Gaslighting, or, Please Listen to Adoptees

Adoption makes people uncomfortable. If you mention you are adopted you generally get one of two responses: a slight look of horror and a quick subject change, or a tilted head “poor you”. I get it. Adoption is complicated and you don’t want to put your foot in it. 

Of more concern are those who gaslight adoptees and tell them they shouldn’t feel a particular way. Gaslighting means you are trying to make a person doubt their own account and their own experience. You would never do this to any other marginalised group. It is manipulative and cruel. Adoptee gaslighters tend to fall into a few categories:

Adoptive parents

Obviously, not all adopters but unfortunately too many. Adoption is a highly emotive issue for most adoptive parents (APs). I get that ‘adoption is trauma’ feels like a personal criticism. The idea that you might be complicit in a harmful system must be terrifying. 

Too often, APs will stonewall and refuse to engage with the idea of adoption trauma at all. Challenging behaviour and struggles with life MUST be down to pre-adoption trauma. Birth parents ’bad’, adoptive parents ’just doing our best’. These kinds of APs believe the solution is more funding and more support for adoption. It is a very rare AP who will posit we need to support birth families so that children can stay at home. Let’s be honest. Adoption, in the vast majority of cases, is about satisfying the needs of infertile couples and is a last resort for them. It is not about what is best for the child.  

I am often frightened when I stumble across adopter forums online. Adoptees who are critical of the current system are characterised as angry and aggressive, and to be ignored at all costs. We get ‘not all adoptees’, ‘I’m sorry you had a bad experience’ and ‘my adoptee doesn’t feel that way’. These APs are demonstrating, vividly, that they are not a safe person for their adoptee to share feelings with. I am reminded of that Mitchell and Webb sketch and wish that more APs had the bravery to ask, “Are we the baddies?”* 

We did not all experience neglect or mistreatment pre-adoption. Many of us have loving relationships with our adoptive families. We doubt ourselves enough. If we tell you that adoption is traumatic, BELIEVE US.

*I am not comparing adoptive parents to Nazis. Definitely not.

Professionals and ‘professionals’

Many of the social workers and therapists we come across are brilliant. They are underpaid, overworked, and endlessly supportive. There are a few who have blundered into a setting they are not equipped for and can do more harm than good. They usually fall into the category of people without proper qualifications or appropriate regulatory oversight. There are too many examples of these individuals reaching out, unsolicited, to adoptees and offering magical solutions. They are usually staggeringly patronising and seek to impose a denial of reality. They can cause terrible damage, especially for the adoptee emerging from the fog who might be asking questions for the first time and who lacks support.

I’m traumatised, I’m not an idiot. I haven’t lost my ability to think critically. I want support from compassionate professionals who are educated on adoption issues. 

The imminent removal of Ofsted regulation for adoptee support is a concern. It technically leaves us no worse off—Ofsted are toothless in practice and the requirement for regulation has severely limited the number of people who come forward to support adoptees—but to remove it entirely opens the door to charlatans. Everyone involved in supporting adoptees should have trauma-informed training. There should be appropriate oversight. And please can we prevent adoption agencies from being providers of this support? It is a blatant and dangerous conflict of interest.

Other adoptees

This one is particularly tricky. Not all adoptees feel the same way. If you had a great experience, fantastic, but two things: i) you might find you feel differently as time goes on, and ii) your good experience does not negate someone else’s difficult one. 

I hate saying that first part. It sounds so off. It’s just that I genuinely believed for years that I was lucky, and now I don’t feel that way. This experience of ‘coming out of the fog’ is so common but it is difficult to talk about without sounding patronising. This is one of the reasons we need more academic research into the adoptee experience and how it moulds and shapes you throughout life. 

As a minimum can we agree we should be respectful of each other’s experiences? There is no obligation on ‘happy’ adoptees to speak out against adoption but it is not helpful to silence those of us who do. For me, it is not about my trauma or experience, it is about systemic problems with our current system of plenary adoption. And let’s face it, the happy adoptee narrative is the one that is predominant in society. Unless you really believe that adoption is perfect, please make a bit of space for those of us who want change. 


I had a knock back recently when I was refused a mental health referral despite making myself horribly vulnerable in front of my GP. I quickly spiralled into thinking that, of course, they’re right. I am exceedingly lucky, my problems aren’t as bad as other’s and I am a pathetic waste of space who not only doesn’t deserve help but shouldn’t need it. And so on, and so on, and so on. It was exhausting. I was pulled back by an incredibly supportive group of fellow adoptees, most of whom had experienced something similar. They made me laugh and feel like I was in good company.

I would never speak to another person the way I speak to myself. The reason I was in denial for so long about the effect that adoption has had on me is that I was gaslighting myself. I’m ‘too sensitive’, ‘not strong enough’ and just inadequate generally. I am going to try and stop this behaviour, or at least try and start noticing when it’s happening. I am accountable for my behaviour as an adult. It is not my fault that I was relinquished and adopted.

And finally…society

Oof. I don’t know where to begin with this one. Adoption tropes are all around. Baked into TV, films, books, just everywhere. I have never felt injustice so keenly before. It has knocked the wind out of me, and taught me so much, not least reverential awe for those who contend with more visible injustices or intersectional experiences. There is surely a lightbulb moment coming when we can take a serious look at the way we talk about adoption? Where we start to speak honestly about the nuances, biases and appalling mistreatment at play? It could just take one article that captures the zeitgeist, or one TV show that portrays it accurately, or one politician who is prepared to speak out. Here’s hoping…