to the kindergarten. It was also one of the reasons why he did not want to study.
He looked younger than his age and the behavioral signs that are typical for a boy undergoing a phallic stage of development were absent. Parents told me that sometimes they fed him from spoon and often dressed him themselves and that it was pleasant for them to do it. Almost consciously they confessed me that they like that he is small and nice. They don't want him to grow fast. And what about the boy of 5? He was not quite clear about his sex; he didn't play games that the boys of his age play. At the consultation room he was never choosing swards and guns, he didn't build tall towers, did not fight with the armies – there were no games that are typical for the oedipal period. And as it became clear later he never asked his parents about how he was born, where from he was born. When in the process of work the child playing put into the womb of a toy-animal its child almost mechanically I interpreted it that there is a baby growing in the womb and it is being born. The boy told his parents about his discovery (that the babies come from the womb) when they visited a paleontological museum. The parents were lost; they asked me how they could better tell the boy about the birth and how the children appear. Their uncertainty and interest were not similar to the usual way in which the parents ask such questions; it was so because the mother was very afraid that the boy could ask her "have I been in your womb?" That was the reason why the mother often said that the boy was not interested in such things. However it became clear later that the boy was asking the question but it was either while the mother was driving the car or was in a hurry leaving for work. It turned out that the parents ignored the questions about the arrangement of the world and himself that the boy was asking, that also could slow down the development of cognitive functions of the child. A strong anxiety of the adoptive parents that defined many things also was observed in that case, the anxiety of telling the child about his own birth. This very anxiety blocks the educative function of the parents in the questions of birth and sex. Very often parents do not tell the child that he was adopted and there exist two reasons for that – the first one is that parents think that the child will consider himself to be abandoned, un demanded, a monster, and the second reason is that the parents think that when the child will come to know about adoption he will abandon them and will start looking for his biological parents.
Getting in touch with both reasons is complicated for the parents as well as for the psychologist because the real life demonstrates that children feel themselves abandoned and parents become alienated. But is it really so?
The first reason that is the feeling of the children that they are un demanded has its place and forms an important part of the description of adopted children's psyche. This quality is often described by adoptive mothers whose children at the moment of adoption were in a more or less conscious age of five years old and more. During the conflicts or especially during adolescence these children go back to their experience of being alienated and un demanded by the surrounding people. But the more calm is the reaction of the parents and the more this topic is from time to time discussed by them raising and processing this topic again and again while the main requirements for the child are not lowered the faster and in a more painless way the child will cope with this feelings.
The second fear of the parents is that at some point they will not be needed by their child. This fear is very strong. Parents have many stories stored, stories that they hear from their friends or mass media about the reaction of children on the news about their adoption when they hear it in a grownup age. The majority of these stories are negative. The stories that the psychologist has seem to be children's fairytales in comparison to the stories the parents have. And such a horror that sleeps in the heads of adoptive parents can't but influence their self-esteem as parents. They prefer to repress these emotions and fears. As one of the characters of the movie "Gone with the wind" says: "I will think about it tomorrow", when time comes, I will tell him or her, but later, when he will be able to understand. And with such a burden they bring up their child. Every time the parents come across with such information on the TV or in discussions they try to forget about it.
In some sense exactly this mystery doesn't allow the parents and the child to really love and accept each other. The child can not process the experience of being left that he has deep in the unconscious and build the relationship with the new parents.
What happens with the child when he is left without being looked after in an appropriate way? Of course here we speak about the contact, the "mother's face as a mirror", that influences and forms the image of the child himself. There exist theories of child's development during the first year of life: Klein, Winnikott, Mahler, Schpitz etc. They all with slight differences state that in order a healthy psyche and Ego could be formed in a baby there should be present a caring object who would perform not only a physical care but would also reflect and contain the emotions and feelings of a newborn baby. And this leads to a successful development.
Misha was adopted when he was 5 month old. His biological mother left the hospital right after his birth. So what was happening during these five months, to which extent could Misha's psyche cope with constantly changing objects, how could they compensate Misha this innate necessity in reflecting? My question was to which extant now at the age of 5 his libido was fixed on his early experience, to which extant does this experience influence him now. And for me as for a children's psychotherapist it was interesting to observe in practice what does this child play out, to which extant is he unconscious in his primary processes, to which extant do they overfill his Ego from time to time. How is his early experience reflected inside the cabinet and in life?
