Adoption and Teens: Identity, Acceptance, and Trust

Adolescence is a challenging time for almost all teenagers. Puberty launches their bodies and brains into a radical series of changes during this pivotal transition from youth to adulthood. Powerful new hormones course through their bloodstream as the part of their brain responsible for rational decision-making and impulse control – the prefrontal cortex – develops the capacity to manage the intense drive to seek out new experiences, feel new sensations, and take risks they never would have considered before adolescence. They form and transform identities on a variety of levels: personal, social, sexual, and political. They may cycle through different versions of themselves at a rate that perplexes adults, until we remember we were all there once, and know what it’s like. These changes can be difficult for any teenager. Adopted kids struggle with the same issues. They go through the exact things all non-adopted kids go through.

But there’s a valid question here: when they become teenagers, do adopted kids face a set of challenges distinct from those faced by non-adopted kids?

The short answer is one you may expect: yes, they do. This article will outline the major issues common to all adopted kids, especially as they pertain to adolescence.

First, some statistics.

Adoption: Facts and Figures

We want to give you an idea of exactly the kinds of numbers we’re talking about. Chances are you knew someone in school who was adopted, or now that you’re an adult, you have friends who adopted kids of their own.

Adoption is common – but how common?

You’re about to find out.

Key Adoption Stats: United States

Sources: The Adoption Network, The Adoption Council, The Children’s Action Network, The Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare

  • About 7 million people in the U.S. are adopted.
  • Roughly 1.5 million of those people are children, accounting for around 1 in every 50 kids in the U.S.
  • Close to 110,000 children were adopted in 2014, down from 140,000 in 2007. Of these, about…
    • 59% come from foster homes or the child welfare system
    • 37% were adopted by relatives
    • 26% were adopted from other countries
    • 15% were put up for adoption voluntarily by U.S. citizens
  • Over 18,000 infants were adopted in 2014
    • 62% of adopted infants were placed with adoptive parents within a month of birth
  • The average age at adoption is 5 years old.
  • The average age of a child in foster care waiting for adoption: 8 years old.
  • Close to 100 million Americans have adoption in their immediate family – that’s about 31% of our total population

Now that you have an idea of the prevalence of adoption in the U.S., it’s time to learn about some of the unique issues they deal with as they navigate adolescence.

The Seven Core Issues of Adoption

One thing to understand about the issues around adoption is they apply to three groups of people: the adopted child, the birth parents, and the adoptive parents. When reading about the issues below, keep in mind that all of them are true for all three groups. However, we’ll focus mainly on the kids. Regardless of their early history and circumstances – which can play a significant role in the issues adopted adolescents face – research shows a group of issues common to almost all adopted kids:

  1. Loss. Adoption brings families both happiness and heartbreak. Kids without parents get what they need most: a loving family. Parents without kids get what they want most: a child to love and raise as their own. As beautiful as this is, the truth at the core of adoption is loss. There is no adoption without loss. The birth parents lose their child – sometimes voluntarily, and sometimes not – and the adopted child loses their birth parents. Loss is the core of virtually all emotional and psychological issues adopted teens face.
  2. Rejection. Most adoptees see their placement in adoption as total rejection by their birth parents. They grasp the idea early on, which can lead to low self-esteem and cause them to isolate from peers or their adoptive families. Birth parents often feel rejected by society because of their choice, and adoptive parents often feel rejected when their adopted child voices a desire to seek out their birth parents.
  3. Guilt/Shame. Adoptees internalize the rejection they perceive at having been put up for adoption by assuming there’s something fundamentally flawed, wrong, or unlovable about them. The tendency toward compartmentalization and secrecy practiced by adoption agencies feeds this internal narrative: many adopted kids believe that since there are facts that need to be hidden, those facts are bad, which reinforces their feelings of guilt and shame.
  4. Grief. After a significant loss, humans grieve: that’s how we’re wired. Although most adoptees, at the time of adoption (if they’re not infants) feel relief and gratitude, many also feel intense grief at the loss of their birth parents. Adoption agencies, foster parents, and adoptive parents, often discourage grieving, but it needs to happen. If attenuated or stifled, grief typically returns in adolescence and early adulthood, when it can lead to anger, aggression, and acting out in a variety of non-productive ways.
  5. Identity. Adoptees wrestle with these fundamental human questions – Who Am I? Where Do I Belong? Who Are My People? – on a level most of us can’t comprehend. For some adoptees, the intensity and depth of these questions interferes with the development of an integrated sense of self. For those with no information about their cultural, genetic, or medical backgrounds, the sense of feeling incomplete or disconnected can lead them to seek their identity in extreme ways. As adolescents, they have a higher likelihood of joining subcultures, becoming pregnant, running away, or completely rejecting their adoptive families.
  6. Intimacy. The five preceding issues – loss, rejection, shame, grief, identity-questioning – can accumulate and compound in the mind of an adoptee. This can lead to difficulty developing intimate relationships. During adolescence, adoptees often pull back from adoptive families and new friends in order to avoid repeating the cycle of loss and grief they experienced early in life. Intimacy issues often appear in romantic relationships, managing sexuality, and working through hard issues with peers and adoptive parents.
  7. Control/Mastery. Loss of birth parents represents the ultimate loss of control: kids adopted as infants had no say in the matter, and kids adopted later in life typically have little to no input, either. Which means from the outset, adoptees have a sense they are neither in control of their own lives nor masters of their own destinies. This default situation can exacerbate identity confusion and negatively impact personal development. To compensate, adopted adolescents may create power struggles with their adoptive parents and authority figures at school. Their behavior may be outwardly aggressive or passive-aggressive in nature, depending on the adolescent. If unaddressed, these issues of power and control – or the effort to manage the lack thereof – often last into adulthood.

We should emphasize that while these issues are common to almost all adoptees, most manage them and live productive and fulfilling adult lives – but they need the help getting there. Trust, support, and effective communication by and with parents or mental health professionals is crucial. It enables adoptees to work through these inherent obstacles and develop a complete and integrated sense of self.

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?

Facing the (almost) Inevitable

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

A Solid Foundation at Home

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. Your job is to 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. Also, 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, which will, in turn, enable them to enjoy a productive and fulfilling adulthood.