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Parenting Your Adopted Teen
by Gloria Hochman & Anna Huston
Adolescence is a trying time of life for both teenagers and their families. The main challenge for teenagers is to form their own identity. In forming an identity, most adolescents try on a variety of personas. Ultimately, they must come to terms with the big questions: Who am I? Where do I belong?
As children come into adolescence, parents ask themselves:
Each of these questions leads to a larger issue: Will being adopted make adolescence harder for my child?
These questions don't have simple answers. However, there are two points on which experts agree:
Adoption and Adolescence
Adoption adds complexity to parenting adolescents. Adopted teenagers may need extra support in dealing with issues that take on special meaning for them, specifically in identity formation, fear of rejection and abandonment, issues of control and autonomy, the feeling of not belonging, and heightened curiosity about the past.
Identity issues can be difficult for adopted teens because they have two sets of parents. Not knowing about their birthparents can make them question who they really are. It becomes more challenging for them to sort out how they are similar to and different from both sets of parents.
Adopted teenagers may wonder who gave them their particular characteristics. They may want answers to questions their adoptive parents may not be able to provide: Where do I get my artistic talent? Was everyone in my birth family short? What is my ethnic background? Do I have brothers and sisters?
Some teens may feel more angry at their adoptive parents than they have ever felt before. They may be critical of how their parents helped them adjust to their adoptive status. They may withdraw into themselves or feel they need to stray far from home to find their true identity.
Fear of Abandonment
Jayne Schooler, author of Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past, writes that it is not unusual for adopted teenagers to fear leaving home. Leaving home is scary for most adolescents, but because adoptees have already suffered the loss of one set of parents, it is even more frightening.
Issues of Control
The tension between parents who don't want to give up control and the teenager who wants independence is the hallmark of adolescence. This tension may be especially intense for adopted teens who feel that someone else has always made decisions for them: the birthmother made the decision to place them for adoption; the adoptive parents decided whether to accept them. Parents may feel pressure to control their teens, sometimes motivated by concerns that their teens have a predisposition toward antisocial behavior — especially when their teens' birthparents have a history of alcoholism or drug abuse.
Parents worry, too, about their teens' sexual behavior. What if their son or daughter becomes sexually active, becomes or gets a partner pregnant, or gets AIDS? Adopted girls may have particular concerns about sexuality and motherhood. On the one hand, they have the adoptive mother, frequently infertile, and on the other, the birthmother, who had a baby but chose not to raise the child. How do adoptive parents help their daughters come to terms with these different role models?
Because of their fears, many adoptive parents tighten the reins precisely when their teenagers want more freedom. "Kids see it as - You don't trust me,'" says Anne McCabe, post-adoption specialist at Tabor Children's Services in Philadelphia. "It can strongly affect the trust level between parents and their teens."
McCabe advises that parents and teens work together to identify options for building trust in important areas such as schoolwork, chores, choice of friends, choice of leisure time activities, and curfew. Parents and their teen can come to an agreement on what constitutes trustworthy behavior in each area. They can determine what privileges or consequences will be earned if the teen either demonstrates or doesn't demonstrate the behavior in an identified time frame. Both parties have input, and there are fewer power struggles.
The Feeling of Not Belonging
Teens raised in their birth families can easily see ways in which they are like their family members. Their musical talent comes from their grandmother…Their father also has red hair… Everyone in the family wears glasses. Sometimes adopted teens have no such markers, and, in fact, are reminded frequently that they are different from their non-adopted friends.
This feeling of being different often begins with their physical appearance. Friends frequently look like one of their parents or another relative. Teens who were adopted may not have a relative they resemble. Friends who comment, "You look like your sister," often make an adopted teen even more aware of his or her "outsider" status, even if he or she happens to look like the sister. Sometimes, adopted teenagers won't even correct friends who comment on a family resemblance. It is easier than having to answer the questions that are sure to follow: Who are your real parents? What do they look like? Why didn't they keep you?
"People who note a family resemblance are really trying to say that the child has taken on some of their parents' mannerisms," says McCabe. "In some families, it can become an inside joke. For other children, it can expose a raw nerve."
