While many adopted teens appear to navigate the challenges of adolescence in a similar manner to their non-adopted peers, there is consensus that the teen years can present special challenges for adopted children. For this reason, parents are well advised to at least inform themselves about what these might be.
It is hardly surprising, that during adolescence, adoption issues can become more potent: this is a time of life when important work is done around identity, development and independence. While it may not be obvious to the teen, they will be working out their values, beliefs, their sexual identity, relationships with family, and “who they really are.”
This is all on top of coping with significant changes in their body, the demands of school, and the challenging process of finding their place in the complicated culture of peer groups. Some kids find this process confusing and extremely difficult, while others appear to sail through it fairly seamlessly.
The work of forming an identity never really ends; but for most of us, the really important work in this area starts as a teen. Identity issues can be more difficult for adopted teens because they have two sets of parents. They must work out from that (especially difficult if they do not know their birth parents) who they are similar to or different from, and how they acquired certain characteristics or traits.
The NAIC article quotes one 16-year-old girl, who says, “I’m trying to figure out what I want to do in my life. But I’m so confused. I can’t move ahead with my future, when I don’t know anything about my past. It’s like starting to read a book in the middle. My big family with cousins and aunts and uncles only makes me aware that I am alone in my situation. It never bothered me when I was younger. But now, for reasons I can’t explain, I feel like a puppet without a string, and it’s making me miserable.”
Another 15-year-old girl is quoted as saying, “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.”
It can be hard when parents are unable to answer some of their children’s questions around how they came to be who they are. This may cause some kids to resent their parents and even reject them for a while. They may withdraw or stray away from home and family to find their “true identity.” They may also express newfound interest in their birth parents and say that they want to meet them.
Feelings of loss or abandonment may also become heightened during adolescence and may propel the child to seek more information than they have so far been provided with. They may worry that they will develop a mental or physical illness like a birth parent, or they may simply want to know where they got their beautiful eyes.
This new interest in birth family does not mean that the adoptive parents have done something wrong. Given the work around identity that is the job of the teen, all this is hardly surprising and parents should try to recognize this and not take it personally. They can help their child by being open to discussion. If a teen develops strong feelings or difficult behaviour related to adoption, it is not a result of poor parenting, it is normal and, to some extent, to be expected.
All this reinforces the importance of openness about adoption and, if possible, with the birth family, right from the start.
Children know what topics their parents find hard to discuss; if important adoption related discussions are neglected early on, the child may feel uncomfortable talking about them at this stage when they acquire much more importance.
Having openness does not, of course, eliminate adoption concerns. Some parents worry that having openness will make it more likely that their teen will reject them, and turn to their birth parents.
One mother who spoke to AFABC said, “At the moment I can control the amount of openness between the two families. I am the go-between. When my child gets older, this will shift. I worry that during the teen years my child will reject me, maybe even to the extent of wanting to live with the birthmom. Though I am sure she will be supportive of us as parents, it may be hard for her to navigate this, because she may feel that if she lays down boundaries, our child might interpret it as yet another rejection on her part.” This mom is hoping that all the work she does to maintain a good relationship with her child’s birth parent will help overcome any problems that might arise.
In families where children are a different race from their parents, there can also be extra challenges around identity. The NAIC article suggests that transracially adopted children may become much more conscious of the physical differences between themselves and their family members. They may also struggle with integrating their dual cultural backgrounds into their idea of who they “really are.” They may also doubt their standing as a “real” member of their family.
As well as making a concerted and long-term effort to embrace the child’s cultural background right from day one, including bringing people of the child’s heritage into the family’s network and never tolerating racist behaviour, parents can help their children by regularly pointing out similarities that exist between family members by saying such things as: “We all love hockey in this family,” or, “We all love to sleep late on weekends.” Such comments can reinforce a feeling of belonging for the child.
Leaving home can be traumatic for many older adolescents, adopted or not. Because adopted children have, in a sense, already lost one set of parents, it can be even harder for them to conceive of leaving the security of their family. Leaving home can sometimes trigger feelings of grief, loss, and abandonment caused by earlier separations. If a child is showing extra anxiety around leaving home to go to college, or for some other reason, remember that is it normal and you may have to be extra sensitive to any adoption-related component of this anxiety. Sue Badeau has written in more depth about this issue. Her interesting article, “Young Adults Leaving Home: Special Issues When the Young Adults are Adoptees,” can be found at www.nysccc.org.
Issues of control are also a hallmark of adolescence. Most teens will struggle with their parents over decision-making and rules around acceptable behaviour. The NAIC article suggests that tension around control may be especially difficult for adopted teens because they may feel that someone else has always made decisions for them - their birth parents decided to make an adoption plan, their adoptive parents decided to parent them. They may decide that finally it’s their turn to make decisions, good or bad.
The article also suggests that some adoptive parents may have a stronger impulse to retain control over their growing teen because of fears that they may take the same path as a birth parent that lived, or is still living, a dangerous lifestyle. The authors quote Anne McCabe, family therapist, who advises parents that they must show trust in their children. This can be aided by working wth their teen's acceptable behaviour around schoolwork, friends, chores and socializing, and putting in place privileges or consequences related to adherence to the agreements. This, she says, can reduce power struggles.
When a child was adopted at an older age, the issues can be even more complex. If they were moved from foster home to foster home, and suffered abuse and neglect, feelings of loss and rejection may be particularly intense.
These children will remember their pasts; the memories will be difficult and the negative affects of their early lives may be enduring. They may be suffering from continuing attachment and trust issues. Parents of such children must allow them to talk about their previous lives and acknowledge their feelings. NAIC suggests that they must also be prepared to accept that such children may need professional help, at different points in their development, in order to keep family relationships healthy.
Encouragingly, several studies on adolescence and adoption found little difference in adopted and non-adopted teens self-esteem and success in the formation of identity. However, the issues outlined in this article are real and affect many families. Parents can significantly smooth their children’s path through adolescence by being open, honest, and sensitive to the issues.
Remember, the staff at AFABC are always there to help families struggling with any issue around adoption. Please call us if you need help. You may also want to contact the organizations below - all of which are experienced on teen issues.
The following behaviours may indicate that a teen is struggling with adoption issues:
- Comments about being treated unfairly compared to the family’s birth children
- A new problem in school
- A sudden preoccupation with the unknown
- Problems with peers
- Shutting down emotionally and refusing to share feelings
Parents of all teens should be concerned and seek help if they notice any of the following behaviours:
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- A drastic drop in grades or sharp increase in skipping school
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Risk taking
- Suicide threats or attempts.
Some of the material used here has been taken from a long but useful article by the US-based National Adoption Information Clearing House, titled, “Parenting the Adopted Adolescent.” NAIC has a wealth of information on adoption at www.naic.com.