Parenting Tips for Adopted Teenagers

Understanding the Emotional Struggles of Adopted Teens

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Parenting teenagers can come with challenges and some issues can be amplified with adopted children. Parents of adopted teens should be aware of their children's struggles with identity and fears of abandonment.

A little understanding can go a long way to helping your adopted teen.

How Teenagers Find Their Identity

Adolescence is a trying time of life for both teenagers and their families. The physical aspects of adolescence—a growth spurt, breast development for girls, a deepening of the voice for boys—are obvious and happen quickly, whereas mental and emotional development may take years.

The main challenge for teenagers is to form their own identity. An achievement not nearly as simple as it sounds. It means, according to adoption experts Kenneth W. Watson and Miriam Reitz, that teenagers must define their values, beliefs, gender identification, career choice and expectations of themselves.

In forming an identity, most adolescents try on a variety of persona.

  • They look for, imitate and then reject role models.
  • They examine their families critically— idolizing some people, devaluing others.
  • They shun or embrace family values, traditions, ideas and religious beliefs.
  • Sometimes they have enormous self-confidence; sometimes they feel at loose ends and think of themselves as utterly worthless.
  • They may believe something one day and then change their minds and think the opposite the next day.
  • Ultimately, they must come to terms with the big questions: Who am I? Where do I belong?

Adoption adds complexity to parenting adolescents.

Adopted teenagers may need extra support in dealing with issues that take on special meaning for them. Let's take a look at these issues one at a time.

Identity Formation for Adopted Teens

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?

Sixteen-year-old Jennifer explains,

"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'm 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."

How Adopted Teens May Handle Identity Issues

  • 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 in Adopted Teens

Jayne Schooler, an adoption professional in Ohio and the author of Searching for a 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.

Caroline's Story: Panic at the Thought of Leaving Home

Seventeen-year-old Caroline, for instance, was adopted as an infant and seemed to have her future well in hand. She was offered a partial scholarship to play field hockey at an out-of-state university and she planned to pursue a career in teaching.

Her parents were eager to help their daughter move on to this next part of her life. However, perplexing changes occurred halfway through Caroline's final semester in high school.

  • She began skipping classes.
  • She was "forgetting" to do her homework.
  • She spent more time than usual alone in her room.
  • When her parents mentioned college, she ran into her bedroom and slammed the door.

At first, her parents were puzzled. They soon became alarmed when her grades dropped and her personality changed. They encouraged her to talk to a family friend who was a clinical psychologist.

Several months of therapy helped Caroline and her parents understand that moving away from her family and familiar surroundings scared her. Perhaps if she were at school, her parents would forget about her. Maybe there would be no home to go back to. After all, it had happened before.

At her parents' suggestion, Caroline decided to put her college plans on hold for a year. She and her parents continued to participate in counseling to sort out the issues that were blocking her development.

The Badeau Family's Story: The Attitudes of Birth and Adopted Children

The Badeaus of Philadelphia are the parents of 20 children, 18 of whom were adopted. They see a number of differences in the way their birth children and adopted children cope with separation.

"Now that our birth children are adolescents—one's 12 and one's 14," says Sue Badeau, "we see that they are already talking about college…what they want to do when they grow up and how they can't wait to get out of the house!

It's the complete opposite for our adopted kids. It seems really difficult for them to imagine themselves as independent people. They seem almost afraid to leave the security of the family."

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