5 Ideas to Help Your Teen with Identity Challenges in Adoption

Being an adoptee brings many unique situations and issues to an already intense time in a child’s life.

Kenna Shumway July 12, 2015
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If I remember correctly, teenagerdom is two parts hot mess, one part angst, and one part praying to survive it. I would venture a guess, and this is pulled from my own personal experiences, that every teenager goes through some type of identity crisis. I’m also pretty sure this is a hallmark experience during most individual’s teenage years. However, being an adoptee can add to this crisis. Being an adoptee brings many unique situations and issues to an already intense time in a child’s life.

As a stepparent adoptee, I went through a very tumultuous adolescence phase due to identity challenges stemming from my adoption. From these experiences, I have constructed five ideas that can help your teen (and you!) with identity challenges in adoption.

  1. Tell and retell their adoption story. Never stop. I know that this is stressed a lot with younger children to create confidence in their adoption story. I think this story should be retold throughout your child’s life. This is where my own personal goal of making an adoption story book for my son will come in handy. I want photographs of his birth parents and family. I want their own words so he can identify with his biological family.
  2. Keep all photos, letters, and other communications from birth parents. This goes hand in hand with the first idea on the list. In addition to an adoption story book, I have kept photos of Harley with his birth parents and their families, as well as letters and other trinkets they have given him and placed them into a special box. This box will be available to my son whenever he needs it. I have asked his birth parents to write Harley a letter explaining their decision to place, as well as anything else they want him to know about his adoption. As a teenager, I knew nothing about my birth mother and felt completely abandoned. This, in turn, confused me and made it so much harder to grasp my identity in adoption.
  3. Obtain medical records and original birth certificates (if possible). Most adoption agencies will supply the adoptive couple with a medical survey completed by the birth parents. This is what we were given prior to Harley’s adoption. Not only did it give us health information on his birth parents, but health information from his birth parents’ families.  This is something I have wished I had many times in life. There are certain diseases and disorders I deal with that most likely came from my birth mother. There isn’t any closure on this, however, because I don’t have a shred of any medical records from her. This can also serve the purpose of simply showing your child where they got their hair color, their eye color, their dimples, etc.  Another idea is to see if it’s possible to obtain your child’s original birth certificate. The laws are ever-changing on this subject, which can make it difficult, but I highly suggested researching the laws and what it would take to obtain the original birth certificate. In my son’s case, his birth mother gave it to me, which is about as easy as it gets.  I am glad I have these documents to help my son during any identity crisis he may fall in to.
  4. Never, and I mean EVER, bad-mouth your child’s birth parents. I cannot stress this enough. If you need to say something negative about your child’s birth parents, do it far far away from your child. Growing up I never heard anything positive about my birth mother.  I internalized these negative comments and assumed if my birth mom was bad, then I was bad. The more I heard, the more I grew to resent myself because of my adoption. I was ashamed, and during my teenage years I felt as if I didn’t even have a mother to identify with. I was (and still am) painfully shy and soft-spoken, and I didn’t have the courage to ask my father and adoptive mom to explain why they thought those things.  Instead, I struggled to find out who I was and felt as if I had nothing of worth from my birth mother, which in turn made me feel worthless.
  5. Be approachable. Be patient. Listen. Then listen some more. I feel like this would be a given, but as parents I think we often forget the simple ways we can help our kids. During my teenage years, I didn’t feel like I could approach my parents to ask about my birth mom.  This fed back into reason 4, and further perpetuated my identity crisis. I imagine it would have been painful for my adoptive mom, but I feel we could have had a constructive conversation about it so both of us could try and see where the other was coming from. With my son, I worry about being told, “You aren’t even my REAL MOM!” Ouch, right? I believe this is where the patience is going to come in. I said these words to my adoptive mom and there are times I still feel bad about it. This is also where an open adoption can help. If your child has questions, why not let them ask the people who can answer those questions? My son’s birth mother and I have had conversations about such situations, and it calms my soul knowing she will be there for him if he needs reassurance about why she placed and who he is to her.

Of course there are an array of different ways to deal with the adolescent years and the identity crisis that can tag along. I am a firm believer in being open and honest; however, I understand that not every parent feels this way and not ever child responds to this. I hope these suggestions can help any of you in this situation, and if you have ideas of your own, please share!

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Kenna Shumway

Wife. Adoptive mom. Writer. Photographer. Endometriosis survivor, infertility warrior & adoption advocate. Rock star on weekends. Currently calls Ohio home with her pharmacist husband and their ginger son. Read more from her on her blog.


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