Helping Preteens Build a Life Story

As preteens strive to define themselves, they must work adoption into the story. Here's how you can help them figure out their identity struggles.

A preteen looks in the mirror as she wrestles with identity struggles

Among adolescents of this age, a necessary task is making sense of life histories. Children are fact-gatherers at the start of this stage, storytellers by the end.

Adopted children are often working with precious little when they start out on the journey of self-discovery. There may be conflicting story lines or gaps in available information. As a result, they may react emotionally when they look into their past.

Take Georgio, for example. With the holidays approaching, Romanian-born Georgio resisted visiting relatives. Finally he admitted that it was difficult for him, an adopted child, to hear how certain cousins were tall like an uncle or had a nose like a grandparent. At nine years old, assembling the facts of his life story, he had so little to go on. “I mean, who would want a nose like Grandpa’s?” he asked. “That’s not what makes me angry! What makes me mad is that I have no idea who I look like!”

To help him in his quest, Georgio’s parents visited a Romanian church in the region, and at coffee hour, asked if they could take some photographs of children and parents in the congregation. Later, Georgio spent hours on the computer, digitally matching children who had his nose or eyes, with pictures of their parents.

Shutting Out a Parent

Lily, age 12, avoided her mother after her school’s holiday concert, preferring to hang out with her friends and their families. In a later counseling session, Lily spat out, “She looks nothing like me. My mother should just wear a sign: ‘I adopted her.’ I try to keep her out of my life.”

That “life” was Lily’s social life. Parents try to be sensitive to their child’s feelings, but even the most careful discussions can be met with, “You bug me.” Preteens like Lily often confuse negative feelings about themselves with feelings for their parents. Thus, feeling inadequate, Lily decided it was her mother who was the inadequate one.

Until preteens are able to work through their feelings, they don’t like being questioned. They don’t want to be asked, “If that’s your mother, does that mean you’re adopted?” When preteens can answer such questions with confidence, it means they have processed a big part of their story.

Sometimes children need real or fictional models. In my practice, 11- to 12-year-olds love to hear adoption stories read to them. They are relieved to hear of someone else’s identity struggles. Often, I introduce them to older teens who have addressed the same questions. Using the templates of other children’s experiences, they can connect the threads that make up their own.


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