Adjustment Concerns With Adopted Adolescents
Most parents worry about their children going through the turmoil of adolescence. Worries range from a teen dyeing their hair purple to getting into trouble with alcohol, drugs, or sex. As the parent of an adopted adolescent, you are likely to have additional concerns. 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 the teen’s behavior?
Adoption and Adolescence
Adoption adds complexity to parenting adolescents. Adopted teens may need extra support in dealing with the following issues:
Identity issues can be difficult because the teen has 2 sets of parents. Common identity concerns of adopted adolescents include:
- Wondering where they got their particular characteristics
Asking questions that you may not be able to answer 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?
- Feeling anger at adoptive parents
- Feeling the need to withdraw or stray far from home to find a sense of identity
- Having difficulty moving ahead without knowing about the past
- Having questions about birth-family health history
Fear of Abandonment
Leaving home is scary for most adolescents. But having already suffered the loss of one set of parents, it may be even more frightening for adopted teens. Fear of abandonment may express itself in difficulties when going off to college or moving out of the home and fears of leaving the security of the family.
Issues of Control
A hallmark of adolescence is the tension between parents who do not want to give up control and the teenager who wants independence. This tension may be especially intense for adopted teens who feel that someone else has always made decisions for them. Parents may be concerned that the teen has a predisposition toward antisocial behavior (especially when their teen’s birth parents have a history of certain problems). Parents may tighten the reins when a teen wants more freedom, resulting in the teen feeling mistrusted.
Feelings of Not Belonging
Adopted teens become more aware of how they are different from their families and their non-adopted friends. Issues of feeling different may include:
- Being sensitive about not looking like parents, siblings, or other relatives
- Feeling alienated from the family because of differences
- Struggling to integrate cultural background into self-concept (This is difficult for adolescents who have a different race or ethnic background from the adoptive parents.)
- Doubting their authenticity as “real” family members
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 another family had adopted them. Issues may include:
- Wondering who they would have become under other circumstances
- Having an increased need to try on different personalities
- Realizing the possibilities that were lost
- Wanting more information about their biological families
Adoption at an Older Age
Issues for teens adopted at an older age are even more complex. They may have endured abuse or neglect, lived in several foster homes, or moved from relative to relative before finding a permanent family. Issues often include:
- Intense sense of loss and rejection
- Low self-esteem
- Severe emotional and behavioral difficulties
- Memories of times before joining the adoptive family
When Parents Should Be Concerned
Adopted teens are more likely to have problems in families where the parents insist that adoption is no different from biological parenting. Adopted teens do better when their parents understand their curiosity about their genetic history and allow them to express their grief, anger, and fear.
The following behaviors may indicate a teen is struggling with adoption issues:
- Comments about being treated unfairly compared to the family’s birth children
- A new problem in school, such as trouble paying attention or falling grades
- A sudden preoccupation with the unknown
- Problems with peers
- Shutting down emotionally and refusing to share feelings
When dealing with all teens, seek professional help if you notice any of the following behaviors:
- Substance abuse (alcohol and/or drugs)
- A drastic drop in grades
- Skipping school
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Use or threat of violence
- Suicidal threats or suicide attempts
Strategies to Help
Here are some tips on helping your adopted adolescent:
- Educate yourself through books or workshops run by agencies with post-adoption services.
- Join an adoptive parent support group. Consider a support group for your adopted teen.
- 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.
- Consider seeing a therapist who specializes in adoptive families.
- Work with your teen to agree on what constitutes trustworthy behavior in important areas such as schoolwork, chores, choice of friends, choice of leisure activities, and curfew. Give your teen a voice in the decisions without giving up your role as parent. Recognize that these limits will change as your teen gets older.
- If your teen is of a different ethnic background, make sure that the family frequently associates with other adults and children of the same ethnic background. Talk about race and culture often. Do not tolerate ethnically or racially-biased remarks from others.
- If your teen was adopted at an older age, allow him or her to acknowledge memories and talk about them.
Adolescence is a confusing time for teens. Mental health experts are confident that adopted teens can confront and resolve their developmental issues just as their non-adopted peers do. With the support and understanding of their parents, adopted teens can forge strong family bonds that will continue to nurture their family relationships.
Mental Health America
National Adoption Clearinghouse
Adoption Council of Canada
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Adopted children. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry website. Available at: https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/The-Adopted-Child-015.aspx. Updated October 2015. Accessed March 9, 2016.
Hall B. Adoption and the stages of development: What parents can expect at different ages. PACT website. Available at: http://www.pactadopt.org/app/servlet/documentapp.DisplayDocument?DocID=310. Accessed March 9, 2016.
Key findings: Outcomes for adopted children and adolescents. Department of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst website. Available at: http://www.psych.umass.edu/adoption/key_findings/outcomes_for_adopted_children_and_adolescents. Accessed March 9, 2016.
Parenting your adopted teenager. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Available at: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/parent_teenager.pdf. Accessed March 9, 2016.
Last reviewed March 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 3/9/2016