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Speaking Up

In the middle-school years, parents must step back and help their child learn to stand up for herself, in school and in the larger world.

by Debbie B. Riley, M.S.

It's a parent's instinct to protect her children from hurtful situations. When adoptive parents hear someone ask their young child an intrusive question, they will usually step in to deflect the questioner's curiosity. But as children move into adolescence, they want and need to assume greater control over their lives. Just as we prepare our kids to handle situations they may encounter regarding sex, alcohol, drugs, and so on, we need to talk with them about "taking over" discussions pertaining to adoption.

A Tool for Talking Back

Knowing that children are out in the world without parental protection even before adolescence, C.A.S.E. developed W.I.S.E. Up! This tool can help kids decide how they want to handle questions and comments about adoption. The acronym stands for: Walk away, It's private, Share (any aspects of your adoption), Educate (state general facts about adoption).

While the W.I.S.E. Up! tool was designed for children, it is also helpful for teens. We've worked with many teens who, despite thinking that needing such a "tool" is silly, report having used it.

Cindy, 15, was at a community function with her mother. While they were momentarily separated, a classmate's mother began chatting with her and commented that Cindy looked nothing like her mother, emphasizing, "You're so beautiful." She added, "My daughter doesn't look like me either, and it makes me so angry when people think she's adopted!" Cindy was upset and told her mother what had transpired. Her mom asked her how she wanted to respond, and Cindy decided to use the S and E strategies of W.I.S.E. Up! Cindy approached this woman and said, "Actually, I am adopted and what you said was hurtful. Adoptive families are just as wonderful as any other." Teens should also learn to stand up for themselves at school. Dianna couldn't believe it when her eighth-grade science teacher told the class to pick one of their physical features, go home, and trace this genetic trait in their family. She marched up to the teacher after class and expressed her frustration. Dianna and her teacher agreed that she would trace one of her parent's traits, instead.

Parent Prep and Support

As you empower your child to take ownership of his adoption story, ask him to think about which parts of his story, if any, he wants to share, and with whom. Ask him which questions he thinks will come up, and explain how you have dealt with similar situations in the past. Sometimes, teens face challenges that are truly troubling. While teens have to learn how to advocate for themselves, they should know that your guidance is readily available if they experience racism or bullying. In part, their self-confidence should come from knowing that we have their backs, no matter how old they are.

Debbie B. Riley, M.S., is the CEO of the Center for Adoption Support and Education (, in Burtonsville, Maryland, and coauthor of Beneath the Mask: Understanding Adopted Teens.

Standing Tall, Standing Proud

Becoming a strong self-advocate starts with a strong sense of self. Here are some ways to instill confidence in your preteen or teen.

  • Suggest that your child read books or watch movies about teens overcoming adversity and learning to feel confident. Good examples are the Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games trilogy.
  • Find opportunities for your teen to meet peers with whom he can discuss common challenges and strategies. Adopted teen groups are good places to make such connections.
  • Keep communication open with your teen, and encourage her to tell you the challenges she faces about adoption. If she’s unhappy about how she handled a question, help her decide what she might do next time.
  • Make sure your teen has role models he can talk to, as well -- adult adoptees and/or adults who share his race or heritage.

Join the Parents of Teenagers and Young Adults group on AdoptiveFamiliesCircle

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