Adolescence is a time of identity formation. Teens are on a quest to figure out who they are apart from their families and where they belong within their family and friend groups. While this period can be inherently tricky for many, it is often more difficult for an adopted child who has the additional challenge of integrating their biology with their biography—a task that requires parents to be attuned, available, supportive, and transparent.
Here are five ways adoptive parents can help their teenager navigate adolescence and, in so doing, create a healthier, more trusting parent-child relationship:
1. Consider how openness in your adoption may benefit your child.
Perhaps your adoption is already an open one and you know about your child’s history before they came to join your family. Maybe you already have ongoing contact with your teen’s biological family.
If not, consider why you’ve chosen to keep your adoption closed. Consider the benefits that truth and transparency may have for your child. For one, they won’t have to spend time during math class fantasizing about their first parents, wondering if their birth mom thinks about them. Worries about if they have genetic siblings they might never know can be alleviated. There are varying degrees of openness, and you owe it to your child to consider the options. Lori Holden’s book The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption is an excellent resource on this topic.
2. Acknowledge the grief and loss inherent in separating a child from their biology.
Parents can allow a safe space for their teen to grieve without trying to “fix” things. Parents can look at their teen’s behavior through the lens of adoption and act as curious detectives. Sometimes sadness and grief look like surliness and anger. Imagine what your teen might be experiencing as it relates to adoption trauma when they are suffering and help them put words to the experience.
Birthdays, holidays, Mother’s/Father’s Day are often difficult for adoptees when no one is talking about their biology. Transitions and changes are often quite triggering, even seemingly small ones such as changing grades or getting rid of old belongings. Again, attune to what might be happening internally for your child and use this as an opportunity to help your teen connect the dots of their adoption story.
3. Bring up the subject of adoption often—even when your teen doesn’t seem interested.
Talk about characteristics your child has that are unique to them and add that one or both of their first parents may also have this trait. This might sound like, “John, you are such a natural athlete and Dad and I aren’t. Sam or Dina, maybe even both, must have been really good at sports.” (Notice the use of names when referring to John’s parents. This validates the significance of Sam and Dina.) Talk about birth country, culture, and customs. Does your teen have an interest in learning more about the place they were born? If so, help facilitate this.
Conversations need to be parent-driven from the start so teens know adoption is a safe topic to bring up when they have questions, concerns, or feelings.
Parents I work with often say their kids aren’t interested in talking, but trust me when I say they are. Conversations need to be parent-driven from the start so teens know adoption is a safe topic to bring up when they have questions, concerns, or feelings. I facilitate a monthly teen adoptee group and during one session, teens wrote down one thing they’d like their adoptive parents to know. One girl wrote, “I would like you to take the initiative to have open conversations about my birth family.” Another said, “I think about my biological family every day.”
Consider having many short conversations rather than one big sit-down. Talk with your teen while you’re driving or walking the dog—sometimes teens talk more openly when they’re not forced to have eye contact.
Many parents I work with are concerned about whether to share information that might hurt their teen. They ask, “Does my daughter really need to know her birth mother used drugs?” or “Do we have to tell my son he was conceived in rape?” My answer is yes. Everyone deserves to know their story, and you want your child’s story to come from you—not social media. Timing and language are important. An adoption-competent therapist can help if you feel stuck.
4. Let your teen have their own “story” about how you became a family.
Parents can acknowledge that while for them the family was formed when their child came home with them, an adopted child has a history that began before that—and that history is significant. Let your teen be the author of their narrative about their adoption and also about how adoption has affected their life. Help your teen find a group that meets in person or an online community where they can interact with others who were also adopted.
5. Do your own work.
Parents are their child’s most important advocates. Families benefit greatly when adoptive parents are willing to acknowledge when they need help and support. Educate yourself about adoption. Open yourself to the voices of adoptees; we have a lot to say. Learn about developmental trauma, complex posttraumatic stress (PTSD), and disenfranchised grief. Read about attachment styles and how to best achieve a secure attachment. If your child was adopted transracially, explore their culture and acknowledge difference. Join the adoption community in person and online. Find an adoptive parent support group in your area or start one of your own so you can share experiences with others walking a similar path.
Please don’t be afraid to reach out to an adoption-informed therapist for guidance. (Make sure to ask about their training and competency related to working with the adoption and foster care community.) The right therapist can ease your mind and help you best support your teen.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.