The teen years can be hard, for both adoptees and their parents. But, with a little understanding, you—and your teen—can get through them. Here are three expert answers to common adoption issues in adolescence that parents face.
Q: My teen struggles with his identity and has an intense longing to “fit in” or “belong.” How can I help him?
A: “All teens are trying to figure out who they are, in order to develop a sense of who they will become,” says Anu Sharma, Ph.D., an adoption therapist and researcher, in St. Paul, Minnesota. “But adoptees have a harder time with this if they’re also trying to make sense of their past.”
First, acknowledge your teen’s struggles, and include yourself in his “questions,” says Sharma. You might say, “Yes, our family has different kinds of challenges. I wonder how they will affect us.” (By including yourself, you reinforce your child’s permanence within your family.) You might also encourage him to socialize with other adopted teens. This can normalize his experience and make him realize he’s not the only one with questions.
Q: My child wants to learn more about his “other” mother. What should I do?
A: During adolescence, adoptees think intensely about their birth mothers. They may believe that if only they could meet—or live with—her, everything would be OK. This may be hard for you to hear, but it’s important to explore your teen’s fantasy.
“Your child is sharing a very intimate part of herself,” says Mary Watkins, Ph.D., coauthor of Talking with Young Children About Adoption. “So keep the conversation alive. Ask, What do you imagine it would be like to live with your birth mom?” You may feel that such fantasies threaten your relationship, but, in fact, being able to talk about them deepens your bond.
Q: I’m afraid of alienating my teen when she gets mad. How should I handle outbursts?
A: “Teenagers have an uncanny instinct for knowing their parents Achilles’ heels,” says Sharma. “It comes from the intimacy of the relationship.” But when your teen lashes out at you, it doesn’t mean youre going to lose her emotionally.
“My advice is to count to 10, and don’t lash back,” says Sharma. “Remember, you’re the grownup.” De-escalate the situation and avoid overly emotional responses, like bursting into tears. The best thing you can do is to be honest with yourself. “Ask, What am I afraid of?” Sharma advises. “Look that bogeyman in the eye, and say, I’m not succumbing to that fear—I’m going to parent this child.”