Adopting a Teenager

Adopting a teenager may be something you’ve never considered, but it may be worth exploring.

MK Menon February 12, 2019
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When people think about adoption, voice cracking, pubescent teenagers are rarely what pops into a person’s mind. But despite being a know-it-all teenager (I’m generalizing), they are still just children who need love, a stable home, and a welcoming family to help them navigate all of life’s decisions that come with their quickly approaching adulthood. Adopting a teenager may be something you’ve never considered, but it may be worth exploring.

Reasons to Adopt a Teenager

Another adoption website reached out to their Facebook group to see why prospective parents decided to adopt a teen, and here are a few of the reasons that stood out:

1. Teenagers have the capacity to understand what it means to be adopted and also must consent to the process, which means it’s a conscious choice for both parties. You will not find this in any other age group.

2. Teens can also communicate with you what they are thinking and feeling, which will make you better equipped to help them.

3. Teens have a great appreciation for the small things that younger children would overlook or not understand like one-on-one time or family dinners or movie nights.

4. Many teens have spent years in foster care and have lost hope about ever being adopted, but you can restore their hope.

5. There are challenges with adopting teens because, after all, they are teenagers, but the reward of watching them walk into adulthood better equipped than if they were in foster care is wonderful.

6. You can skip the sleep-deprived infant phase and the tyrant toddler phase.

The Process to Adopt a Teenager

The process to adopt a teenager is not really any different than adopting an infant or a child. The main steps include deciding to adopt, selecting the type of adoption (domestic, private, public or international), enlisting the help of a professional lawyer or adoption agency, researching your financial costs and options, completing a home study, doing some networking, practicing your patience as you wait for a match, and finalizing the adoption. What does differ when you adopt a teenager compared to a younger child or infant is that a teenager does get a say as to whether he would like to be adopted. It varies nationwide, but for most states, a child who is 12-14 years old or older must consent to the adoption unless the court deems that the child does not have the mental capacity to provide consent. Also, since teenagers are adopted at lower rates than other age groups, the time period to match with a teenager is often significantly shorter.

What Am I Responsible for Financially?

One reason some people are wary of adopting a teenager is due to the imminent large costs that come with adulthood such as buying a car and attending college. What you should keep in mind is that if you adopt a child who is 13 years old or older, she will be considered independent on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which likely means there will be no expected family contribution (EFC). If such criteria are met, they will qualify for a full Pell Grant, which may fully cover the tuition at a community college, though a student loan will still be needed if the child wants to attend a private college. Nonetheless, this can relieve a large financial burden for the parents, and the opportunities to qualify for additional scholarships remain available for those specific to former foster care children or not.

Understanding the Impact of Adoption on Teenager Development

During the teenage years, teens experience rapid changes physically, hormonally, socially, and emotionally. There is also a leap in brain development. Despite the outward changes, teens are still just children who need supervision and guidance as they navigate this pre-adulthood period of their lives. They are trying to understand three critical and new aspects of their lives such as intimacy, identity formation, and independence, and the experience of adoption will influence the way they think about these areas.

Intimacy

Intimacy during this period can take on different forms based on the age and emotional development of the child. It’s not unusual to see younger teens start to deepen their friendships and be interested in some sort of romantic relationship. Mid-teens begin to act on these interests and entertain dates and short-term romantic relationships while older teens move past the mere physical aspects of romantic relationships but engage in deeper emotional ones. For adoptees, intimacy can be anxiety-provoking as they may subconsciously fear dating an unknown biological relative or may try to recapitulate the real or perceived sexual history of their biological parents. This may play out by becoming sexually active in an unsafe setting or become a victim of abuse. Sex can be used as a way to ease their pain temporarily. Also many adoptees have challenges with trusting others, and this is a time where it often rears its head. As you consider adopting a teenager, the best thing you can do is be open with your child about his or her sexuality. Educate him about everything from abstinence to safe sex as well as birth control and resources outside the family for support emotionally and physically. Share what you know about your adoptive child’s birth family’s sexual history, which may mean not withholding that their parents may have been a teen when they got pregnant. Of course, it’s important to stay positive as this information is relayed. As painful as this information may be for your child, remind her that she does not need to follow the same path. She has the ability to determine her own choices in life.

Identity Formation

All teens go through a period in which they are questioning who they are, who they belong to, and who they are like. They may try out a number of different identities to see where they fit This can be expressed with changes in their clothes, hair, body piercings, or music. This is a time when they are starting to distance themselves from their family and are getting closer with peers in hopes of figuring out what sort of group they belong to and what type of person they are. For adopted teens, this exploration often runs deeper as they may have a relationship or at least a memory of their birth family, yet they are conflicted with their belonging to their adoptive family. For those who are unsure of their ethnic background or are transracially adopted, the question of “Who am I?” is even more pronounced. You may find such teens take up an interest in people in their community that share a similar ethnic background, and this is completely normal. As an adoptive parent, the best thing you can do is recognize this period of identity formation is not unique to your adoptive child and instead may be even harder for them than most teens. Support them as they try on new looks, reach out to people outside your usual circle, and seek out biological information on themselves or their parents. Help them maintain a balanced perspective on their biological parents instead of a critical one, which teens often are drawn to conclude. Provide them with resources to join a support group to meet other adoptees so they know they aren’t alone in the feelings they have, and doing the same for yourself can also be beneficial.

Independence

The teenage years are a period where a teen is learning the essential skill of separating themselves from their parents both emotionally and physically. This can manifest itself when a teen hides away in their bedroom for longer than usual periods or time or when they seem embarrassed by the sight of their parents in a social setting. Remember those days? For adopted teens, this can be an especially complex time as part of them wants to integrate into their new family and perhaps may fear leaving the security and safety of their newfound home. At the same time, developmentally this is when they should be pushing away and may compensate for these conflicting feelings by acting out or acting tough. As an adoptive parent, have patience with your child and reassure him that you love him and will always be there for him. Give her confidence so she will not have to experience the trauma of losing another family and that you understand her actions are completely expected.

Take a Deep Breath and Enjoy the Ride

There is no doubt that adoption is hard and having a teenager is hard. The combination of the two may seem crazy to some, but remember a teenager is really just a child. As much as you want to grow your family, that teenager wants to find a forever home. Adopting a teenager lets you skip some of the more physically challenging phases of child-rearing and allows you to have a relationship with someone who has the capacity to truly understand you and wants to be part of your life. Don’t think that once they turn 18, they are out of your life, but instead are on the cusp of starting a blooming mature and loving relationship with you.

Visit Adoption.com’s photolisting page for children who are ready and waiting to find their forever families.

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MK Menon

MK Menon is a transracial international adoptee. She was adopted as an infant in a closed adoption yet managed to successfully trace her roots in her twenties. This year she hopes to publish her memoir about her journey to her birth mother. She's a vocal advocate for adoptees tracing their roots. She works as a research scientist and freelance writer. When she and her husband aren't chasing their toddler around the house, she loves cooking up a storm. She currently lives in California.


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