Family Separation Triggers In Movies

Family Separation Triggers in movies

Identifying what adopted/foster care children see in movies

A couple of months ago, the foster parent of one of my clients sent me a frantic email stating, “She can’t stop crying. I don’t understand what’s going on.” I spoke with this foster mother and used a technique I frequently use with my clients and their families when trying to identify triggers and root causes of emotional and behavioral reactions. I call it “rewind and slow motion.” Triggers related to adoption- and foster care trauma are often covert and it can be challenging for caregivers, teachers, professionals, and even the individual themselves to pinpoint what exactly set things off. Retracing steps can often be an effective way to increase awareness and recognize root causes.

I asked the foster mother to rewind the events of the day until before the reaction happened, back to when everything was “normal.” Then we slowly step by step went through the happenings leading up to this child’s emotional outburst. They had had a good day overall. The kids had done online school work, ate lunch, played outside, visited with their birth parents, eaten dinner, and sat down to watch a movie together when out of nowhere this child started to cry. Ding, ding, ding, red flag! Now we were ready for the slow motion—to get to all the small (sometimes seemingly insignificant details). I asked what movie and she replied, “Just a Disney movie, The Good Dinosaur,” almost as if to say that because it was a cartoon Disney movie, it could be ruled out as being the instigator for this response. Now at the time, I had not seen the film, so I asked for more details, keeping in mind that on many other occasions, parents have reached out to me puzzled and perplexed that their child was having a strong reaction to a Disney, Pixar, or other animated film.

“What is it about?,” I asked and foster mother gave a brief recap of the film saying it was about a dinosaur who gets lost and is trying to get back to his family and along the way he meets a little cave boy and together they make the journey to find their home. I asked her if she could pinpoint what was going on in the film when the crying started and at first foster mother could not quite place it, and then all of a sudden she had it.

“It was near the end; the little cave boy had to separate from the dinosaur and was adopted by a family of humans.”

That was when all the crying had started. That was it, and given this child’s history of being in foster care, the lack of permanency in regards to her future and on top of that, the fact that she had just seen her birth parents earlier that day created a perfect storm to be triggered by a movie in which she recognized bits and pieces of herself. For this child witnessing that ending loyalty bind of the cave child having to choose between the dinosaur who had kept him safe and shown him love, despite bearing no physical resemblance and the cave family of humans who resembled him, shared his culture, but who were essentially strangers to him was mirroring her own life in foster care. She felt that and it ignited grief, confusion, anger, and worry in this small little girl. It wasn’t until we rewound the tape and went into slow motion that we could put those pieces together.

Just recently, I watched The Good Dinosaur and even as an adult, found myself triggered at various points during the film. Watching Arlo’s father being swept away by the storm with Arlo desperately calling out for him, witnessing Arlo search for his family showing his inherent need to go back to where he came from, seeing Spot display a natural curiosity about those who look like him and the profound loyalty bind depicted as Spot says goodbye to Arlo and is adopted by a human family. These were all scenes that left an impact on me and I could very much see sparking a reaction in a young child. I thought back to that client of mine, who is only 4 years old, and thought about how hard that must have been for her to watch and navigate her thoughts and feelings.

This experience reminded me of my Disney infused childhood and specifically being brought to tears by the movie Fox and the Hound. I can vividly recall crying uncontrollably as I watched Tod’s(the fox) adoptive human mother drive him out in the woods on a dark stormy night, remove his collar, which was a symbol of him belonging to a family, and push the little confused fox out of the car as she drove away. Little me was gutted by this scene, but I for some reason watched that movie over and over and over again. My parents were so confused by my reaction and I am sure at the time had no idea the deeper thoughts and feelings it was triggering. Truth be told, as a child, I do not think even I knew with certainty that these reactions were linked to adoption trauma. I did not know this movie was stirring up deep-seated fears about being left, losing control, being abandoned, and about getting safety and security taken away from me. Many years later and seeing my life experiences through a trauma-informed lens, I now see that my brain and my body were having a trauma response. I was being triggered by this movie at a subconscious level. The feelings and sensations I had were strong and these scenes only served to bring them to the surface. The theme of family separation (a theme often played out in movies) is always applicable, to those who experience foster care or adoption trauma, even if the separation occurred before explicit memories could be formed. The body holds on to the trauma associated with that separation and when movies or other media trigger that sore spot, naturally all of those reactions come spilling out.

