smiling adolescent Most parents worry about their children going through the turmoil of adolescence. Worries range from a teen dyeing his hair purple to getting into trouble with alcohol, drugs, or sex. As the parent of an adopted adolescent, you are likely to have additional concerns. Will your teen be confused about his or her identity? Will a sense of abandonment and rejection replace feelings of security and comfort? Will inner turmoil from the past affect the teen’s behavior?

Adoption adds complexity to parenting adolescents. Adopted teens may need extra support in dealing with the following issues:

Identity Formation

Identity issues can be difficult because the teen has two sets of parents. Common identity concerns of adopted adolescents include:

  • Wondering where they got their particular characteristics
  • Asking questions that you may not be able to answer such as:
    • Where do I get my artistic talent?
    • Was everyone in my family short/tall?
    • What is my ethnic background?
    • Do I have brothers and sisters?
  • Feeling anger at adoptive parents
  • Feeling the need to withdraw or stray far from home to find a sense of identity
  • Having difficulty moving ahead without knowing about the past
  • Having questions about birth-family health history

Fear of Abandonment

Leaving home is scary for most adolescents. But having already suffered the loss of one set of parents, it is even more frightening for adopted teens. Fear of abandonment may express itself in difficulties when going off to college or moving out of the home and fears of leaving the security of the family.

Issues of Control

A hallmark of adolescence is the tension between parents who do not want to give up control and the teenager who wants independence. This tension may be especially intense for adopted teens who feel that someone else has always made decisions for them. Parents may be concerned that the teen has a predisposition toward antisocial behavior (especially when their teen’s birth parents have a history of certain problems). Parents may tighten the reins when a teen wants more freedom, resulting in the teen feeling mistrusted.

Feelings of Not Belonging

Adopted teens become more aware of how they are different from their families and their non-adopted friends. Issues of feeling different may include:

  • Being sensitive about not looking like parents, siblings, or other relatives
  • Feeling alienated from the family because of differences
  • Struggling to integrate cultural background into self-concept (This is difficult for adolescents who have a different race or ethnic background from the adoptive parents.)
  • Doubting their authenticity as “real” family members
The Need to Connect With the Past

As adopted teens mature, they think more about how their lives would have been different if they had not been adopted or if another family had adopted them. Issues may include:

  • Wondering who they would have become under other circumstances
  • Having an increased need to try on different personalities
  • Realizing the possibilities that were lost
  • Wanting more information about their biological families
Adoption at an Older Age

Issues for teens adopted at an older age are even more complex. They may have endured abuse or neglect, lived in several foster homes, or moved from relative to relative before finding a permanent family. Issues often include:

  • Intense sense of loss and rejection
  • Low self-esteem
  • Severe emotional and behavioral difficulties
  • Memories of times before joining the adoptive family