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Unique Struggles for Adopted Teens

ss260621.jpgWhen it comes to having “unique issues,” adopted teens seem to have more than their share. When an adopted child struggles with the who and why of their adoption when they reach the teenage years, it can be more intense and emotionally charged adolescence than what is experienced by their non-adopted peers. Even though their struggles surround issues that are quite unique to their adoption, the right approach and understanding by the adoptive parents can make all the difference.

More than one third of the kids in our Heartlight’s residential program come from adoptive families. That’s because the issues they face are uncommon. They spring from deep-seated feelings of abandonment, even when they are raised with much love and support from their adoptive parents.

My wife Jan and I daily counsel bewildered and broken adoptive parents who are surprised by the intensity of the struggle with their adopted child. We help them realize that no amount of love and nurturing could have prevented the problem, and encourage them to see it through to the very end. We teach them that their adopted teen faces a specialized set of challenges, and it requires a willingness to hang in there, even in the face of rejection by their teen.

Why Adopted Teens Struggle

High-Risk Pregnancies

Some domestic adopted children come from high-risk pregnancies with the birth mother having drug or alcohol addiction problems, poor prenatal nutrition, or may have lacked adequate medical care. These problems may not be known to the adoptive family, or even to the adoption agency, for that matter. Even if it is known, sometimes it is either overlooked or entirely forgotten once the child is home. The result of a higher-risk pregnancy is that the child may come pre-wired with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), an emotional or psychological disorder, or exhibit extreme impulsivity and emotional detachment. These effects of a high-risk pregnancy usually don’t show up right away, but become evident over time, and come full-bloom during the teenage years.

Trouble Finding Their Identity

The struggle can also intensify as an adopted child begins to question their true identity during the teen years. For the mortified adoptive parents, their teenager’s growing independence may usher in a profound and shocking lack of appreciation and even a temporary hatred of them. So, the obvious question from these parents is, “What have we done wrong?” My answer to them in most cases is that they have done nothing wrong.

Emotionally, adopted teens are dealing with a double burden. They are trying to figure out, “Why did my birth-mom give me up? What was she really like? What was happening in her life at the time? Who am I really? Was there something about me she couldn’t accept? Who and where are my biological extended family members? Do I look like my dad? Do I have any biological brothers or sisters?” Plus, as every teenager, they are trying to find their own identity and to accept themselves for who they are. They are seeking to be comfortable in the their own skin.

A Lingering Sense of Wonder

Adopted children also struggle with how life may have been different had they not been given up by their birth parents. Questions are swirling in their minds like, “What was my name supposed to be? What genes will I passing along to my own children that I don’t know about? Where are my parents today? How would my life have been different if they had kept me? How does my coming into my adoptive family affect their biological children — do I disrupt the family just by being here?

Certain Celebrations May Be a Trigger

If an adopted child is feeling a keen sense of identity loss, then the adoptive parents need to understand that certain holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, a birthday, or celebrations like a baby dedication or baptism may prove especially tough to manage. These events can trigger emotional outbursts or other difficult behavior.

What’s an Adoptive Parent to Do?

Keep in mind that it’s not wrong for an adopted teen to struggle through these issues, nor have the parents necessarily done anything wrong. It is just how life is sometimes. Instead, the parents can see it as an opportunity to respond in a Christ-like, selfless, manner.

I believe that God is the ultimate adoption authority. He places children with parents for specific reasons. God may have given you the child He did because He knew that he or she would need you for just such a struggle. So, be assured that He is also prepared to help you handle it. And just as He, our heavenly parent, restores us, so we are to love, nurture, and restore an adopted child through love and understanding.

I trust that just by knowing that difficult behavior is not uncommon for adopted kids during their teenage years will help you deal with it in the right way. Don’t take it personally. It isn’t a slap in the face (though you may be slapped in the face). It isn’t teenage rebellion (though that could be mixed in as well). And, it isn’t that they don’t appreciate or love you. It is something only they can fully understand, and your role is to continue to love them while remaining their parent. Giving up that role or trying to “fix” the problem with “things” or avoidance will only add to their confusion.

Most of all, what your adopted child needs is stability in your home, understanding parents, and time to work through these issues, coupled with your love and support. They need you to remain steady while their world turns upside down.

I believe that God’s thumbprint is on the life of every child, and that includes every adopted child, even though it may not seem that way as we deal with their problems. Restoration comes from the knowledge of their unique challenges and that will make all the difference in the response we offer.

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.