In Search of Identity

If your teen starts talking about a birth parent search, be supportive while preparing her for all possible outcomes.

Many adopted teens will be interested in a birth parent search

Has your teen asked to meet his birth parents?

Many adoptive parents become fearful or anxious when the topic comes up, worrying that the stability of their family life will be threatened. But for most teens, a desire to search (or simply to gather more information) does not mean that their love for — or attachment to — their adoptive parents is diminished. It’s part of a normal developmental process that’s unfolding now.

A Teen’s Inner World

Searching for one’s sense of self, or identity, is the job of all adolescents. But for those who are adopted, the task is more complex: “How can I know who I am without knowing where I came from?” they often ask themselves, and “How will this affect the person I wish to become?”

Teens who express a desire to find their birth parents have most likely already begun an “internal or intrapsychic” search. This means that they’ve started to think more intensely about aspects of their adoption story, wondering who their birth parents are, how they may be similar (or dissimilar) to each of them, or why they were placed for adoption. They also may be scared of “opening” their adoption and of the emotions and uncertainty this may unearth.

If your child has brought up the notion of a birth parent search, do your best to help her explore her thoughts and feelings. (It’s often difficult for teens to bring up the topic of birth parents because they don’t want to seem disloyal or hurtful.) Beginning a dialogue — and respecting what your teen has to say — can ease her worries, especially if you convey that you’ll be supportive and understanding.

Once you begin a discussion, you may find that the desire to search is actually just a quest for information, or a way to express sadness, anger, or confusion. Even though your child wishes to know more about the circumstances of her adoption, she may not be asking for a face-to-face meeting now.

On the other hand, if your teen wants to search, enlist professional support from a therapist who has experience with adoption-related issues. Adolescent adoptees should prepare for all of the possible search outcomes, including rejection by a birth parent, learning that one has died, realizing that there’s a disparity between fantasy and reality, or — in the best-case scenario — building a relationship with and integrating the birth parent into their lives.

Families will also need help in setting appropriate boundaries with a birth family, as well as in guiding their teenager through the search-and-reunion process.

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