What's Happening to My Body?

Puberty can be an especially difficult time for adopted children, who may struggle to relate to their parents' experiences.

Puberty in adopted children can be especially difficult, as demonstrated by this melancholy girl in a field

Puberty is a bewildering time. Adolescents raised in biological families can look to their parents for answers about their physical development, knowing that genetics plays an important role. Unless teens have information about their birth parents’ physical development, they are at a loss. Adoptive parents may be upset to realize how frustrated their children are by this lack of answers, and may worry that sharing their own experiences with puberty would be irrelevant.

In addition to these stumbling blocks, adoptive families may face other challenges during this stage, including:

> Feeling unattractive. Sam, 16, adopted from Guatemala, was much shorter than his siblings and cousins, as well as his friends at school. People often assumed him to be younger than he was. Sam became self-conscious. Feeling unattractive, he avoided girls altogether.

An adoption therapist told the family about a local support group for families who had adopted from Latin America. Meeting boys who looked like him, and girls who liked him, changed his self-image.

> Experiencing early puberty. “Precocious” or early puberty is characterized by sexual development before age seven in girls and age eight in boys. It is much more common in girls. Children who experienced poor nutrition and delayed growth, then “caught up” rapidly, are at a higher risk for early puberty. Because children stop growing soon after puberty, a girl who goes through puberty at age seven would remain at the height of a seven-year-old for life. You should consult a doctor if you notice any signs of precocious puberty. (Find an adoption medicine specialist at aap.org/sections/adoption.)

Any time a child goes through puberty earlier than her peers, there will be emotional challenges, as well. Shelly, 11, adopted from Russia at the age of three, had started going through puberty at age eight. She was one of the shortest girls in her grade, but the first to wear a bra. In social situations, people expected Shelly to behave with more maturity than she did, yet, emotionally, she was more like a nine-year-old. Her father, uncomfortable about her development, became less demonstrative.

With help from a therapist, Shelly’s parents learned to verbalize their feelings. This helped them move past their discomfort and offer their daughter the acceptance and guidance she needed.

> Feeling self-conscious about differences. Teens whose genetics are very different from their families’ are especially vulnerable to difficulties with body image. Kelly, adopted domestically as an infant, was always an overweight child in a thin family. As a teen, Kelly said that her sense of “not belonging” was triggered by her parents’ disapproval of, and attempts to control, her food choices. A vicious cycle ensued. She ate to defy their control, but only became more angry and depressed.

In the course of therapy, Kelly realized how frightened her parents were for her health. They realized that they needed to express their fears in a different way and respect her boundaries. As their communication improved, Kelly began to stop blaming her parents for her difficulties.

What Parents Can Do

If you are uncomfortable discussing puberty and sexuality with your child, speak with other parents or a counselor. You must get past your fears, because your child needs your support through this stage.

Initiate dialogue before your child enters puberty. Prepare him for the physical and emotional changes and let him know he can ask you about anything. If your preteen finds it easier to speak with peers or other adults, find an adopted teen group or an adoption-competent therapist.

Share your experiences. Sharing stories is a way to connect, and knowing that Mom and Dad have been through “awkward” times will help your child, even if the details of your stories are different.

Offer age-appropriate books and other resources. Try What’s Going on Down There?: Answers to Questions Boys Find Hard to Ask or The Period Book: Everything You Don’t Want to Ask (But Need to Know), both by Karen Gravelle.

Find mentors. If you are a single parent or a same-sex couple raising a child of the opposite gender, create opportunities for the child to speak with adults (relatives, family friends) of the same gender.

If you are in contact with your child’s birth family, enlist their support. They can provide answers to some of your teen’s questions.

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