We oftentimes do not realize the impact that media, specifically media created for children, can have. As adults, we see ourselves, or pieces of ourselves portrayed in films, in certain characters or through themes, and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that children do, too.

I do not know if the mirror of adoption/foster care was a mirror Disney was hoping to incorporate into many of their films, but clearly for those of us touched by this kind of trauma, it is a mirror that it quite apparent to us. It is imperative that adoptive and foster families have open and honest discussion about how these films can stir up themes for children about their own lives and stories. It is also critical for those of us working with foster and adoptive families to be aware of how the subjects of adoption and foster care are portrayed, as well as how those representations can impact our clients. We are inundated with media content and we see children being exposed to media in the form of music, movies, tv shows, social media, etc. earlier and earlier. At some point, children will come across content that touches on adoption and foster care whether it be a focal point or not.

Now don’t get me wrong, exploring adoption and foster care narratives and themes through film and other mediums can be a benefit. It can open up dialogues, help shed light on different perspectives, and help adoptees or those in foster care feel seen and less alone. That being said, it falls on adoptive and foster care parents as well as professionals working with these families to be aware and proactive about acknowledging how these seemingly harmless movies can hit different points for adoptees and those in foster care. Previewing movies before they are shown, watching movies together at home, being attuned to follow up on reactions and encouraging open, nonjudgmental conversations are all effective strategies to help mitigate possible triggering situations.

Exposure to movies that incorporate themes related to adoption- and foster care-related trauma is inevitable for children. This means that in the same vein, trauma responses associated with these films are inevitable as well. It is up to those in the adoptee or foster child’s life not to minimize the reactions that may arise from these experiences, but rather to normalize, validate, and support. Caregivers and professionals can use these films as supplements to routine conversation about topics such as family separations, grief/loss, reunions and more, but must also be aware that these conversations may not always get to be perfectly planned out. When we take a moment to see the world (this includes media contact) through the eyes of an adoptee or individual who has experienced foster care, it allows for increased empathy, understanding, and all around more opportunity to talk about the intricacies of the adoption/foster care experience.

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Family Separation Triggers In Movies

This is a list of movies that my clients affected by adoption or foster care have identified as being triggering (I’m sure there are more that have not been brought to my attention):

Anticipating Core Issues In Adoption/FosterCare

Eyes Anticipating Core Issues

7 Core Issues Parents Need To Be Aware + Mindful of Always

Awhile back, I found myself wondering aloud to my family about how to resolve a personal conflict and nurture someone back into my life who had distanced themselves. As my one-sided dialogue meandered, I stopped when my 20-year-old adopted daughter said with an edge to her tone, “Mother….Why do you care so much?”  My first impulse was to just state what I thought was obvious so I could go on with my own thoughts. This strategy would have sounded something like: “Honey, you know how important it is to resolve conflicts with people that we love—what’s with the attitude?” 

Yet something about the intensity of her tone and the sorrow and anger all mixed up underneath her words that caused me to stop dead in my tracks and really listen. Not only with my ears, but also with my eyes, my mind, my heart and soul, taking her whole message in. I knew in that moment that my daughter’s statement was directly related to her adoption—her feelings of loss, rejection, and abandonment—having been given up at birth. My daughter in her own way really meant, “When will you realize that you have to let go of people who don’t have it in them to stick around for the hard stuff, no matter who they are?” or more simply, “You need to push them away because they have already pushed you away.” And so I paused before responding so that I could reflect on the fact that she was giving me an opportunity to see inside her emotional process, and that our conversation needed to relate to the emotional pain of loss and rejection she has endured as an adoptee.

