Q: “I’ve noticed that my 16-year-old seems to be friends only with other teens of the same race. Is this typical for transracial adoptees?”
A: During the teen years, it’s common for adoptees to explore their identity beyond the reaches of playgroups and culture camps. As they experience, firsthand, their life outside the confines of family and childhood friends, their focus begins to shift from being your adopted child to being a person labeled a “minority.”
To sort through these new experiences and feelings, teens often gravitate to those who appear to be confident about coping with similar life issues. Of course, your child probably isn’t sitting around with her new friends having in-depth discussions on race and prejudice. But the comfort of being with others who see and experience the world as she does — and the sense of belonging based simply on the way she looks — can be a great relief for any teen. After all, discovering new ways to connect and fit in is what the teen years are all about. (Some transracial adoptees, however, don’t explore their racial identity in earnest until they’re truly off on their own, away at college, or later.)
A lifelong quest
To whom and what our teens connect — and why — is often what concerns parents most. This is the time when our influence, and all that we tried to instill in our kids, is tested. Have we provided them with the self-esteem, sound judgment, and strong moral and religious values needed to choose wisely?
The decisions an adolescent makes depend largely on his personality and temperament. There will be obvious, outward attempts to fit in, as in your child’s choosing friends exclusive to one racial or cultural group. Or by taking a less obvious path, perhaps connecting through clothes, food, music, or political views. Your teen may try on several different attitudes and personas, seemingly changing from day to day.
Encourage your teen to embrace a variety of relationships, with diverse and conflicting ideas, philosophies, and viewpoints. Help her to explore, understand, and accept the many sides, both positive and negative, to different people and cultures.
Shape your teen’s world
As your teen matures, have regular discussions about what she is learning. You may find that what matters to her may be vastly different from what matters to you — not to mention different from what you had imagined. Too often, parents dismiss their teens’ thought processes, views, and logic if they are not like their own. To grow an authentic relationship with your maturing teen, you must be open to learning what the world looks and feels like to her.
At times, your teen may be unable to articulate her feelings or ideas. That’s where friends come in, functioning as trial role models. Your teen’s actions and behaviors may or may not be the same as her friends’, but each friend allows her to try on different ways of thinking, feeling, and reacting in various life situations. One friend’s cocky arrogance may evoke the confidence your teen lacks. Another friend’s flamboyant style may draw your teen toward self-acceptance and appreciation for a more diverse standard of beauty.
In time, some of these friendships may fade, when what they offer is no longer needed or relevant. Resist the urge to interfere or object to friends you don’t consider appropriate; instead, ask your teen to explain to you what it is that draws him to these friends. Is it the easy camaraderie of peers who look like him? Is there a specific quality in them that your teen admires?
Finally, offer your viewpoint as an adult who has had friendships that have been both good and bad. In these moments, you can shine, not just as a parent, but as a “real person.”