Teens who have been adopted into a family of a different race (transracial adoption) often feel more alienated from their families than they did when they were younger. They become highly conscious of the obvious physical differences between themselves and their families, and they struggle to integrate their cultural backgrounds into their perceptions of who they are. Some adopted teens may doubt their authenticity as "real" family members and, therefore, feel uncertain about their futures.
Adoptive parents can help transracially adopted teens to feel they belong by making sure that the family frequently associates with other adults and children of the same ethnic background as their teen. They should celebrate their own and their teen's culture as a part of daily life. They should talk about ethnicity and culture often, yet tolerate no biased remarks from others. To increase the feeling of belonging for an adopted teen of the same background as his or her parents but who may look very different, parents should point out any similarities that exist between family members. Statements such as "Everyone in our family loves to sleep late on weekends" or "Dad and you are both such Rolling Stones fans, you're driving me crazy!" should be made whenever appropriate.
The Need to Connect With The Past
As adopted teens mature, they think more about how their lives would have been different if they had not been adopted or if they had been adopted by another family. They frequently wonder who they would have become under other circumstances. For them, the need to try on different personalities is particularly meaningful. In addition to all of the possibilities life holds, adoptees realize the possibilities that were lost.
For some adopted teenagers, the feelings of loss and abandonment cause them to think and want more information about their original families. Sometimes they are looking for more information about their medical history. Has anyone in their family had allergies? Acne? Heart disease? Cancer? As 18-year-old Christopher kept reading more articles about the genetic nature of mental illness, he worried that his mood swings might be an indication of bipolar disorder that could have been present in his birth family.
Adopted as a baby, Sally, now 15, says, "It's impossible for someone who has not been adopted to understand the vacuum created by not knowing where you came from. No matter how much I read or talk to my parents about it I can't fully explain the emptiness I feel."
Some teenagers want to search for their birthparents. Others say they would appreciate having access to medical information, but that they have made peace with their adoptions.
When Teens Were Adopted at an Older Age
Issues for teens adopted at an older age are even more complex. Often they endured abuse or neglect, lived in several foster homes, or moved from relative to relative before finding a permanent family. Their sense of loss and rejection may be intense, and they may suffer from seriously low self-esteem. They also can have severe emotional and behavioral difficulties as a result of early interruptions in the attachment process with their caregivers. It is no wonder that it is hard for them to trust adults — the adults in their early years, for whatever reason, did not meet their emotional needs.
Teens adopted at an older age bring with them memories of times before joining the adoptive family. It is important for them to be allowed to acknowledge those memories and talk about them. Parents of teens adopted at an older age can expect that they and their teens will require professional guidance at some point, or at several points, to help create and maintain healthy family relationships.
When Parents Should Become Concerned . . . What They Can Do
Adopted teens may experience strong emotions, especially related to their adoption. It would be unusual for their adopted status not to affect them. A teen's sense of abandonment, quest for identity, and need for control probably do not have their origin in poor parenting by the adoptive parents.
If a teen decides to search for his or her birthparents, it is not necessarily an indication of a problem. Research indicates that some adoptees simply have a strong need to know about their biological roots. "One of the misconceptions [that adoptive parents have]," says Marshall Schechter, M.D., professor emeritus in child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, "is that they have done something to make their child want to search. They haven't. Everyone needs to know that they are part of a continuum of a family. As more is learned about genetics, scientists are discovering that many talents or personality traits have a genetic basis. So it should not be surprising that teenagers who focus on developing an identity should begin thinking about their origin."
It is more likely that a teen will have problems in families "where the parents insist that adoption is no different from the biological parent–child relationship," says Kenneth Kirby, Ph.D., from the Department of Clinical Psychiatry at Northwestern University School of Medicine in Chicago. Teens know that it is different. Teens do better when their parents understand their curiosity about their genetic history and allow them to express their grief, anger, and fear.
If your family style is one of open communication, you may be able to deal with these issues without professional help. Educate yourself through books or workshops run by agencies that provide post-adoption services. Join an adoptive parent support group, which can be a valuable resource for families. Support groups also exist for adopted teenagers.
Chances are that if you have not been comfortable discussing adoption issues with your child in the past, it will be difficult to begin now. Even if these discussions have not taken place earlier, it is up to the parents to initiate them with their teenagers, Edgar advises.