Upon receiving my daughter at two months old from an orphanage in Bogotá , Colombia, and returning home with her a month later, it was striking what an easy going infant she was. She went along with everything that life threw her way, which was a ton in that three=month span: birth; separation from the only person she intimately knew—her mother; transfer from the hospital to the orphanage; cries of other babies around her while adjusting to the smells, sounds, and sights of her first home; building bonds with her Spanish-speaking caretakers only to then suffer separation from the orphanage/first caretakers; placement with us (an English-speaking family comprised of two doting parents and a 2 ½ year old extremely active, verbal brother); sounds, sights, and smells of Bogotá, including the high adventure of taxi rides in the city, hotel stays, and appointments; and then airports and immigration, three plane rides to get home, an airport homecoming party in Buffalo, NY with very excited new family members and friends who were eager to hold, talk, to and touch her. My daughter experienced all this before finally arriving to her new home with her forever family that also included meeting three new pets—a dog and two cats.

My daughter grew from an infant to a toddler to a preschooler, all while maintaining the same easy going, happy temperament. Looking back, I had the thought then that she would always be an easy going, happy child. It wasn’t until she became school-aged, around age 6 that her distress started alarmedly sounding. There was a direct correlation between her gradual awareness from just hearing the words/language of adoption to the meaning/significance of her life story. She began awakening in the middle of the night crying inconsolably, eventually being able to identify and articulate that she was missing her family in Colombia that she had no cognitive memory of, yet sensed with her whole being.

For most parents, discerning the cries of their child comes naturally. There’s the hungry cry, the wet diaper cry, the tired cry, the attention seeking cry, the boredom cry, the witching hour cry, the frightened cry, etc. However, for adoptive/foster parents there’s an additional cry to decipher that may not come so naturally. It’s the loss and trauma related to adoption/foster care cry. As an adoptive/foster parent it’s important to develop the skills to recognize this cry, but to understand that this distress signal doesn’t stop at any given age; although it may come and go, it is lifelong.

In order to recognize and anticipate an adopted/foster child’s distress, one must have knowledge of and inherently understand the 7 Core Issues of Adoption and Foster Care. (Silverstein, Kaplan 1982). They are: Loss, Rejection, Guilt/Shame, Grief, Identity, Intimacy, and Control. The 7 Core Issues impact all parties involved in the adoption constellation. They start with loss, because adoption and foster care are created through loss. Without loss-the crisis or trauma that precipitated the circumstance, there would be no need for adoption or foster care. Adoptee/foster child loss may result in a fear of abandonment, attachment issues, difficulties with change, and a dysfunctional pattern of holding onto or letting go of relationships, places, and objects.

The second core issue, rejection, relates to a real, imagined, or implied perceived loss of social acceptance, group inclusion, or a sense of belonging. We get our most basic needs met through human connectedness. Being rejected by a person, family, or community can leave a person feeling a deep sense of abandonment and isolation perpetuating feelings of unworthiness and fear of future rejection. Adoptees and foster children may internalize their placements as a rejection by their birth parents/family and in turn suffer from feelings of low self-worth, fear future rejection, and expect rejection throughout life.

Perceptions of being rejected lead to feelings of guilt and/or shame. Shame is a sense of being bad at one’s core, while guilt refers to remorse for real or imagined behaviors of wrongdoing. Foster children and adoptees may end up feeling shame around their differences or circumstances of their placement, and experience feelings that they deserve bad things and/or are unworthy of anything good in life.

Profound loss issues in adoption and foster care compounded by feelings of rejection, guilt, and shame, if left unaddressed, may result in complex grief. No matter the age at the time of placement, grief may occur in response to separation from the child’s birth mother and family, and all that is familiar: their language, culture, customs.

The next core issue impacting the adoption/foster care constellation is identity. Placement is a life-altering event that affects the identity of adoptees and foster children that is lifelong. It is common for there to be a lack of history information in the system leading to difficulties in identity formation and integration.

Intimacy requires a person to know who they are and what they need in relationships, and also believe they have value. If the earlier core issues of loss, rejection, guilt/shame, grief and identity up to this point have not been addressed, it will be difficult for the adoptee/foster child to understand themselves well enough to know what they really need or could offer someone in an emotionally intimate relationship. This may play out by the individual being fearful of getting close and risk re-experiencing loss issues, subsequently sabotaging relationships to avoid intimacy.