To my mind one of the most important qualities of psyche is an ability to survive in difficult circumstances. It is well known that during the war the number of neurotic disorders and psychic disorders significantly decreases. The psyche is occupied with the problem of survival and the procession and expression of its feelings it leaves for later, for a more peaceful time. I suppose that for Misha those 5 month were difficult to the same extent. The information that the adoptive parents have confirms that. When Misha was 5 month old his adoptive parents met him and decided to adopt him. They started to visit him often and they treated him as their own child, spending a lot of time with him. But they could not take him home because it was connected with the process of gathering the necessary documentation. The documents were ready when he was 7 month old. Sometimes they could not spend much time with him and they had to leave him for some time. French psychoanalysts F. Dolto and C. Eliacheff who worked a lot with the newborn children at asylums write about the necessity of telling the child about things that are happening to him and around him. Children who are waiting for their fait to be decided need constant verbal information about what is happening to them. And even if nothing yet is happening the psychoanalysts tell them that they need to wait for some more time, that at the moment they are here and this is the place where they are taken care of and that they are near and will tell them about everything that is going to happen. There are many surprising stories in the practice of working with newborn children. Such a discussion and a sincere participation of these people often help children to grow in weight, take food again after refusal and to develop. What was happening to Misha? Probably he couldn't stand any longer the constant absence of parents who treated him in an emotionally different intensive and warm way. His patience was over. There were no French psychoanalysts nearby, there was none who could verbally explain him what was happening to him and he got seriously ill with pneumonia, due to what he was admitted to a hospital. His adoptive parents took turns being near him there. Documents for discharging from the hospital were ready and he got home where he was surrounded by warm care and love that lasts till now.
But what can happen to a child when he comes across with an emotional deprivation on the first year of life? Te answer to this question was given to me by a case of another boy – Tolia.
Tolia's story is less happy than Misha's. His mother who was taking a necessary care of him died when he was 3 month old. After that he was given to his grandmother who suffered from alcohol addiction. She entered his room very rarely and fed him only when she was out of acute alcohol consumption. He also had a second aunt who visited him whenever she had time and when the grandmother permitted her. After 1.5 years she managed to adopt the child. Before that the boy was absolutely alone in the room, for hours he could be near the window, the swinging trees and cars outside of the window became his world. His aunt was often faced the situations when the boy was moving the furniture and she was surprised how an 11-12 month old child could move the cupboards, between which he often got stuck and was crying. But nobody was coming up to him. At the age of about 6month a cat started living in his room. The aunt was finding them closely nestling up with each other in the places from which the boy could not get out.
C. Eliacheff calls such children "children from a cupboard". When the emotional deprivation is too strong an illusion is being formed. The surrounding objects become animate and the child does not understand the difference between himself and the surrounding objects. This can be also observed in children with schizophrenia: there is no symbolic space; the child experiences the surrounding objects as a part of himself. This can be expressed in a game in such a way: when someone pretends to feed the doll the child is in horror because it seems to him that the doll is forced to eat and he creates resistance. But in Tolia's world there also existed a cat. By the moment Tolia came to therapy he was already 3 years 7 month old. In the cabinet again and again he played out his traumatic period which he was repressing in the daily life. When he took the sand and the water he roared as a cat, if he saw a boll that was stuck in a slit he worried, looked around in the cabinet and asked "where is the cat?" In the beginning I tried to offer him a symbolic substitute – different kinds of toy cats. But he needed his cat. The interesting thing was that being with his mother or at the kindergarten he never created such sounds that are impossible to show because that was particularly roaring of a cat and not an attempt to imitate this sound. His adoptive mother was telling that the cat taught him how to interact with the world, when he grew up the cat showed him how to open the door from the space below the door so that he could go out of the room. In this case we see that the cat was a constant substituting object. Probably she played the most important role in survival of the child's psyche.
