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ADOPTION & ADOLESCENCE

Adoption can add to the complexity of parenting adolescents. Parents often worry about their children while they are going through the turmoil of adolescence. You are likely to have additional concerns as the parent of an adopted adolescent. Will your teen be confused about their identity? Will a sense of abandonment and rejection replace feelings of security and comfort? Will inner turmoil from the past affect your teen’s behavior? Adopted teens may need extra support in dealing with several issues.

IDENTITY FORMATION

An adolescent’s primary task is to establish a secure sense of identity and it is the nature of all adolescents, adopted or not, to question everything and everyone. If normal adolescence involves identity issues, it stands to reason that adopted teenagers will face additional complications because of what some have called “genealogical bewilderment”. The fact that an adopted teen has two sets of parents raises more complicated questions about ancestral history, specifically now that the intellectual development of teens has assumed adult proportions.

Some common identity concerns of adopted adolescents may include:

  • Wondering where they got their particular characteristics
  • Asking questions that may not be able to be answered such as: Where do I get my artistic talent? Was everyone in my family short/tall? What is my ethnic background? Do I have brothers and sisters?
  • Teens feeling anger at adoptive parents
  • Teens feeling the need to withdraw or stray far from home to find his true identity
  • Difficulty moving ahead without knowing about the past
  • Questions about birth-family health history

FEELINGS OF NOT BELONGING

During adolescence, adopted teens can become more aware of how they are different from their families and their non-adopted friends.

Common concerns of feeling different may include:

  • Teens being sensitive about not looking like parents, siblings, or other relatives
  • Teens feeling alienated from the family because of differences
  • For adolescents who have a different race or ethnic background from the adoptive parents, struggling to integrate cultural background into self-concept
  • Doubting their authenticity as being a “real” family member

NEEDING TO CONNECT WITH THE PAST

It is natural as adopted teens mature, for them to think more about how their lives would have been different if they had not been adopted or if another family had adopted them.

Common concerns about connecting with the past may include:

  • Teens wondering who they would have become under different circumstances
  • Teens having an increased need to try on different personalities
  • Teens wanting more information about their biological families

A note on curiosity about birth families and searching: Decision-making about searching for birth parents is part of the normative developmental process for adopted adolescents and young adults. This does not mean that every adoptee will search, but it does mean that they will likely need to consider the decision to search as part of the process of their development. Curiosity about birthparents and a strong desire to meet them does not negate adolescents’ positive views about their adoptive family.

ADOPTED AT AN OLDER AGE

Issues for teens adopted at an older age are even more complex, because they may have endured abuse or neglect, lived in several foster homes, or moved from relative to relative before finding a permanent family.

Common issues in this scenario often include:

  • An increased sense of loss and rejection
  • Low self-esteem
  • Severe emotional and behavioral difficulties at home and school
  • Intense memories of times before joining the adoptive family

WHEN SHOULD PARENTS BE CONCERNED?

Adopted adolescents and teens do better when their parents understand their curiosity about their genetic history and allow them to express their grief, anger, and fear, etc.

The following behaviors may be indicators that a teen is struggling with adoption issues:

  • Competition and comments about being treated unfairly compared to the family’s birth children
  • Exhibiting new problems in school, such as trouble paying attention or falling grades
  • A sudden preoccupation with the unknown, specifically death/suicide
  • Having problems with peers
  • Completely shutting down emotionally and refusing to share feelings

TREATMENT & STRATEGIES

It is imperative for parents to seek professional help if they notice any of the following behaviors in their adoptive adolescents or teens:

  • Use of alcohol or drug abuse
  • Drastic drops in grades or sharp increases in cutting school
  • Extreme withdrawal from family and friends
  • The use or threat of violence
  • Risk-taking
  • Suicide threats or attempts

If your family has a long-standing history of openness, honesty, and has shown comfort with adoption, chances are good that you’ll be able to help your teen work through adolescence. If openness has not been your family style, or if you see alarming behaviors, you can start by seeking professional help and guidance.

You can also:

  1. Educate yourself through books or workshops run by agencies with post-adoption services.
  2. Join an adoptive parent support group. Consider a support group for your adopted teen.
  3. Start talking openly about adoption issues when your child is young. If you have not been comfortable doing that, it may be especially difficult by the time your child is a teen. However, it is never too late.
  4. Consider seeing a therapist who specializes in adoptive families. In addition, several out-door and wilderness therapy programs have been shown to remediate a smoother transition or help in recovery.

Mental health experts are confident that adopted teens can confront and resolve their developmental issues just as their non-adopted peers do. With parental support and understanding, and a team of professionals when necessary, adopted teens can forge strong family bonds and continue to nurture their family relationships.