Lastly, Mastery and Control is the 7th Core Issue in adoption/foster care. All members of the adoption/foster care constellation experience loss of mastery over some point of their life circumstance, with the adopted/fostered child losing the most as they had no input whatsoever over the decision for their life. Regaining a sense of power and control over their lives will be important and is the ultimate goal to achieve in order to find balance.

Some helpful resources on this topic:

Adopted/foster children are constantly giving us clues to their inner world of emotional distress, we just need to stop long enough and pay attention to discern them. The clues come through their cry (or lack of cry), their words, questions, tone, play, reactions, behaviors, and their interactions in relationships.

Anticipating the 7 Core Issues with knowledge of their impact, and in conjunction with developing an awareness of the child’s trauma-related distress signals, will not only lead to more opportunities to help set the stage for the adopted/foster child to heal through timely, open, and validating communication, but will also build close, meaningful familial relationships and promote resilience in the child and adoptive/foster family.

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Enhance Provider Relationship To Promote Healing

Enhancing provider relationship

Healthcare providers, we can enhance relationship + experience.

Understanding the mentality and feelings of individuals who have experienced adoption or foster care without having a direct connection to either community or the proper insight into the lifelong impacts of adoption/foster care is complicated. The complex nature of these systems can leave healthcare providers feeling as if they are up against a wall not knowing how to best acknowledge and discuss these important issues with their patients or their colleagues. Learning about the degrees of trauma associated with adoption and foster care, using proper terminology, and taking the time to acknowledge and validate the individual’s point of view will enhance the relationship between provider and patient resulting in better quality visits and more effective outcomes.

As an adoptee and a trauma therapist, I have experienced firsthand the inequities that adopted individuals and those who have been in foster care face when it comes to healthcare. I can recollect countless examples throughout my life of entering providers’ offices where my adoption was not acknowledged or discussed or where I was asked invasive questions that seemed to stem more from the provider’s own curiosity rather than for the benefit of my treatment. In other cases, despite providers’ having an awareness of my history, I recall being questioned about my medical history or other family history information that I did not and still do not have access to.

As a mental health provider, I regularly witness providers who are at a complete loss when it comes to treating children and families touched by adoption or foster care. I have sat in countless supervisions and trainings with colleagues who demonstrate major discrepancies related to the quality of care being provided to these individuals; from unknowingly using insensitive adoption/foster care vocabulary, to completely ignoring separation trauma apart from noting it on a demographic form, to perpetuating the societal narrative of adoption and foster care as something for which to be grateful. To say these experiences with providers have caused me a fair share of headaches would be an understatement.

Oftentimes, as a patient, I would sit through an appointment feeling completely anxious or unheard. I would leave a provider’s office feeling uncomfortable, judged, and misunderstood. As a professional myself, I have participated in meetings with coworkers where the discussion focused on how challenging adoption/foster care cases are and how they have no idea where to begin— when to me, it was glaringly obvious. Admittedly, I became frustrated with them for not recognizing what felt natural to me. And while I realize this lack of understanding is not intentional, it quickly became evident to me that things need to change—we need to do better as professionals.

I believe it is important to shed light on these issues and assist providers to better understand that certain forms of questioning (or the lack thereof) or refusing to validate the adoption/foster care experience reduces feelings of safety in patients and can be negatively internalized by individuals who have been adopted or are in foster care. This makes it nearly impossible to form quality provider/patient relationships. Adoption and foster care related trauma is something that impacts clients/patients to their very core and affects every facet of an individual physically, mentally, and emotionally. It is the responsibility of providers to increase adoption/foster care competency as a way to promote and enhance provider relationship and achieve what we all strive for—healing.


Speak From Experience

One huge way in which I feel better care can be provided, is by increasing the number of therapists and other providers who have personal experience with adoption and/or foster care.

