Growing Up and Growing Older

As our children change into teens and young adults, so must our parental roles evolve. Even if, in our mom and dad hearts, we’ll always remember holding onto tiny hands and pledging never to let go….

Helping Adopted Teens Transition to Adulthood

“What do teens, who are moving toward college or career, need from their parents?” I asked my 17-year-old high school senior, as I sat hunkered over my laptop.

“Umm, can you re-word that?” Lily asked absently, texting on her smart phone with one hand.

I’m writing an article for adoptive moms and dads,” I answered. “What role should parents play as their teens transition into adulthood?”

Lily looked up and didn’t hesitate. “Be supportive. Don’t be a friend; be a mentor. Give constructive criticism, but don’t judge.”

I smiled. Lily made it sound easy; it was meaningful advice, and it would make great magazine copy. But in truth, expounding on her sound counsel wouldn’t be totally fair to my middle-age peers. My own role as Lily’s “supportive mentor” has been built on previous years of nail-biting teen drama, exacerbated by Lily’s dual processing of her China adoption and her morphing self-identity.

There’s back-story, people and I’m not going to lie: transitioning this smart, successful, compassionate child to adulthood has left me borderline witless.

There’s also hope: I’ve learned that you cannot circumvent your child’s emotional pain or difficult ‘growth’ stages, but you can be ready to assist the development process.

Growing Up

Our adoptive parent roles, as our teens transition to adulthood, have deep roots in our children’s elementary years. Often re-surfacing in high school, this unfinished growing-up business gives us parents an opportunity to reinforce some important lessons for our children before we retreat to true support positions. We can be on the watch for early adoption-related issues that may reappear in young adulthood under these three themes:

Dependency. The role of an adoptive parent in a young adult adoptee’s life can be complex. A teen craves independence; an adoptee teen may also crave the emotional security of home. An adoptee who has spent her life avoiding scary feelings of loss may be conflicted about going away to school; an adoptee who hasn’t examined early-life adoption loss may leave for school and be blindsided by overwhelming homesickness.

I attended a KAAN (Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network) conference workshop several years ago where the speaker described “Boomerang Kids.” These young adult adoptees find it impossible to leave home permanently; the change/loss is so difficult to process that they choose to act out instead. They become difficult to live with in order to be “rejected” by exasperated parents and literally told to leave the nest.

Unconscious reactions or provocations are not healthy routes to independence, and are never good for the parent-child relationship! Self-awareness and honest communication are an empowering set of coping skills for an adoptee; our parent role is to understand what is going on beneath the surface and to be willing to discuss emotional and behavioral readiness, options and choices.

Relationships. Social scientists have indicated that childhood social skills and friendships are an indication of future lifetime success. Teaching a young child how to make or keep a friend is an important piece of parenting; revisiting how to form positive middle and high school relationships with your teen should fall under “required school survival skills.” Learning how to break into a new group and create new alliances is an ability that transitions to the college experience and beyond. Overcoming the fear of rejection can be especially tough for adoptees, which can make social exploration acutely uncomfortable.

A romantic break-up with a girlfriend or boyfriend may feel cataclysmic to an adoptee in high school (calling core issues of rejection, shame, self-worth and loss into play), but it is a terrific blessing in disguise. Our parental role in helping a high-schooler understand that there are steps to recovery from grief and loss, and that recovery may feel slow but it is guaranteed, will give a teen who is going away to college the know-how to survive similar heartbreak on her or his own.

I can laugh about the wild upheaval that one overdramatic teenager, mourning a romance-gone-bad, can perpetrate on one unsuspecting household. But I also know, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), that suicide is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. for those aged 15 to 24. Definitely not a laughing matter. Children who were adopted from trauma have wobbly foundations and need strong, clearly defined support while learning to cope with life’s big bumps. In our parent-transitioning roles it would be foolish of us to overlook the need to teach our young adults about relationships and emotional self-care.

Self-Care. After gracelessly breaking an ankle and undergoing surgery, I was released from the hospital clutching a personalized, post-op “Care Plan.” One day, when Lily was moodily moping about the boy who had broken up with her, I demanded to know:

“OK. It’s been two months. How are you going to get over Brian? What steps are you taking? What is your self-care plan?”

Lily looked at me in surprise. It hadn’t occurred to her that she could make a plan to work some therapeutic magic on herself. When Lily was little we used to make plans together to help her overcome scary adjustments, like the first day of school; I could tell she was wrapping her mind around the new adult possibility of taking action and gaining personal control over her situation.

Lily made a list, and took unenthusiastic first steps toward regulating her own happiness. She exercised, reached out to friends she had back-burnered while involved with her boyfriend, was kinder to herself, and got a job surrounded by people in her age group. She complained every step of the way, but her care plan provided the impetus she needed to get “un-stuck.” My role was to let my daughter know that there are no shortcuts to emotional healing, but there is nothing wrong with throwing yourself a lifeline, either.

Growing Older

The journey to adulthood is an asynchronous process. Sometimes our older children are ready to be quietly advised or mentored, and sometimes they require a little more parenting intervention. Our mom or dad role is to address a teen’s individual needs — whether it’s assisting with important life lessons on dependency, relationships and self-care, or simply being the non-judgmental sounding board for a teen’s college decision.

I admit that growing up (for us parents) is really hard to do! I confess that I have to force myself, privately kicking and screaming, into the advisory role that Lily originally listed under her Parent Best Practices. I still secretly want to make my daughter’s world “all better” whenever anything goes wrong.

I don’t think I’m alone. As much as we outwardly mentor our young adults moving energetically toward their futures, in our mom and dad hearts we remember holding on to tiny hands and pledging never to let go….

But we do let go, while remaining close by as our teens mature. Parenting is the role of a lifetime, and recognizing that smart parents continue to “grow” and morph roles alongside of our children may be the best secret intelligence of growing older.

Jean MacLeod is the author of At Home in this World, a China adoption story and co-editor of Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections. She is a conference speaker, freelance writer and the Social Media Specialist / Blogger for Oakland Schools. She is mom to three daughters, two of whom were born in China. Join her at Adoption Toolbox.

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