Asian teenage girl looking off in the distance

Helping Adopted Teens Form Their Own Unique Identity

Social worker Gary Sampson shares how adoptive parents can support their child as they reach their teen years and begin to reflect on their adoption, and their own identity, in new and deeper ways.

All teens face challenges during their adolescence of figuring out who they are and who they want to become. They must cope with many physical, emotional and social changes and learn how to respond to expectations from their family, peers, school and our society.  

Adopted teens have an additional task: how to understand and incorporate their unique birth history, and their adoption, into their emerging adult self. 

As adopted adolescents work on their identity, they often encounter emotional challenges that they did not face during their younger childhood years.

Author and adoptive parent expert Gregory C. Keck described this identity formation process as “creating one self from many pieces.” Parents can play a helpful role in this process by providing the teen with their complete adoption history and being open to discussions about the complex circumstances of their adoption, including both the known facts and unknown history and background of their birth parents. In addition, parents should be sure that they are comfortable discussing the deeper and more complex aspects of their child’s adoption history and communicate that they are secure in recognizing the teen’s need to explore their birth family roots.

Teens may assume that they should stay away from talking about their mixed emotions and loyalties related to their adoption. They don’t want to hurt their parents’ feelings. To counter this, parents should let their adopted child know, in a clear and direct manner, that they can handle these discussions and are not worried about where they might lead.

Sharing Birth History and Confronting Hard Truths

As adopted adolescents work on their identity, they often encounter emotional challenges that they did not face during their younger childhood years. Teens’ increased brain capacity and cognitive abilities lead them to re-think, re-question and reflect on their adoption in new ways. They will reflect on the reasons behind their adoption, wonder about missing or difficult information, have increased feelings of being different from parents and other siblings, worry about their actual security and belonging with their adoptive family, and experience new feelings of loyalty and curiosity about their birth parents and birth siblings. 

Author Debbie Riley encourages parents to really work on their own ability to accept the depth of these feelings in their teens and provide support for teens who want to explore their own history.  Parents who feel that they “did the work about all this” when their children were younger must recognize that their growing teen is smarter, more curious and a deeper thinker. 

To help adopted teens with their identity quest, adoption experts recommend that parents make a copy of the materials they received about their child at the time of adoption. Once their child has reached their teen years, parents should give this information to their teen to keep, read and explore. Parents will likely need to give guidance on how their teen should handle this sensitive information and also set boundaries about any information that may be private.  Sharing this information with young teens around the age of 12 or 13 gives them several years to come to terms with the fact that adoption is filled with both love and loss.

Teens need support in understanding the difficult circumstances their birth parents faced — whether they decided to relinquish their child voluntarily or if their child was taken into custody because of a history of abuse or neglect. Parents and their adopted teens should discuss how to share this information with other siblings in the family, and how this sensitive information should never be used to hurt someone. Siblings in the family may need direct guidance on what it means to learn sensitive information about their brother and sister as well as their responsibility to respect the privacy of their adopted sibling. 

Meeting Your Adopted Teen at Their Maturity Level

Adopted children who faced complex traumatic experiences in their childhood may be less emotionally mature than their peers or siblings who did not face these hardships. Parents need to recognize that a teen’s chronological age may not match their level of emotional or social maturity. To address this gap, parents can identify the social skills teens need, such as making and keeping friends, dealing with strong emotions, making healthy choices with peers, being assertive in new situations, balancing home, school and work responsibilities, and planning for their future. 

Author Richard Settersten notes that for some teens, a slower path to adulthood may be a good thing because it allows them to be successful in their later teen years and build up the skills they will need as more independent adults. During this period, older teens will need their parents as guides and supporters and will also benefit from other adult mentors who often can reach a teen that is unwilling to take guidance from their parents. Involved and supportive parents can help young adults as they make decisions, build credentials, save money, and avoid costly mistakes that will set them back on their path to adulthood. 

Maintain perspective, keep your wits about you, find comfort in humor, hold on to your faith and never underestimate the power of love.

Gregory C. Keck, author and adoptive parent expert

Finally, as adopted teens seek and achieve more independence, they may be ambivalent about what it means to “leave home.” Children who had multiple home and family disruptions in their early life may be triggered when they achieve milestones like high school graduation. They may notice their peers being excited to move on to college, work or the military and feel left out or embarrassed because they have very mixed feelings about what it will mean to “leave” their adoptive family. These feelings may be very difficult to communicate and may surface in ways that are confusing to both the teen and the parents. This pattern has been noted in children adopted as infants as well as children adopted at an older age.  

Parents can be helpful in acknowledging these feelings while allowing their adopted teen to choose a unique path that is supportive but also challenges them to grow. Support groups for teens and parents, as well as skilled adoption-competent counseling services, may help teens and parents navigate this late adolescence terrain. During this phase, parents will likely need to learn new ways to communicate, negotiate and understand their teen’s behavior, words, feelings and decisions. 

Gregory Keck ended his book on parenting adopted teens with some sound advice: “Maintain perspective, keep your wits about you, find comfort in humor, hold on to your faith and never underestimate the power of love.”

photo of adoptive family with adoptive parents holding two daughters

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Keck, Gregory C., Parenting Adopted Adolescents: Understanding and Appreciating Their Journeys  

Naftzger, Katie, Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Teen Years

Riley, Debbie, Beneath the Mask, Understanding Adopted Teens

Settersten, Richard and Ray, Barbara E., Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, and Why It’s Good for Everyone


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