Special Report: Adoption & Teens, Part 2 — Parenting Strategies

Adoption and teens don't always mix perfectly. Follow these strategies to make the most of these years.

Adoption and teens can be a volatile mix at times

Adoptive Families explores specific situations and conversations that might arise with your adolescent, and how parents might respond. Read Part 1 of our Special Report on adoption and teens.


The teen years are full of intense longing to belong. But to what? Adoption itself may make your child feel different, and if he was adopted transracially, the feeling may be heightened.

Parenting Strategy: Include your whole family in the question.All teens are trying to figure out who they really are, separate from interests or hobbies, to develop a sense of who they will be in the future,” says Anu Sharma, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at the Minnesota Institute of Public Health, and a therapist in private practice.

“But adoptees can have a harder time with this if they’re also trying to make sense of their past. Your child’s rootedness in your family won’t necessarily erase the question,” says Sharma. “Acknowledge the struggle, and include yourself in the question: ‘Yes, it’s a different kind of challenge for our family. I wonder how it will affect us.’ That’s a start.” By including yourself in the question, you also reinforce her sense of permanence within your family.

Socializing with other adopted teens will also help your child. “It normalizes his experience,” says Debbie Riley, author of Beneath the Mask: Understanding Adopted Teens, “and helps him realize he’s not the only one with these questions.”


Smoking, drinking, sex. Every parent of a teenager worries about behaviors that can have dangerous consequences. But we may fear that confronting our child will open a Pandora’s box of adoption-related issues we’ll be unable to handle. Thus, in the face of a retort such as, “You can’t tell me what to do, you’re not my real mother!” parents too often back down.

Parenting Strategy: Don’t fall for it. “Your child is trying to steer you away from his problematic behavior,” says Mary Watkins, Ph.D., author of Talking with Young Children About Adoption. “Stay focused on your task. You can say, ‘Right now, we’re not talking about my being “real” or “unreal,” we’re talking about the fact that I caught you smoking. We can talk about my reality as a parent later.'”

Keep a sense of humor about the fact that your child may be “trying to strew rocks in your path,” Watkins says. “Play along with the words. Say, ‘Your “unreal” mom is really upset about what you have done and wants to talk to you about it right now!'”


Let’s say your teen is showing a new interest in his birth mother, but you know disturbing facts. Or, when telling your younger child her adoption story, you left out troubling details. Should you now tell all?

Parenting Strategy. Share as much as you feel you can… and maybe a little more. The right time to share depends on the child’s temperament and the nature of the information, says Riley, “but professionals agree that parents should have shared the majority of it by the time their child reaches adolescence. If drugs were a factor, start talking about drug use by the time your child is 12 — that’s a typical age for children to be exposed to drugs within their peer group.”

Biological siblings — an uncomfortable topic for many parents — “can be discussed when your child is 7 or 8,” says Riley. A child of that age is able to move beyond understanding “I was born in another mommy’s belly” to imagining a birth family with brothers and sisters. If your child is capable of thinking about it, he probably is thinking about it. It’s up to you to make it easy to talk about.

The way you share matters as much as the timing. “It’s crucial to talk about birth parents in a neutral way,” cautions Riley. “Instead of presenting your child’s birth mom only as an alcoholic, you might say, ‘One of the reasons your birth mom couldn’t take care of you was that she had an illness related to alcohol.'” Just remember, says Riley, “everything is about choice. Say something like, ‘Your birth mom may have been this way, but you need to decide what you want to do.’ Empower your child.”


Teens seek to identify with adults they perceive as “cool.” And, for adoptees, adolescence brings more intense thinking about birth mothers. Sometimes, these two tendencies cross: Teens think that, if only they could meet their birth mother — or live with her, if they know her — everything would be O.K.
PARENTING STRATEGY: Explore your teen’s fantasy, using it as a way to start a conversation. “Your child is sharing a very intimate part of herself,” says Watkins. Keep the conversation alive. “Ask, ‘What do you imagine it would be like to live with your birth mother?'” You may feel that such fantasies threaten your relationship but, in fact, being able to talk about this subject will only make it more profound. Says Watkins, “As teens move into a wider world, they often wonder what it would be like to live in other families. You probably did, too! This doesn’t negate their life with you.”

Listen to what your child is really asking. Sometimes curiosity about physical appearance is just that. “If you haven’t already shared photos or descriptions of your child’s birth parents, do so now,” says Watkins. “This is an understandable thing to be curious about. Teens are preoccupied with appearance, and they’re also starting to wonder what their own biological children will look like.”


Because teens are thinking about their origins, they may contemplate or even embark on a search for birth parents. But if your teen exclaims, in the heat of an argument, “I want to call my birth mother — now!” it’s natural that you might feel thrown.

PARENTING STRATEGY: Defuse the emergency, but explore the desire to search for or increase contact with a birth parent. “This could be a deep desire that is surfacing,” says Watkins. “But just as likely, it may not be. If your teen is using it to throw you off in the face of another problem, say you will address it after the problem is resolved.”

Then, be true to your word. “If you already communicate with the birth mother, ask your child how she thinks their relationship will look in the future,” suggests Watkins. “Does she desire more contact? Does she have fears and reservations? If it’s a closed adoption, discuss the option to open it, over time, and acknowledge that it will take a lot of consideration on both yours and your child’s part.”


You may have stopped seeing your child as Asian, Latino, or African-American, but the world hasn’t.

PARENTING STRATEGY: Widen your own social world. Show your child that you appreciate the challenges he’s facing. The larger world is not going to be as embracing as the home you’ve created, says Riley, “and your child may confront some very real stereotypes. People may assume that your Latina daughter is promiscuous, for example, or that your Asian son is a whiz at math.” Having to answer to any preconceived ideas, whether superficially positive or negative, can be a trial to a teen who’s figuring out who he is.

The best things to do are to talk — and to listen. “Ask your child, ‘Where do you feel most at ease? Who are your friends? Whom are you comfortable dating?'” suggests Riley. “Kids want their wholeness to be accepted. Try not to push one way or the other.”


“Parenting an adolescent will be hard — period,” warns Anu Sharma. “Teenage kids have an uncanny instinct for knowing their parents’ Achilles heels and testing their limits. It comes from the intimacy of the relationship. Spouses do it, siblings do it, and kids do it.” But, with all this lashing out, are you afraid that you’re losing your child?

PARENTING STRATEGY: Take a deep breath, and be the grownup. “The fear is understandable,” says Sharma. “But it’s also irrational. You’re afraid that if you confront your child, you’ll lose him or her emotionally. But it’s not likely to happen.”

Her advice? “Count to 10, and don’t lash back. Remember, you’re the grownup in this situation. Don’t take the bait.” Your strategy should be to de-escalate the situation, avoiding overly emotional responses, like bursting into tears. “Kids really don’t want to know that they have the ability to hurt their parents,” says Sharma. “Even if their outward response is anger, they don’t want that much power.”

In the long run, the best thing you can do is be ruthlessly honest with yourself. “Ask yourself, ‘What am I afraid of?'” Sharma encourages. “Look that bogeyman in the eye, and say, ‘I’m not succumbing to that fear — I’m going to parent this child.'”


and just can’t take it anymore.

PARENTING STRATEGY: Forgive yourself. “There are times when you find yourself thinking, ‘I wish this kid had never been born, never been brought into this house,'” says Sharma. “Adoptive parents, in particular, may think that’s a bad feeling, and may feel ashamed. But it’s a normal feeling. Everyone in any intimate relationship feels this way at some time.”


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