The teen years can be difficult — not only for the teenager, but for the parents as well. They are years full of changes both physical and emotional; full of angst and hormones. For some teens, it is extreme, and for others, not as much. Add adoption to the mix and it gets really interesting.
You can find countless literature about what adopted teens experience at each developmental stage. Books on how to survive the teen years and how to parent an adopted teen. Books that attempt to fill parents in on what their children are experiencing and help them handle the outbursts, the drama and the defiance.
What these books don’t seem to address is how parents need to grow and develop right alongside their children.
As your child moves from teen years to young adulthood, your child is no longer a child. She is starting to think about life outside of the home she grew up in. He is getting ready to go to college. They are thinking about what they want to do with their lives, and imagining how life will be without their parents telling them what to do. For Adoptees, this transition is intensified by unanswered questions about their birth parents, a sense of loss that doesn’t ever go away, and the ways that adoption affects identity formation.
And as your child goes from one developmental stage to the next, so do you. Your relationship will inevitably change as they grow and become more independent.
As the parent of an adult (not adopted), I learned this the hard way. When my daughter prepared for college, she went through severe anxiety attacks. Some of this was chemical and some of this was her fear of leaving home. She needed to know we would always be there for her. We were very involved in her preparation. But as she settled into college, our relationship with her changed. She was starting to make her own decisions. Early on, she would consult with us, but later, after she graduated college, her desire for our opinion and our help — both emotional and financial —shifted.
She became more independent. She needed us less or, I should say, her need for us changed. Where we used to tell her what she needed to do, she began to treat our guidance more as suggestions for what to do. More often than not, she would make the decision opposite of what we advised. She needed her father and I to see her as an adult, not our little toddler who we needed to protect.
As a mom, I found this to be a very tough transition. I was not ready for it. I wanted her to come home so I could protect her from this big, bad world. I wanted to fight her battles and to fix anything she went through because isn’t that what a mother does — protect her child?
Through difficult discussions — mostly with myself — I realized those were my needs, not hers. I found that I needed to grow up along with her. I needed to let go and trust that her father and I gave her the tools to make good decisions and when she made a bad choice that we gave her the tools to accept that choice, dust herself off and get back on that horse.
For adoptive parents, this process isn’t any different. This is the time that your child will be struggling to find their way in this world on their own.
So what can you do? How can you support your teen as they grow into adulthood? How can you grow up alongside them as your relationship changes?
I believe the most important thing you can do is deal with your own issues. Acknowledge that letting your child go is going to be difficult, and grieve the loss. Deal with your own emotions so you can be in a good place to support your child’s transition. If you do not do this, you run the risk of imposing your fears and unrealistic expectations on your child — thereby having a negative impact on your relationship.
When you are able to come to terms with your changing role in your child’s life, then you can focus on what’s important for your soon-to-be-adult child. You will learn to accept that they will not need you to fix their hurts, fight their battles, and protect them from the bad in this world. What they need is to know that you have faith in them to make their own decisions and will always be there when they need you. Support them in their need to know more about themselves, their background and their place in this world. Trust that you have taught them how to fight their own battles, make good decisions and survive when their decisions don’t have the desired outcome. Let them make their own decisions on whether to search for their birth parents, to find out about their past, and handle the disappointment if the search does not give them the answers they need or want.
It will be important to provide an opportunity to discuss the big changes in your child’s life as they prepare to leave home. Listen, learn and be open to what your child is feeling and experiencing.
It is not uncommon for your child to experience some depression as each developmental stage in an Adoptee’s life can bring up the loss they experienced. This is a normal part of their development. It just doesn’t feel very normal for them or for you. It is important to let them sit in the sadness; to feel their emotions even though it isn’t comfortable. If it becomes extreme, then it would be time to consider talking to an adoption-competent therapist to help them work through their feelings. It will be very important for you to continue to provide a safe place for them to express what they’re feeling and not try to “fix it” for them.
Change is difficult and you too may experience some depression as you adjust. As I mentioned before, you are growing up with your child. As you learn to let go, you are also dealing with your own loss and this transition in your parenting. You too must sit in the sadness and allow yourself to feel what you need to feel. This is a great opportunity to model for your child how to deal with the discomfort as things change for your child and for you.
Also be open to your child not being ready to talk. This may take time. They may not think there is anything to talk about. All you can do is open the door; it is up to your child to decide whether to walk in.
When it is time, let them go and discover who they are, what it means to be adopted and what life will be like on their own. They will struggle, tumble and pull away from you. There will be times they will not communicate with you and need some distance. As difficult as it is and as much as it may hurt, this is a process we all must go through. If you can support them, acknowledge their needs and listen to their pain and joys, then you will grow together as one adult to another.
Letting Go by Beth Hall
Webinar: C.A.S.E. (Center for Adoption Support and Education) Beneath the Mask: Understanding Teens by Debbie Riley
College Choices for Adopted Teens by Debbie Riley, LCMFT & Ellen Singer, LCMFT
Talking With Children About Adoption —The Teen Years by Ellen Singer, LCSW-C
Adolescents and Adoption by Ellen Singer, LSCW-C and Debbie Riley, LMFT
Beneath the Mask: Understanding Adopted Teens by Debbie Riley, M.S
Beneath the Mask: For Teen Adoptees: Teens and Young Adults Share Their Stories. C.A.S.E. publication. A companion workbook to Beneath the Mask by Debbie Riley, M.S.
Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: Adoptive Parents’ Guide to Navigating the Teen Years by Katie Naftzger
Still Parenting After All These Years by Gail Steinberg
How to Talk With Tweens & Teens About Adoption by Dawn Davenport
Delayed Launching: Adopted Adolescents and The Not-So Empty Nest by Gregory C. Keck