How to Help an Adopted Teen Navigate Adolescence

This is the third article in our series on adoption and teens for National Adoption Awareness Month. You don’t have to read the first two articles in the series to benefit from the information in this one, but it helps. Our first article, November is Adoption Awareness Month – A Focus on Teens presents the latest figures on the prevalence of adoption in the U.S. Our second article, Adoption Awareness Month: The Challenges for Adopted Teens discusses the seven core issues adopted teens face. This article shifts focus from the kids to the parents, and offers advice on how parents can help adopted teens thrive during adolescence.

What Adoptive Parents Can Do

Adoptive parents are parents first, adoptive parents second, just as adopted kids are kids first, and adopted kids second. This means that when adoptees enter adolescence, the bedrock of what they need from their parents is identical to what non-adopted adolescents need:

  1. Unconditional love and support.
  2. Open, honest, and direct communication.
  3. Clear, consistent boundaries (behavioral expectations) and outcomes (consequences for breaking boundaries).
  4. To feel seen and heard.
  5. The safe space to develop independence and make mistakes while doing so.

Those are fundamental things every teen needs. Adopted teens, however, may need support adapted to their specific life circumstances. Although we don’t address it in this article, research shows that adopted teens are at elevated risk of developing Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD). They may also act out with risky behaviors in an attempt to resolve the seven core issues addressed above. We’ll discuss the relationship between adoption and mental health and the relationship between adoption and risky behavior in a separate article. For now, though, we’ll direct our attention to a question virtually every adopted kid asks when they become adolescents:

Who are my birth parents?

Be Prepared: Honest, Open Dialogue is Key

Adoptive parents need to be ready for this one. Adoption experts advise adoptive parents to prepare for this phase and have a plan for answering all related inquiries as directly and honestly as possible. Here’s a list of things adoptive parents can do to help their adolescent address this critical question during this formative period.

Talk to your teen about their birth parents.

Be ready to provide any information you can about your teen’s birth parents. This will keep them from developing inaccurate fantasies about their past. Have information ready about their birth family’s background, including race, culture, religion, and country of origin, if applicable. Pictures can make a big difference.

Support them in their quest.

Your teen probably wants to know everything about who they are and where they came from. As hard as it may be, help them learn and understand everything they can. If you have an artistic kid and no one in your family is an artist, it can be a true revelation for an adoptive teen to learn one of their birth parents was a musician, a painter, or a writer. Light bulbs click on and Aha! moments ensue.

Connect them with other adopted kids.

This will help normalize their experience and make them feel less like an outlier. If your adopted child is of a different racial, ethnic, or cultural background, seek out adoptive kids with the same or similar backgrounds. You can find support through your adoption agency or at the National Foster Care & Adoption Directory here.

Create a Lifebook.

Adoption agencies often include these during the adoption process. An adoption Lifebook is exactly what it sounds like: a personal scrapbook that chronicles the important people and events in their lives. If they don’t have one, teens may take this idea and run with it, especially in the internet age. They can blog, create photo essays, make videos, start Youtube channels, and more. Click this link for more information on Lifebooks.

Reaffirm common ground.

Remind your adopted child of all the time you spent together, all your shared experiences, and all the similarities you have. Yes – there may be differences between you and your adopted child, but as a family, you’ve created bonds that last a lifetime. Participate in tried-and-true family activities and take the opportunity to seek new ones based on the changing interests of your teenager. Remind them that though you are not their birth parents, you are family. You love them as fiercely and deeply as any human can love another. Be double sure they know that even if they seek out and connect with their birth parents, your love for and commitment to them will never wane, falter, or disappear.

Focus on Communication, Consistency, and Love

Adoption is a broad and complex topic. We’ll address things we haven’t addressed here – the difference between open and closed adoptions, the details of seeking and finding birth parents, the specific mental health issues common to adopted teens – in later articles.

For the purposes of this article, we want you to know that as the parent of an adopted teenager, the lion’s share of your job is no different than that of any other parent. Be there for them through the ups and downs of the teen years and offer unconditional love tempered by consistent rules and logical outcomes. But to pretend adopted teens don’t face a unique set of issues would be naïve. The primary challenges they face revolve around identity, acceptance, and trust. They need to know who they are. They need to accept who they are and be accepted for who they are. And most importantly, they need to trust that you will be there for them, regardless of the identity they choose.

When they have that solid foundation of trust, it will free them to develop a fully integrated sense of self. That sense of self will, in turn, enable them to enjoy a productive and fulfilling adulthood.