What is happening to the boy now when he is 3.7? He speaks well, he has all the skills of self-service, and he goes to kindergarten and socializes quite well. His adoptive mother did a lot for him. After she took him to live with her she never stopped to introduce the world, the objects and the surrounding nature to him. She taught him to socialize and play. But until now he can not speak using "I" about himself, he doesn't understand his sex and differences defined by his sex; he can not understand time characteristics. Sometimes the past has a meaning of present for him. Often his parents encounter with his fears from the past, he sees his grandmother and runs away from her.
In the cabinet he actively plays and gets acquainted with the space, but in spite of his age the games mostly have a manipulative character: he takes a toy and gets in contact with it; he plays with it for a short time and than takes the other one. Sometimes some toys touch him emotionally and he talks to it: "a pram, the pram has to be fed" and he puts food in it. "To walk, we need to walk". Sometimes he directly plays out his experience: he takes a house, asks me to give him a rope and close the doors with the rope, he closes the toys inside, they can not "come out" and he starts to worry when the doors are open. Or he takes the figures of grown up people and says "the grandmother is good, she will not eat me". My task with this child is to verbalize his experience: I name the feelings and actions of his heroes. In the cabinet Tolia plays out a lot of archaic concepts: an idea of swallowing up (the grandmother can physically eat), the idea of giving life to objects and identification with a cat. His world is still presymbolic, filled with fears and primitive aggression. Almost directly he tells about the feelings of a child during first years of his life. Such a direct playing out can not be seen in children who function in a neurotic way having the defense mechanisms of a higher level.
Children having more matured defense mechanisms have more symbolic games. They express their feelings in a metaphorical way. That is why it is more difficult to make interpretations in their cases because one and the same game of a child can have different meanings depending on the context and the time period.
In Misha's case one can make an attempt to understand how a neurotic child plays out the same mechanisms. Misha's libido as well as Tolia's is fixed on an early oral stage but still the psyche is developed in a more successful way, ability to symbolize is developed rather well in him. He played out his early fears of being abandoned and swallowed up during several initial month of therapy. The dinosaurs and crocodiles ate each other up, it was impossible to be rescued and to hide. The little babies suffered the most, they were attacked constantly. One of the possibilities to defend oneself was to bury oneself in the sand. "Nobody sees them"- Misha was saying. It happened so that sometimes Misha after digging another baby in the sand forgot where it was and than he invited me to search for it. In his games he was choosing certain toys with which he identified himself on the first stage of therapy. Those were five little crocodiles, they were very small. Usually his session started with him trying to find them among the other toys and when he was leaving he was asking to take them home: "Please give it to me, at least one, are you greedy or what, please", that was what an angel-child was asking me making a very unhappy face. Usually I quite strictly say that the toys can not be taken home and try to pronounce and understand the feelings of a child. Usually children manage to cope with the frustration, but in that case I came across with an amazing feeling, feeling that the child is not ready for refusal, for him my refusal meant much more than a simple following the rules. I remembered his relations with the kindergarten nanny when she treated him coldly and he was worried and could not find his place among other children, his activity was destroyed. And with that child I had a feeling that he needs to have a feeling of being selected in order to get what he needed from a grownup person and that strength with which he was asking was transmitted to me. I was put before a choice whether to strictly follow the rule and then the child will have to cope with the frustration to which he is not ready yet or to make an exception for him and then to doubt his ability to grow and to change his primary patterns of behavior, infantilize him. Except of that it was difficult for Misha to leave the cabinet after the session ended and during several month of therapy he tried to prolong the time in order to stay there longer. All that shows that the child was telling me again and again about his experience of being abandoned and that the experience of separation is not easy for him to have. But still the toys can not be taken from the cabinet. I told him that all of it will be waiting for him till the next time and no crocodile will be lost and that I will keep it.
However my usual farewell phrases that help the child to leave the cabinet and neutralize the anxiety of parting did not function. With this boy I myself started disbelieving my own words, what if some other child would break or steal a little crocodile. The feelings at the end of the session were very intensive. Trying to defend from those feelings I decided to offer him candies that he could take home with him. (Usually the candies are lying in the cabinet not in a very obvious place and children take them from time to time). It was very demonstrative to me when after half a year of therapy he started to "forget" to take a candy and several times I did not put it there though in the beginning of the therapy I constantly did it. He coped with its absence easily having heard that next time they will be there.
