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Adoption Awareness Month: The Challenges for Adopted Teens

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This is the second article in our series on adoption and teens for National Adoption Awareness Month. You don’t have to read the first article in the series to benefit from the information in this one, but it helps: November is Adoption Awareness Month – A Focus on Teens presents the latest figures on the prevalence of adoption in the U.S. The short version: close to 31% of families in the U.S. have an adopted family member – that means adoption touches about 100 million Americans.

Adoption: A Family Matter

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 there’s a distinct group of issues common to almost all adopted kids.

Adoption: Seven Core Issues

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. 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. This grief is often discouraged by adoption agencies, foster parents, and adoptive parents, but grieving needs to happen. If it’s attenuated or stifled, it typically returns in adolescence and early adulthood. If and when it does, 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 interfere with the development of an integrated sense of self. For those who have no information about their cultural, genetic, or medical backgrounds, the sense of being 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, and 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 is the ultimate loss of control. Kids adopted as infants had no say in the matter. Most kids adopted later in life 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. However, some need help getting there. Trust, support, and effective communication by and with parents or mental health professionals enables adoptees to work through these inherent obstacles and develop a complete and integrated sense of self.

Coming Next: How Adoptive Parents Can Help Adopted Kids Navigate Adolescence

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