Teenage Years: Seeking Help for Mental Concerns

This was taken directly from Child Welfare Information Gateway


For many adopted persons, growing up in an adoptive family involves some additional complications and challenges. Adoption issues may come up episodically throughout an adoptee’s life, as well as throughout the lives of the birth parents and adoptive parents. (See the box about core issues in adoption, on page 6.) An occasional session with a counselor or therapist who is skilled with adolescents and knowledgeable about adoption issues, when needed, may be helpful. However, unless there is an urgent need for professional attention, having an adopted peer, a mentor, or a teen adoption support group can also be effective at addressing issues as they arise.

Adolescence is a time when mental health conditions may surface, including some with genetic links. Having a birth parent with a mental illness, such as depression or bipolar disorder, does not mean that your son or daughter will develop this condition, but he or she may be at greater risk.

Signs and symptoms

Adoptive parents should learn the signs that can indicate when to seek a professional opinion (medical or psychiatric). These include:

  • Extreme moods or emotions. The teenager is:
    • Angry, sad, or depressed much of the time
    • Extremely fearful or anxious
    • Withdrawn or apathetic
  • Risky or out of control behaviors, including:
    • Self injury
    • Harmful sexual activity
    • Eating disorders
  • Substance abuse. The teenager:
    • Shows sudden and unexplained changes in physical appearance (such as red watery eyes, rapid change in weight)
    • Experiences physical symptoms (changes in appetite, vomiting, tremors)
    • Has unexplained changes in behavior, mood, attitude, or personality traits
    • Loses interest in hobbies or friends once enjoyed
    • Shows unexplained changes in school performance
  • Anger management or relationship problems. The teenager:
    • Shows extreme anger or aggression with peers
    • Finds family interactions stressful
    • Avoids family members and friends
    • Has inappropriate peer relationships
    • Has no friends (is a “loner”)

Risky behaviors might be an acting-out of inner turmoil. Adopted teens may be at increased risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, as well as for eating disorders, due to previous abuse or neglect. Depression, anxiety, or relationship problems might indicate posttraumatic stress syndrome due to earlier maltreatment. Childhood trauma does not resolve itself; it needs to be treated by a qualified mental health provider.

Finding the right person to help

Postadoption programs, adoption support groups, and other adoptive parents can be good resources for information about local mental health professionals. Look for a therapist or counselor who:

  • Has experience working with youth and families
  • Is knowledgeable about adoption
  • Understands any special needs your teen might have (attachment issues, medical conditions, learning disabilities, etc.)
  • Includes the entire family in at least some of the therapy sessions
  • Makes clear to the child that he or she is not “the problem”

For more information about life after adoption, visit the Help for Families (Postadoption Services) section of the Information Gateway website: http://www.childwelfare.gov/adoption/postadoption/families


Despite the challenges, raising adopted teenagers can be very rewarding. With clear communication, supervision, guidance, and support, parents can help their teenagers prepare for healthy, happy, and productive adulthoods. Parents who respect their teens’ histories and birth families will foster strong and lasting relationships with their young adult sons and daughters.

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Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2009). Parenting Your Adopted Teenager. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.