Adoption: Moving Through Grief & Loss and Shifting Into Celebration of Love & Security for Teens & Young Adults

Adoptive families, even the happiest ones, often discover that their children hit a “rough patch” when they hit their teens and young adult years. The children, who are already passing through a hard time simply because of the agonies of puberty and growing up, face extra issues that non-adopted kids never face, such as troublesome questions about their origins, their self-worth due to being adopted, their national or ethnic origin (if they were adopted from another country, culture or race), and much more. Adoptive parents need to exercise skill and sensitivity in dealing with their children, providing the support they need to come out the other side as self-assured and confident adults. They must deal with the natural sense of grief and loss their child may be experiencing and shift that into a celebration of the love they share as a family, and the security that they all have as part of that family.

What, When, Why and How?

Just like a good journalist, children have inquisitive natures and nimble minds, and they want to know everything about everything. Although the ceaseless questions a small child tends to ask may wane as they mature, be assured, that mind will never stop working – and one of the main things an adopted child will think and wonder about is their origin. Even if you were very honest and open about their adoption from the beginning, unless the biological parent(s) are involved through an open or partially-open adoption (providing immediate and personal access to them as a source of information), your child(ren) will have lots of things to think about.
Even the most self-assured adopted kid, who never seemed bothered by the fact that they were adopted before, will start having all sorts of doubts and stray thoughts. Peer pressure and the opinion of their friends and others gains a much higher importance than ever before. “Why do you not look like your mom and dad?” or “Why did your real mom and dad give you up?” are questions insensitive and ignorant kids can ask, and your adopted child may suddenly not know what to say – or think. It doesn’t mean you have done a poor job as a parent; it just means they’re growing up and have to answer some questions for themselves.

Some children who know little about their origins may grieve about the past they never knew and the future they will never have as a result of choices made by others. Don’t take this as a rejection of your parenting, but as a sign that the child is maturing, able to grasp intangibles and might-have-beens. It is natural to grieve about things, and it is healthy to allow that grief and sense of loss to run its course.

How to Encourage Independence—While Emphasizing Their Importance

One of the first impulses adoptive parents may have when confronted with the reality of their adopted child(ren)’s uncomfortable questions and interest in their origins is to close ranks and discourage the curiosity. “Didn’t we do a good job?” some parents ask, to their detriment. This forces the child into a quandary, where they feel they must either quash their questions and issues in favor of comforting their parents or forge on, knowing that they are hurting their parents, whom they doubtless love fiercely. This is extremely unhealthy.

No matter how painful it may be, trying to discourage a child from knowing more about their biological parents is usually counter-productive, and could seriously damage the trust in your relationship. Even though only around 2% of children in the US are adopted, they make up about 1/3 of the teens in therapy. They are dealing with all manner of problems, most of which can be traced to their feelings of loss and grief and guilt. The sense of loss is normally about the potential life they may have led with their “other” parents; their grief about never knowing that life and the sadness they know their curiosity causes their adoptive parents. The guilt about the grief and “problems” they are causing.

If your adopted child came from an especially difficult or traumatic background, whether as an infant or older child, consider special therapy from the beginning for them. Children with physical or emotional issues due to previous abuse, disabilities, or other problems are especially vulnerable to more severe issues such as depression, separation anxiety, self-esteem and abandonment complexes, reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and more. By offering the support and intervention they will almost assuredly need at an early age and with a natural sense of acceptance, you will help remove some of the potential future stumbling blocks.

A child adopted from a different background than your own, whether cultural or racial, needs special consideration as well. Obviously, if you are a Caucasian family and your adopted children are from Asia or Africa, you will be getting double-takes for years from strangers on the street, no matter how commonplace it has become in modern society. Small children will often not even notice this, but older kids can become uncomfortable being the object of scrutiny, and a child’s self-centered outlook on life will often turn that scrutiny into approbation in their mind. By fostering knowledge, appreciation of and exposure to their culture and racial heritage from an early age, you will build a foundation of self-appreciation in your child.

What About Birth Parents?

If yours was not an open adoption for whatever reason, the birth parents may not be willing or able to be contacted; these cases are often, frustratingly, the ones where the adopted children have the most troublesome questions and issues. If your child reaches their teens and expresses a desire to search for their birth parent(s), it can be a heartbreakingly difficult time for adoptive parents: you did everything possible to let your child know they were wanted and cherished…and now they want to find the ones who “abandoned” them. But how does the child feel? They likely feel “abandoned,” regardless of how much you tell and show them you love them. They are rightfully curious.

Ultimately, it will be their choice. Sometimes it may be best to negotiate with them to delay the search until they are old enough to accept what they find, especially if they were adopted out of a terrible or abusive situation. Or, you could offer to assist them in the search, as painful as it may be to you. Remember, a birth parent represents a connection with the child’s past, but it doesn’t mean they are rejecting you as a parent. If they know their birth parents, it provides them (and you) with valuable medical information about them for the future. It could also be that they simply want to know, so they can “let go.” A child’s reasons for searching for their birth parents are often complex and intertwined with one another, and they deserve the chance to explore those reasons in a supportive and loving environment. Remember the old maxim, “If you love something, let it go.” 99% of the time, your adopted child wouldn’t change a thing.

By allowing adopted children to explore and ask questions, you encourage a healthy, reciprocal relationship with them. You reassure them that they are loved and accepted, and that you will be there for them, no matter what. This fosters a stronger sense of self-esteem and self-worth, and helps them to grow into healthy and well-adjusted adults. Always remember that adopted families chose each other, unlike birth families, and represent some of the purest and most selfless love possible. If you raised your children in love, they won’t forget it, no matter how curious they are or how many questions or issues they have.

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