Six Themes for the Adopted Adolescent

The author of Beneath The Mask: Understanding Adopted Teens discusses six common questions that adoptees grapple with in adolescence.

Adopted adolescents can be happy and healthy

Although not all teens dwell on each of the subjects described below, it is common for teens to grapple with each area as they try to gain understanding of their personal adoption experiences.

1. Reason for Adoption

Prior to adolescence, children are extremely curious about their adoption story, but they seem to accept most of the answers they are given. Sometimes they lack the cognitive development to truly understand all the ramifications of what they are told. Sometimes adoptive parents sweeten the story or omit painful details.

But, in adolescence, the tone of the questioning changes. Adolescents demand fuller and more factual answers, and they often respond with anger. They now understand that most mothers love, nurture, and protect their babies. Why not in their case?

As more sophisticated critical thinkers, adolescents refine their earlier vague questions into the very personal exploration of the question, “Why did my birth mother and birth father leave me?” Loss in adoption does not have closure as in death. The birth family is out there somewhere — in Romania, Siberia, Guatemala, Texas, Maryland, somewhere. Things are not final.

2. Missing or Difficult Information

Adopted children often have to face the reality that there is information they would like to know, but it may be unobtainable.

They may say, “I don’t know what my birth parents looked like. I don’t even have a picture of them.” And they may ask questions like: “Why was I abandoned?” or “Do I have any brothers or sisters?” Adolescents want definite information about why and how they came to be relinquished as well as concrete facts about the people who brought them into this world.

Therapists are often asked for advice on the correct timing for sharing information about a child’s adoption with him. Experience has taught us that there is no cookbook answer. Certainly, by adolescence, parents should reveal all the details they know. The risks of providing potentially upsetting information to the maturing adolescent are diminished by the increased cognitive capacity to process information and newfound openness to considering facts and feelings through many different lenses.

No matter how difficult the parents may believe the facts to be, the adolescent may well have created even more disturbing fantasies about the missing information. Often, adolescents embrace the new information and move it constructively into their sense of self. Parents also feel relieved after revealing withheld information.

3. Difference

Feeling different from peers is the worst curse of adolescence. Nowhere along the stages of life do people so desperately want to fit in, to be a part of the group, as they do in adolescence.

Being adopted creates a sense of being different in many ways. Adoptees may have a different appearance than their adoptive family, may have a different race or cultural background than their family, and may feel different from peers who are being raised in biologically related families. If not addressed, negative feelings about these differences can affect a child’s sense of self-worth and security with his adoptive family.

In biological families, resemblances are taken for granted. In adoptive families, differences, particularly racial differences, are in the forefront. Parents from the majority culture often minimize the power of the outside world’s bias, and so they may have no idea of the depth of racism their child is experiencing on his own.

4. Permanence

Adopted children are at risk for developing maladaptive beliefs about the security of the relationship with their parents. They think, I’ve lost one set of parents; I could lose another. This is especially true for those who have experienced multiple moves prior to adoption.

Some adopted children go to great lengths to test their parents’ commitment, often without awareness of their own motivation. Some teens are so fearful of abandonment that they construct elaborate defensive strategies to ensure that few people are able to get close to them.

Here are some teens’ thoughts about this issue:

  • I have lived in so many homes, I am sure I will move again. Nothing lasts forever.
  • When I go away to college, will my parents still be there for me?

Fear of separation may inhibit the adopted teen’s ability to achieve emancipation from parents. On the other hand, parental anxieties may lead either to clinging behavior or, conversely, to subtle messages of rejection. Either extreme can cause the adolescent to regress and fail in this final step of adolescence.

5. Identity

A major task of the adolescent period is to form an identity. Peers assume increasing importance in this process, but this does not alter the fact that the identity core evolves from the family.

Teens raised by their biological parents have the information about how they are similar to and different from their parents, and yet it is still a puzzling process for them. So for adopted adolescents, the task is far more complex. They must figure out how they are like and different from two sets of parents, even though they may have limited or no knowledge of one set. Many adopted adolescents ask themselves questions like these:

  • Who am I? Am I like my adoptive parents or my birth parents or both?
  • Who would I have been if I stayed with my birth family?

It is not surprising that adolescence is a time when heightened desire to search for birth parents surfaces. Adopted adolescents, in their search for self, reactivate in the adoptive parents the powerful realization that the birth parents do exist. It may be difficult for them to accept that these distant relations are an integral part of who their children are and will become.

Telling your teen about the similarities you see between yourselves can be an invaluable exercise for adoptive parents. Teens are amazed by their parents’ perceptions and feel a stronger sense of bonding as a result.

6. Loyalty

All adopted children ponder the existence and character of their birth parents at some time in their lives, no matter what their adoptive experience. Whether placed at birth or later in life, placed domestically or internationally, all children spend a lot of energy and time working on this issue.

Many adopted adolescents experience guilt related to these thoughts and feelings. Fearing the disapproval of their parents, adopted adolescents may hide their feelings and struggle alone. Teens and their parents must realize that thinking about birth parents does not mean they love their parents any less.

Parents and professionals need to accept the psychological presence of birth parents in the minds of teens. We need to accept the depth of these thoughts and the difficulty teens may have in sharing them. “I am so afraid to tell my mom that I think about my birth mom,” said Amy, a 16-year-old. “In the past when I mentioned this to her, she acted upset. I love her and don’t want to hurt her.”

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