In the beginning of our work parents were not telling Misha that he was adopted. Firstly this secret was carefully kept in the family that could not but be reflected in therapy. The first session with Misha is of interest. During our first meeting on the primary consultation in presence of the parents I explained my role to the child and among other things I was telling him that he can tell me about his difficulties, worries and that I can keep secrets. And on the first session Misha told me what was worrying him. He took a baby wale and a big dolphin; he put it together and asked me "When the baby wale will grow up will he have the same flippers as he has?" He confused the adult animal calling it dolphin and then wale. For me this question meant: "will I be like my parents, will I look like them, am I like them, can I look like them?" he never returned to those animals during sessions before the time when he was told the truth about his birth and adoption.
"Often the parents suppose that if some information is not present obviously it is completely absent in the psychological space. Children can scan the information deeper and wider, they have an ability to suddenly feel their past experience. The child has a vague knowledge about his experience. He doesn't know the real content of information consciously, but he senses the presence of a feeling. Often those feelings are very intensive and the child can not find a verbal or symbolic expression of those feelings. The relief of tension does not happen. That's why keeping the secret can damage much more than knowing the truth. Having the support of parents, family, psychotherapist the child is able to cope with his feelings about his experience; keeping it in silence we expose him to a danger of developing pathological mechanisms". (Vasilyeva N.L.)
Jung speaks about the same thing: "Only imagining that the child gradually develops from an unconscious state into conscious we will be able to understand the fact that most of the influences of the surrounding, at least the most elementary and deep are unconscious in its essence. The first impressions in life are the strongest and can cause the biggest effects even being unconscious and probably especially because it never became conscious and because of that were not exposed to any change. As we are capable of changing something only consciously, that what is unconscious stays unchanged. That's why trying to make any changes in a child we should raise those unconscious essences to the level of consciousness in order to be able to influence it and try to correct something".
So the influence of unconscious essences and the primary experience is undoubted. So how does it happen?
In order to try to describe the process taking place in the psyche that has no access to the "unconscious truth of adoption" I would like to use a myth as it is done in analytical psychology. Everyone knows the myth about Oedipus, the king who killed his father and married his mother. I would like to look at the story of Oedipus from a slightly unusual point: Oedipus is none else than an adopted child. The myth starts with the description of the kingdom of Oedipus suffering from plague, people were dying, and women had miscarriages. If we look at the myth from a point of view of inner essences of Oedipus, then his kingdom and people who are in his power represent the inner world of Oedipus and the myth in whole is a conflict resistance of his parts some of which (prophets, shepherds and guards) are in favor of integration in consciousness and in a quite aggressive way they lead the psyche of Oedipus to the realization of that while the others stand out defending the psyche, denying and hiding. The epidemic of plague that took place in Thebes where Oedipus was ruling means a loss of a creative principle of personality, some of its parts that are connected with the roots, with the life demands of Oedipus himself that can not exist, that die. And these sufferings are repressed from the sphere of consciousness. Oedipus tells his citizens that he will exile and kill that person who is the cause of sufferings and he argues with the prophet who points to Oedipus himself as a cause of all the misfortunes. The episode when Oedipus curses himself is also demonstrative. It shows the repression of the unconscious content or the tendencies of self-punishment for an insufficient integration of his experience. In the end after a long process of searching the truth Oedipus gets to know his story: his father after a bad prediction gives his child to a shepherd in order to get rid of him but the shepherd can not kill him and takes him to the other kingdom. There he was raised by the kings. At the feast in honor of his majority Oedipus hears that he is not the real son of his parents from one of the drunk guests. He tries to find the truth and finds his fait prediction saying that he will kill his father and will marry his mother. Trying to avoid that fait he alienates from his parents not knowing that they are adoptive. During his voyages he kills his biological father Laius not knowing who he really is and takes the place of the king of Thebes. He marries Jocasta – his mother and gives birth to children with her.
So the myth starts from the point when the strong powers of unconscious demand the content to come to light (the plague). The whole myth consists of search for those contents. So what does Oedipus find? His life becomes sinful because of not knowing his true roots and he curses himself. The unconscious content broke into the conscious and the psych could not resist (Jocasta suffocates herself and Oedipus blinds himself).
