Forging An Identity

Questions about their independence and identity can create tension between you and your child. Understanding and encouraging this journey will deepen your bond.

The search for identity can be a trying time for any teen

When I think of the words adoption and adolescence, I think about the Greek myth of Proteus. As you may remember, Proteus was a shape shifter and could not be recognized unless one could hold on to him through all his changes.

As we know, adolescence is a time of trying on different identities, often in rapid succession. Parents, still dealing with one shape, are often surprised to find it dropped as quickly as it was acquired, replaced by another as unexpected as the first.

For the adopted child, this emerging into identity is complicated by the fact that to be true to who he or she is, the adolescent must forge a complex identity. She must hold together aspects from adoptive and birth families, as well as her own increasingly defined individuality.

Imagine an internationally adopted teen, Peruvian and American; middle-class, yet from a birth family that struggled with dire poverty; of African and Indian descent, living in a Caucasian home. She may be rejected by immigrant teens from her birth country and have difficulty fitting into a primarily white neighborhood. She may be raised Jewish, but born Catholic; a serious student in a family of athletes. Add to this the many improvised identities of that age group — belly button rings, drugs, and all.

One benefit of holding onto these multiple pieces is the connection they allow with so many others as the adopted adult emerges. These many facets of identity strengthen one’s empathic imagination. They allow compassion to grow from accepting one’s own multiplicity of identity.

Some adopted teens put their parents through difficult trials to test if their roots will continue to hold in the soil of the adoptive family. Having lost day-to-day contact with her birth family, a teen may wonder if the adoptive family will also be taken away when the going becomes rough.

This arouses intense feelings for many adoptive parents. Scary prognostications in the adoption and psychiatric literature about adopted teens frighten some parents into fearing and acting as though all is lost at an early stage of this long process.

We can lose sight of the fact that the very struggles we fear will pull our child away from us, are the struggles that can deepen our bond. Few parents of teens say they actually enjoy the more trying aspects of this process.

Talk to those who have weathered it, and indeed they can describe the gifts coming out of the process: for their own development, their children’s, and for their relationship. Ask them to describe their child at a low moment of adolescence and compare it to the adult this child has become. This is usually very reassuring.

Use this mantra in times of need: Great difficulty is not a sign of failure!

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