In the course of my years as a developmental psychologist and adoptive mother, I’ve come to see that the adoptive experience can give rise to many gifts and strengths, and is often characterized by creative approaches to family life and individual identity. From this perspective, let’s look at three of the main developmental tasks facing older teens.
Find Their Own Pattern of Separation and Return
The advice offered to parents of college-age children is to “let go” as your child “leaves home.” Don’t pull your child back into the nest! This view—that a child is gone for good after going to college—is rarely realistic or even preferable, particularly for adoptees, who may be sensitive to separation and loss.
While most adoptive families enter the college separation with the dominant cultural script of “leaving the nest,” the teen may return home more frequently, or for longer periods, than do his peers. Such returns allow adoptive families to reaffirm the bonds they’ve consciously worked to build, and help both parent and young adult to update their sense of each other. This pattern is not new—most other cultures, to this day, enjoy the pleasure, stability, and sense of security ongoing connection between generations provide.
In this regard adoptive families are out in front of the many non-adoptive families who are deeply surprised when their adult children return home, and who are just grasping the idea that there is another developmental stage between the teen years and adulthood: emerging adulthood.
Create a New Network of Support
Whether or not it’s in their conscious memory, adoptees have already had the experience of being cared for by, and becoming kin to, “strangers.” When adoptees leave for college they are once again faced with the situation of creating connections that allow strangers to be transformed into people they can rely on and become close to.
Many adoptive families already feel more comfortable accepting support on a professional, as well as personal, level. After all, they turned to social service professionals when building their families. Adopted children tend to receive educational, health, and psychological services at a rate that exceeds their non-adoptive peers.
When those children go off to college, they and their parents know what will need to be in place to encourage their success—whether educational supports, psychological counseling, specific medical attention, or simply more frequent contact from parents—and work to make sure that that groundwork has been laid. College counselors often want the student to self-advocate, but, during the first year, there may well need to be a collaboration between the teen, the parents, and the professionals.
Some parents have yet to accept areas of challenge for their children, who may have been tutored to overreach in subjects that are not appropriate to their interests and/or capabilities. As with non-adopted teens, college provides the time and distance for young adult adoptees to experiment with and sort out their own interests and self-expectations.
Piece Together an Identity
By the time adoptees get to college, they have already begun a process that will continue through young adulthood—integrating contributions to their identity from two sets of parents, two countries or two cities in the U.S., perhaps two religions, cultures, and economic classes. As a result, they often form complex, multifaceted identities. As we live in an increasingly global society, these hybrid identities allow them multiple ways to connect with a wide array of others.
College provides the space to further explore facets of one’s identity, as well as to experiment with shifting the balance between various identifications. The adoptee is now more in control of sharing her adoptive status. Until this point, it may have been highly visible, if there are ethnic or racial differences between the adoptee and her adoptive family. At college the adoptee can decide what degree of importance she will lend to this aspect of her experience, as she represents herself to others. Her race and ethnicity may emerge more into the foreground than they were in childhood.
Those he comes in contact with may question an adoptee’s racial and ethnic identity. An international adoptee may have to grapple with being rebuffed by an international student from his birth country who sees little similarity between them. Or he may have friendships and go on dates with international students but continue to be surprised and educated by the differences in their upbringing and their expectations for the future.
The young adult adoptee is experimenting with finding where, outside his family, he feels a sense of belonging. He may feel a particular affinity to those who look like him or who are from his birth country, or he may not. Insofar as the college hosts a diverse student body, our children can engage in explorations of their identity that range beyond those afforded to them in their home communities and high schools.