Dealing with the Unwanted Spotlight

When trying to fit in with peers, the last thing a teen wants is unnecessary attention. Here's how parents can help adoptees navigate situations where their differences make them stand out.

Teenage adoption stories: Helping adoptees who feel different

When children enter a family as older children or teens, or even when older children who are adopted move from one school setting to another, some of the ordinary issues of school life can become complicated for them. More than just adjusting to new teachers and new classmates, someone who has been adopted may face additional stresses of having to introduce themselves, with the differences of an adoption experience, all over again to strangers.

When teens move into a new situation, it’s natural that new peers want to know who they are, where they are from, are they athletic or scholarly, social or loners? Issues about parents or past may not be immediate issues, but usually come up sooner or later, particularly if teen and family are new to each other or in some way different: parents much older or younger than other parents of teens; parents of same sex; teen and family look physically different from each other or from the majority in the community.

Issues about families and family history may also come up in school assignments or activities, just as in earlier grades. Many social studies and biology classes still use family trees and family history as part of their teaching. English teachers may ask students to write and then share their autobiographies with other students. In sex education or family life classes, adoption and foster care issues may either be passed over, or included in ways that trigger discomfort for those for whom these are personal issues.

Susan Cox, Vice President of Public Policy and External Affairs of Holt International, shares the story of a baby picture contest held when she was in high school. Adopted from Korea as an older child into an almost exclusively white community, Susan’s “baby picture” was of a sad little four-year-old with a funny haircut. Hers was the only photo not of an infant, as well as the only Asian face in the contest. Not only was she excluded from the fun of her classmates in this guessing game of who is he or she now, but she was highlighted as different again.

Although teens go through periods of wanting to be unique from others, they want to choose for themselves what that difference will be. As one parent put it, “Teenagers want to be as different from their parents as they can, but most want to be different just like their friends.” One twist that makes it difficult for teens who have been adopted is that because struggles with identity are common to teens, often teens want to hear about how others’ struggle with this and so will ask questions that some adopted teens are not ready to share.

Adoptive parents can help their teens by being aware that the same issues tend to come up again and again no matter what the age of the child. When children are younger it may be phrased as “Why didn’t your mommy keep you?” For teens it may be “So why did they dump you?” Parents can talk with their teens about possibilities of certain questions coming up and, if teens are open to it, review what is appropriate information and ways to share it. Sometimes brainstorming with teens about ideas or even role-playing situations with them can help diffuse some of the anxiety.

If you feel your teen won’t respond to you, get another adult your teen trusts to talk with him. Meeting with an experienced counselor might also open discussion with your teen when she—or you—do not feel comfortable discussing it at home. If you have a group for adopted teens in your area, this would also be a resource for help on moving into new situations when you have adoption issues. As with many areas of adoption and of life in general, it is often easier to face new situations when you know you have the support of others who care about you and understand your issues.


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