So what is better, not knowing the truth and then a part of one's psyche dies or knowing it and then the whole existence becomes impossible?
In some sense being a psychotherapist of adopted children I came across with this dilemma in my practice. What will be the consequences for the parents and child? Will both be able to withstand the truth? In the life of each child as well as in the myth there is a very important component – fait. In the myth the role of Oedipus was predicted. What is the role of psychotherapist? Leaving the role of mystic participation with difficulty I turned my eyes to the article by Jung "About the basis of upbringing". Jung says that "…trying to achieve some changes in a child we should lift those unconscious essences to the level of consciousness in order to be able to influence it and try to change something. This operation is not needed in cases when in the process of thorough studying of the family circumstances and psychological biography we receive at our disposal an effective means of influencing the individual. If as it was said earlier it happens so that it is not enough it means that the studying of psyche has to go even deeper. However here we deal with a special kind of surgical operation that in case of absence of sufficient technical skills can lead to negative consequences. A vast experience is needed for the doctor to define exactly where and when this operation has to be performed. Unfortunately ignoramuses often underestimate the dangers which such invasions into the psyche can cause. The thing is that when the unconscious content is brought to the conscious sphere a state that is similar to madness is artificially caused. The majority of cases of madness (if it is not of an organic nature) have in its basis a disintegration of consciousness caused by an impetuous invasion of unconscious contents. That is why it is necessary to know in which case one can make such intervention without a risk of causing harm to the health of the patient."
So a harsh invasion of Truth into conscience can turn out to be harmful and can cause a psychotic state. But we have many examples described in the works of French psychoanalysts that show the healing influence of telling the child the truth about his origin. In my understanding the answer lies in the fact that probably they were feeling that very right moment if we speak about grownup patients and of course they were not harming their little patients whose mechanisms of repression of painful experience were not developed fully. Let's go back to my little patients. For Tolik "the boy with a cat" telling the truth practically on the first sessions was not ruinous because he was in contact with his experience and was often going back to it. However it was ruinous for his mother who was not ready to tell him about it although she has been speaking in his presence about his life. She denied the very possibility of invasion of this information into their family and Tolia "was pretending" that he doesn't know anything.
As for Misha here the situation was much more difficult and it seemed to me that it was exactly the case that Jung has described. After 7 month of work the adoptive parents told the child about the fact of adoption and that's what I saw on the next session after it has happened: the boy again took the whale and the dolphin and asked me: "Do they look alike?" I have been trying to widen the story about the whales and dolphins and turn to his feeling of being alike with someone when he has put the toys aside and has confidently declared: "They are alike" and he made me clearly understand that no objections are acceptable. Though the preparative part of work was quite long Misha was not ready to talk about this fact and to bring it completely into consciousness. At first it seemed that he absolutely missed the information and his parents were saying the same thing. He did not react in anyway to what has been said although the adoptive parents even drove him by the hospital where he was born. However his playing pattern has significantly changed after that session, he started using me as an object. Previously he was using only toys for playing. Sometimes I felt as if I were an object of furniture because he did not appeal to me during his games, now he started to frighten me, was forcing me to get frightened and run away from him, he started needing my emotions, he started to interact with me. As if after knowing the truth about his birth an ability of creating a more emotional interaction with people opened in him. It seems to me that this fact is very important for the ability of psyche to develop. Haven been repressed the material blocks the ability of a child to count with the person who is nearby to a full extent, to create a full but not partial interaction. Hiding the truth parents on one hand try to take care of child's feelings but on the other hand they force him to feeling the world through an unprocessed experience of being abandoned, the experience that was not named, explained and processed by the psyche, experience that from time to time needs integration into consciousness and often leads to disadaptation .
In this article I wanted to demonstrate the importance and difficulty of discussion of his own birth with a child, I wanted to study the influences of the forgotten experience on the first year of life in case of adopted children and to touch the topic of speaking about the truth of birth that still raises a lot of questions.
Sophocles "Oedipus the king"
Winnikot "Face of the mother as a mirror"
N.L. Vasilyeva "Children psychoanalysis"
C. Eliacheff "Hidden pain. Diary of a psychoanalyst"
F. Dolto "Unconscious image of the body"
K.G. Jung "About upbringing"