The Primal Wound:
A Therapist Counsels Adoptive Parents

By Marcy W. Axness

While this material primarily concerns issues of adoption, it would be profitable reading for anyone interested in pre- and peri-natal concepts.
-- John Speyrer, Editor of the Primal Psychotherapy Page.

[The following is an interview with Dr. Wendy McCord, former chair of the L.A. chapter of APPPAH, the Association for Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology and Health. Pre- and peri-natal psychotherapy assumes the wisdom and presence of inner life in prenates and newborns. I posed some questions I felt adoptive parents might ask.]

Marcy Axness. What should adoptive parents know when they bring home their baby?

Wendy McCord. All adopted babies, I think you can pretty much say, are in shock, which is the most severe level of trauma, and that shock needs to be empathized with and understood. They need to be held a lot, they need to be given true empathy, and what they do needs to be interpreted in terms of their loss. And parents who are in denial of this add another trauma to what the baby's already suffered.

The most important thing that adoptive parents can know, or have, is the attitude that their baby is conscious of what happened to it, that there is, encoded in it's biological and emotional and spiritual system, the knowledge, already, of this loss. And it senses it physically, emotionally and spiritually, on all levels.

M. A. The idea of the primal wound seems so hopeless, as if there's nothing they can do. Is there something they can do?

W. M. Absolutely. If they can come to their child with this understanding, then they can begin to interpret the signals that the child is giving them as being based on what the child needs. They can begin to empathize with the baby's experience. So if an infant comes to them with colic, or with tremendous startle responses, or fear, or is unable to attach or unable to be held or unable to be comforted, instead of feeling like the child doesn't like them, they can begin to say to this baby, "You must feel really sad, you must feel really lost. You miss your mother. You miss your connection. You've lost something very important, and I understand." And hold the baby, and let the baby mourn, because they're truly mouming. And contain the baby's fears and contain their own fears-the baby does not have the ability to take on their fears at that time.

Another specific thing they can do is to find out about the birth, and about the birthmother and what she went through, so that if there was drugs or alcohol, or if there was anxiety involved on the mother's part, they can know about it. What was the birth like? Did the baby get to see its mother? Did the mother hold the child or was it never put in its mother's arms? Those things are significant, and have meaning to the infant.

M.A. What if the baby seems 'unreachable'?

W.M. If your adopted baby can't connect to you, if for some reason it is just disconnected, or spacy, or blocked out, or foggy, whatever--you need to empathize with that. "You're far away from me now, it's hard to connect to me. I'm not the mom you expected, I don't smell like her, I don't sound like her. I'm a different mom, and I love you, and I will wait for you to get over your sadness." And you have to say it, out loud. These are tremedously healing things for this infant to hear, and it will allow the baby to cry, it will allow the baby to mourn.

M.A. How can I expect a newborn baby to respond to the words I say? He doesn't understand language.

W.M. Babies are much more conscious than they're given credit for. Medical science is beginning to understand more and more about what babies are capable of. They're actually realizing that babies understand math, that they understand concepts, that they identify people, that they are much, much smarter than we have understood. But what they haven't gotten to yet is that babies are psychologically brilliant, and probably more in touch with their feelings, and more in touch with what's going on than we ever, ever gave them credit for.

One of the very sad things about psychology is that very few people understand how conscious babies are, how conscious human beings are, even in utero, and the only way I can statistically show that to you is that so many adopted children have so many psychological problems, and the only thing that they have in common is that at birth they were separated from their mothers. Many of them grow up in families who truly love and care about them and want to help them.

M.A. I'm afraid that by saying those things to him, that I'll be putting awful ideas into his head.

I think one of the most ludicrous ideas is that you're hiding anything from a baby. Years ago people wouldn't tell children that they were adopted, and so they would grow up--and any adoptee will tell you this--knowing that something's terribly wrong. And when they were told the truth, although it may have been interpreted as a horrible truth and a terrible secret, it made sense, and it made their life make sense, and it gave them an understanding of this terrible burden they were carrying, like not feeling right about themselves.

So the idea that telling the truth to an infant is going to put an idea in their mind is absurd--they were there, they know. They know on a very primal, instinctual level. All you're doing is telling them that the hurt they feel is real, which is what makes us sane. It's what truly loving is--affirming that person's honest experience. So anything less than that is insane. Anything less than that is putting crazy ideas in their mind, like they should be happy, or they should not be sick, or they should not be feeling bad, or they "should be loving me more than their birthmom." That's crazy, the baby doesn't understand that. So it's exactly the opposite of putting awful ideas into his head.

And the other thing is, even if you don't believe me, what harm would it do to try? If you don't believe the baby understands and hears, then it doesn't matter what you say. And if by some odd chance I might be right, then it may be worth it just to reduce the level of pain that the infant is in.

M.A. How do I know if it's helping?

You'll know immediately. The baby will know, and you will know. They just ... hear you, I don't know how to say it--they hear you and they feel understood. It's miraculous to see it. They just relax. It's totally healing.

M.A. Is there a 'time frame' for having the best opportunity to affect healing in the child?

We know that personality is set probably by birth, and definitely by one. And the damage that's done to a child in the first year is the most severe damage. We know this, Freud knew this--it's called the first stage of development. We know that most child abuse is done by age three, because people think that children that young can't remember. And not empathizing with your child is a form of abuse. You're telling them that what they're feeling isn't real, or that they can't feel, and they can.

Babies who've been separated from their mothers do have to mourn. And they do have to be sick. And they need somebody just to understand why, and to allow it. And then they can heal.

[Dr. McCord also treats adults for various kinds of pre- and peri-natal and early childhood trauma and loss. She points out that the healing process is much, easier, quicker, and far less tedious in babies and young children than the healing of those same early traumas in adults. She presently practices in Phoenix, AZ.]

Copyright, 1994, by Marcy Wineman Axness

Marcy Wineman Axness lives in Malibu Canyon, California, with her husband and two children. She is an award-winning television news and documentary writer/producer and a doctoral candidate in Health Communication with an emphasis on pre and peri-natal development. She writes for several magazines on adoption issues, and is currently working on a novel, The Awakening Soul of Pearl McEvoy, about a woman who penetrates the labyrinth of illusions and secrets behind her perfect life, to confront painful truths and restore her soul.

Ms. Axness' Adoption Insight series of booklets and tapes are now available, offering respectful, practical approaches to enhancing the adoptive family experience. The material is available at her website, "Adoption Insight."

Dr. Wendy McCarty's Website - Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology, Education, Mentoring, Support

Dr. Axness welcomes e-mail correspondence at

See on this website, an article about issues which may arise with the introduction of an adopted child into a family of birth siblings. Possible Adverse Psychological Effects of an Adoptee on Birth Family Siblings .

Return to The Primal Psychotherapy Home Page