Since becoming a trauma therapist, I have worked with many individuals and families impacted by adoption and foster care. When working with these clients, I always disclose my connection to adoption and have found that it makes such a difference when working with these complex cases. When I disclose to my clients and their families that I am adopted and understand how complicated it is, I witness their bodies instantly loosen; the sigh of relief and physical response speaks volumes. Hearing me share that I am there to listen if they want to talk about adoption/foster care related issues or that I understand to a degree what their child is going through because of my own experience results in an immediate increase in safety and trust. The client sees me as someone who they don’t have to explain themselves to. I am not someone they have to educate about the conflicting feelings, the loss, or the other challenges, because even though our stories may not be exactly the same, we have a mutual understanding and respect. There is an inherent message of “I see you, I understand you, and I get it,” a message that I wish I had received from others when I was growing up.


It is unrealistic to expect every therapist to have first-hand experience with foster care/adoption and this is where education comes in for providers. I have been in the position of having to educate my providers, as many of my adopted/foster care clients have had to. This is because too many professionals have no touchpoint or understanding of adoption/foster care, its complexities and its influence on health. This lack of experience unintentionally puts the client/patient in the position of knowing more that the professional, who is supposed to be the expert. This tip in the scale of power sends the underlying message to clients, “I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know how to help you, and I don’t even understand you.” This is not the message professionals mean to send or what clients need to hear. It does not facilitate feelings of safety and security that adoptees and individuals in foster care often crave the most—and that sense of safety is necessary to start the healing journey. It is imperative that education and training surrounding these topics are made a priority when first-hand experience does not exist to tip that scale into balance; otherwise, we only do a disservice to our clients/patients who have already faced so much.

The good news is, times have changed. I have noticed steady progress on the front of adoption/foster care education since my experiences as a child and even since I began working in the mental health field. There have been many research studies on the impacts of trauma associated with adoption and foster care, more adoptees/individuals with histories of foster care are in the field of healthcare, and there are evidence-based treatments that can address the deep-rooted feelings and promote healing. That said, there is still much to be done to make sure this often underserved population is receiving quality care.

Adoptive/foster parents and providers can be proactive in helping to make available the best quality care for those touched by adoption and/or foster care.

Enhancing provider relationship as an adoptive or foster parent:
  • Advocate for your child. Do not be afraid to voice concerns to providers or provide them with pertinent information about your child’s adoption or foster care placement. This information is always important. 
  • Search out adoption/foster care competency trainings to help you feel more confident in providing and advocating for your child’s needs.
  • Find pediatricians and other medical providers who are aware of the trauma associated with adoption or foster care and how it can cognitively, physically, and emotionally impact your child’s development. 
  • Seek out mental health providers who specialize in adoption, separation trauma, and attachment.
  • Locate therapists in your area who are trained or certified in trauma resolution therapy (e.g., Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or Progressive Counting).
  • Search for providers who are adoptees or have histories involving foster care such as Adoption Perspectives. Having that connection can go such a long way in helping solidify feelings of safety and therapeutic rapport.
Enhancing provider relationship as a provider:
  • Educate yourself about adoption and foster care related issues. This will only help you to feel more confident when working with these kids of clients/patients. Attend training(s), read adoption/foster care literature, meet with individuals willing to share their experiences. The more you know, the better you can serve those coming to you for help. More on Adoption Perspectives training seminars.
  • If you see the words “adoption” or “foster care” on intake paperwork or a demographic, don’t gloss over it! Don’t just have this be a one liner in a social history write up or a box you check off on a form. Work collaboratively with the adoptive/foster parents (biological parents if they are in the picture), foster care workers, and any other person who can shed light on the individual’s history to provide as complete a picture as possible.
  • Do not view early life adoptions or placements as irrelevant. Separation trauma, regardless of the age of the child, is serious and can have lifelong impacts. It is always a factor that should be considered throughout the course of treatment. 
  • Do not expect the client/patient to explain themselves to you. They have come to you for help and it is up to you to do your research on how best to help them. Avoid putting them in a position where they feel obligated to teach you about the adoption/foster care experience and associated issues.

My hope is that the future will be different for those touched by adoption and foster care when it comes to seeking healthcare services. I believe the best way to enhance the provider relationship is through education and open dialogues that include the voices of those personally impacted by adoption and/or foster care. By bringing these experts and their experiences to the table, we validate those who have dealt with the challenges personally and we empower professional healthcare providers to become more comfortable and effective with promoting healing for this population.

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