There are never two adoption journeys that are the same. No child—no matter the age—should have to feel that they don’t deserve a family. Teenagers are a vulnerable part of the population that often is overlooked when an individual or couple decides to adopt. Often teenagers who are living in the foster care system or orphanage are portrayed in the media and movies as being too hard to love or incapable of attachment. These characters also tend to have heavy mental health labels. Even teenagers that are not on the adoption track are portrayed in a negative light. This is far from the truth. All teenagers crave structure and need unconditional love. Teenage adoptees are more than capable of forming healthy and long-lasting relationships with future families. There will be struggles but, if you look back on what we know about teenagers, often this developmental stage comes with interesting challenges.
It will be helpful to examine what you know regarding the developmental stage called adolescence, or the teenage years. Over the years there has been much discussion in the medical and mental health field on when a child enters adolescence. Currently, there are three divided areas: early adolescence (age 10-13), middle adolescence (age 14-17), and late adolescence (age 18-21). These are all considered to be the teenage years. During this time the child will experience many changes physically, socially, and emotionally. It will be helpful to get a basic knowledge of what happens to a child during these years.
When your child is placed with you they will have a file and may have mental health or physical diagnoses. Your child has experienced many things and has had multiple providers over the years. They have had to navigate a system that is oftentimes not user-friendly. Each placement within the system has brought new experiences and possible trauma. Your teenage adoptee has had to handle a great deal and may have needed support. For a therapist or medical professional to make a bill, they must provide a diagnosis quickly. This can lead to multiple diagnoses for the same symptoms. Stress can lead to mental health and physical diagnoses that may need additional treatment but that can be lessened with the right environment. It is important to have balance when reviewing this area so as not to minimize the child’s needs but to allow the information to be a tool toward progress. There is no way to love a child so much that the diagnosis goes away, but I can assure you from my own experience as an adoptive mom to two teenage adoptees that love helps immensely.
Love Your Teenage Adoptee
Such a small word to cause so many other emotions. We often forget that love can feel heavy for some and light for others. This depends on your experience. When a teen reaches the adoption goal, the word love has played many parts in their story. Love and attachment often come hand in hand but the base of love is trust. You cannot love without trust. It is important to realize that for some love comes quickly but for others it takes time. Some may find it hard to love at all. This can happen on both sides of the adoption attachment process.
Your teenage adoptee will need time to process this feeling and build trust. You may also have feelings of love but it is okay if it doesn’t flow evenly. Attachment can be hard and trust even harder. There may be behaviors on either side that affect this connection. To be open with a person means you let your protective mechanism down. Children who have experienced foster care or other types of placement may find this hard. That said, it can happen with time and it will be beautiful.
My adoptive son who is now 18 reminded me recently of how he would challenge me often by using his biological family connection. He laughed and said that he tested me but that I was the only one who ever stayed. He added that he has grown to understand that love is not a single feeling. My adoptive daughter who is now 17 explained that when she was younger she felt that she didn’t have enough love for everyone. She added that I helped her understand there was enough and she wasn’t betraying her biological family by loving me and our family. When times have been hard and big feelings have arisen I always make sure to tell my children that I will love them through it. Their love was not a requirement for me because I accepted the opportunity to be their parent and, in turn, will love them unconditionally. When I first said this to my children they would often flinch as if my words had hit them. My youngest often feels angry and will tell me that she’s mad at me because I love her too much. Love comes more easily and openly for me. I made sure to provide examples of love for them to mirror. I would often hug my partner or kiss appropriately. I tell them frequently how much I love them. I have never expected them to say it back and I do not pressure them. Each child has their own story related to love, trauma, and attachment. They have worked hard and now can show love openly and appropriately.
Attachment with a Teenage Adoptee
Attachment is a word that is thrown around the adoption community with such ease but, in reality, is one of the hardest areas. There is so much fear related to this word. Will my teenage adoptee be able to attach to me or my family? Will the trauma related to attachment overpower our goals to be a loving and supportive family? These are just a couple of the most commonly asked questions related to adopting teens. I wish I had a crystal ball or a prayer that could make all the questions related to attachment just go away and say every day will be magical and wonderful. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to lie and will not now. Adoption has been the best thing that has ever happened to me and it made me a mother. I’ve had all these fears and some have persisted in our journey.
