The Adopted Child, Identity, and Adolescent Angst

The Adopted Child, Identity, and Adolescent Angst

Stay connected even when it feels impossible

Most parents, adoptive or not, say the terrible twos were nothing compared with the angst of adolescence. Often you’ll see the same type of tantrums, tears, and defiance erupting from an almost–adult sized body. What is going on? Why can this time be even more difficult for adopted kids? And what can you do?

During adolescence, all children struggle with identity

Who am I separate from my parents? Where do I fit in?

  • The identity struggle for adopted teens is very complex. Puberty brings the question of “Who am I?” to the forefront. A biological daughter developing breasts looks at her mother for a road map. An adopted adolescent may not have that road map. She looks in the mirror and sees only questions about what she may have inherited.
  • The subject of searching for birth parents may come up. Integrating the biological parents into the adopted teen’s identity is an important part of the teen’s development.
  • Searching for one’s identity brings up big feelings of conflicted and competing loyalties. If I identify with my birth parents, will you still love me?
  • The conflict is intensified when the adopted parents are of a different race or nationality. Who am I? Russian? Russian American? An American who was adopted from Russia?
  • The adopted adolescent’s rapidly changing identity can bring up strong feelings of shame for causing his or her own relinquishment. If my parents were bad, I must be bad, too.

During adolescence, all children move toward independence

  • Adopted adolescents may associate growing independence and separation with early experiences of abandonment
    and grief.
  • Earlier ways of dealing with stress—outbursts, aggression, sneakiness, shutting down—can reappear. Risky and defiant behavior is a teen’s way of dealing with fear of abandonment and feeling out of control.
  • Adopted adolescents often miss the social meaning and impact of their behavior. Magical thinking and a feeling of invincibility can last longer in adopted children, and they may be more willing to sacrifice morality for membership in a peer group without realizing the real-life consequences.
  • The normal movement toward more interdependence with peers creates conflicting loyalties in adopted adolescents. They may revisit earlier questions, such as:
    • Who will take care of me?
    • Did I make the change happen?
    • Will I lose you, too?

What can we do?

  • Connection! Connection! Connection! Our need for attachment—the connection we have with another human being that makes us feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure—never stops. An adopted child’s attachment is always fragile, influenced by the child’s complex history. An adopted adolescent, while moving toward attachment with peers, needs his or her parents more than ever to feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure.
    • Hand In Hand, which focuses on parenting by connection, offers parents a specific connection tool called Special Time. This is a finite amount of time, perhaps 10 to 20 minutes, during which a parent gives the child undivided attention and follows the child’s lead, doing what the child wants to do. During that time, we take the less powerful role and pour in our love as we simply delight in them. A little Special Time goes a long way toward deepening connection and increasing opportunities for communication while easing our adolescent’s fears and anxiety.
    • Setting limits also provides adolescents with a sense of connection, particularly when using the parenting by connection approach. Although it is our job to set limits, it is not our job to determine how our child feels about those limits. All children, but particularly adolescents, use the pretext of a limit to express underlying feelings of fear and anxiety. Setting a limit calmly with warmth and without blame maintains our connection and makes it safe for our adolescent to offload his or her anxiety. Less anxiety means better thinking, better choices, and less off-track behavior. An adolescent’s initial reaction to a limit may be huge upset with such words as, “You’re not my Mom. You can’t tell me what to do.” If we listen to the adolescent’s feelings with quiet empathy, we often find he or she is actually relieved that you stepped in and set a limit.
    • Setting limits can also help reduce our adolescent’s stress level. Busyness and supercompetitive behaviors are also ways of dealing with fear. Putting limits on peer activities while increasing family time, especially Special Time, allows our adolescent to feel safe and secure.
    • Setting limits without Special Time will backfire. Limits are meant to guide while keeping a child safe and secure. Limits are not consequences or punishments. Punitive measures will reinforce an adopted adolescent’s belief that he or she is unlovable. The best consequence is always more connection.
  • See your adolescent’s behavior as communication, as intertwined with his or her complex background.
    • Off-track behavior is always acting out feelings of shame—feelings that come from the belief that one is intrinsically bad.
    • Although you may be seeing extreme teen behavior, this is actually a resurfacing of earlier difficulties that have become restimulated and should not be dismissed as a typical teen pulling away.
    • Consider how this behavior is related to the teen’s complex background and what he or she may be unconsciously trying to tell you.
    • Respond with the awareness that the behavior is being driven by fear.
    • Inquire, inquire, inquire. Patiently ask “Why?” before reacting.
  • See your child as good and capable no matter how often he or she seems to regress.
    • Take a 10-to-1 approach: 10 appreciations for every 1 criticism or correction.
    • Practice a standard positive response—especially when your adolescent says something you find shocking, upsetting, or hurtful. Say, “I’m glad you told me, and I know if I were adopted, I’d feel the same way.” Be the safe place where your child can tell you anything.
  • Get support for yourself.
    • Our own childhood hurts may be restimulated by our child’s words and behaviors. We may find that our own feelings are induced by our child’s strong feelings. The child’s powerlessness causes the child to act out, which then induces feelings of powerlessness in us.
    • Refrain from acting when you feel anger, fear, or powerlessness. Give yourself a time out!
    • Your own induced strong feelings can give you a clue as to how your adolescent may be feeling. Use that awareness to respond with empathy, letting your adolescent know you can see things from his or her viewpoint.
    • Take your feelings to a trusted friend or listening partner, and ask this person to listen without giving you advice and without interruption. As this person listens with warm, nonjudgmental attention, you can rant, rave, laugh, cry, tremble, and release your own hurts that were restimulated and caused you to feel so powerless.
    • Doing our own emotional work frees us up to think creatively, be more patient and playful, be more present, and be less susceptible to being emotionally induced in the future.

Key takeaways

  • Stay connected—no matter what.
  • See off-track behavior as a cry for help and connection.
  • See the connection between your child’s behavior, history, and fears.
  • Get your own emotional support so that you can stay connected—no matter what.

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Kathy Gordon is an adoptive Solo Mom of a beautiful 11-year-old boy. They live in Los Angeles, where she home-schools, acts professionally, and is a certified instructor of Parenting by Connection. Gordon hopes that by sharing their journey, she can make yours a little easier and a lot more fun.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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