Many families benefit from seeing a therapist who specializes in working with adoptive families. Adoptive family organizations, and adoption agencies in your area may be helpful in suggesting knowledgeable therapists. Additionally, a life coach can give you support in reaching the goals you desire for yourself and your family.
As with all teens, you should seek professional help if you see any of the following behaviors:
If adoption is part of the problem, openly addressing adoption issues will improve the chances that the treatment will be effective. Parents who recognize that their teens have two sets of parents and who don't feel threatened by that fact are more likely to establish a more positive environment for their teens, one that will make them feel more comfortable to express their feelings. Secrets take a lot of energy. When there is freedom to discuss adoption issues, there is much less of a burden on the family.
Adolescence can be a confusing time for teens. Adopted teens may have special issues connected to identity formation, rejection, control, and the need to connect with one's roots. It helps when parents are understanding and supportive. Questions surrounding these issues are not a reflection of adoptive parents' parenting style. Wanting to know about their birth family does not mean that adopted teens are rejecting their adoptive family.
If your family has a long-standing history of openness, honesty, and comfort with adoption, chances are that you will be able to help your teen work through adolescence.
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Adoption Information ~ The purpose of this site is to allow the free exchange of ideas regarding adoption and families.
Adoption Triad Outreach ~ Support and education for those who are seeding information, healing, support, and truth in their adoption experiences.
Association for Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children ~ ATTACh is an international coalition of parents, professionals, and others working to increase awareness about attachment and its critical importance to human development.
Attach-China International ~ Educates parents of internationally adopted children about post-adoption issues, especially those related to Reactive Attachment Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute ~ Information and research on adoption issues and questions.
Institute for Adoption Information ~ Adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents, adoption professionals and others who are united to enhance the understanding of adoption and who advocate for balanced, accurate coverage of adoption in news and entertainment media.
National Foster Care & Adoption Directory ~ Offers adoption and foster care resources by state, including support groups.
North American Council on Adoptable Children ~ Parent support, research, and advocacy in the US and Canada.
7 Core Issues in Adoption ~ These issues apply to all members of the adoption circle -- adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents.
Adopted teens seek answers ~ Adolescence is universally acknowledged as the time kids break away from parents and struggle to become individuals. The process is just a little more complicated for adopted teens.
Adoption and Adolescence (pdf) ~ For adopted teens, the tasks of mastering identity and separation come with more complexity.
Adoption Issues Faced By Teens ~ Dealing with the loss of the birth family, coupled with a search for self, are two processes that can contribute to shaping the psychological development of adopted persons.
Adoption as a Risk Factor for Attempted Suicide During Adolescence ~ Attempted suicide is more common among adolescents who live with adoptive parents than among adolescents who live with biological parents.
Adoption: Trauma That Lasts a Lifetime ~ The emotional effects that adoption has on the adoptee.
The Identity Development of Multiracial Youth ~ The process of developing an identity is particularly complex for multiracial youth.
Maintaining Commitment When A Child Can't Live At Home ~ Children whose behavior and/or emotional disturbances make home life impossible still need parents.
The Primal Wound: Legacy of the Adopted Child ~ Article by Nancy Verrier on the effects of separation from the birthmother on adopted children.
Sealed Adoption Records and the Search for Identity ~ This is a testimony offered by a psychiatric social worker in regard to sealed adoption records and the search for identity.
The Spirituality of Adoption ~ The more we accept the truth of belonging in two distinct places, claiming both nature and nurture, the more fully we can belong where we find ourselves presently.
Study Identifies Strengths of Adoptive Families ~ This study was designed to examine the mental health and service needs of adolescents who were adopted as infants.
Talking With Your Adopted Teen: It's Possible and Important ~ Adopted teens need parental guidance, comfort, and support as much as ever, and parents must work to keep lines of communication open. Here's what parents can do.
Young Adults Leaving Home: Special Issues When the Young Adults are Adoptees ~ Leaving home is the ultimate separation and not only has its own complicated challenges, but can trigger all of the feelings the adoptee may have about their own separation from the birth family and subsequent separations from foster families.
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