Teenage years are hard regardless of how you became a parent. Your child may test boundaries, make choices that may make you shake your head, and at times say things that may hurt you. I’m sure you remember some of this from your own experience or from watching others with their teenagers. Again, I will stress educating oneself regarding what is appropriate teenage behavior. When there are incidents when you may question your attachment with your child you may need a professional to step in. This doesn’t mean you are failing. There is an undertone in adoption that an adoptive parent should have all the answers. That is just impossible. There is no way that you can know all that your child has experienced. You also have your own needs and biases related to raising a teenage adoptee. You will have struggles because a teenager’s developmental stage is to find independence and make their own decisions for themselves. This is normal and can be overwhelming.
Culture, Identity, and Family
When raising your teenage adoptee, you come with your ideas and experiences within your own culture that will influence your parenting. You will also be creating or have created a culture within your own home. It is important to remember that your teen has experienced many years of multiple cultures. Reflecting on your own experience and how much will be expected of your teen is important. Your teen may have their own beliefs and expectations. Open communication is important to understand your teen and their needs. I know that these conversations can be awkward and hard. My teens are biracial and as a Caucasian mother, I do not pretend to know their struggles with culture and identity. I have had many conversations about what it is like for them to experience their world. I research and educate myself on ways for them to experience their culture. I’m in constant check of my bias and acknowledge my mistakes when I make them. They are my children but have a biological experience I cannot and never will fully understand. I provide a listening ear and support whenever they want it. I also am very careful not to speak negatively about their biological parents. When they ask questions I am truthful and always make sure to say where I got the information.
Establishing our own culture within our home is important. It goes back to attachment and trust. Your teen must be able to find a place that makes sense to them within your family culture. This may take time. They mustn’t feel like they are not wanted or an outcast. For this to work in your family, you must acknowledge when it doesn’t. There are many obstacles but if they are identified compromises can be made.
This is an area that often can cause additional stress between adults and their teens. Establishing expectations and consequences is important. Proper boundaries and house rules will provide structure and lessen conflict. That said, I don’t know any teenagers that have not been grounded or received consequences at least once in their lifetime. It is not recommended to use physical punishments as this can cause further distress to your child. Teens today are connected digitally to most things. You must decide for yourself how connected you may want them to be. This may be their only connection to past friends, supports, and biological family. This may be a positive or a negative thing but to know how it will impact your family, open communication must happen. This does not mean that the teen gets free rein to do what they want so they do not experience distress. It is very important to find the balance now because they are so close to entering the real world where people won’t care about their past trauma.
Consistency will be your superpower as you build attachments around discipline. The teen will learn to trust that you will be there for them as you teach them that there are consequences for their actions. Teens are known to act out and test these boundaries. They may do things that make you question your parenting; this is normal. Always be aware if you see your teen doing unsafe things. Remember, this can happen in any family and doesn’t reflect on your attachment or parenting. I cannot stress enough that when you are parenting a teen and if you feel that things are not right, do not ignore the feeling. Intuition will be a useful tool when you are parenting your teen. Some teens lie to get attention but oftentimes teens who have survived the system lie to protect themselves. It is important when building trust to acknowledge the reason for your teen’s behavior and how safe you can make them. Don’t assume your child’s negative behaviors are because of you. If I stress anything today it is having open communication to allow your child to express their fears, griefs, and frustrations. They are on their way to adulthood and need you to be an example of the behavior they can mirror one day as adults.
Have Fun with Your Teenage Adoptee
It seriously sounds so simple but can be put to the side with all life’s expectations. This doesn’t mean elaborate trips or fancy new electronics. I’m talking about bringing out a board game to play, popping some popcorn to eat, and picking a movie to watch. These experiences may be new for your teen and they may not know how to interact. Don’t give up and keep trying. This may be an area you already have placed in family rules. We have family game nights and family movie nights frequently. It is important to include your teen in the planning. You will learn so much about their likes and dislikes. Also, make sure to voice your likes and dislikes to give them an example of good behavior. Adopting a teen or raising an adoptive teen may have its challenges but it is rewarding. Have fun and remember you’ve got this, you’re their parent, and you’re all going to enjoy yourselves.