“Once I knew, I began to feel different. And as I began to feel different, everyone knew.” -Adoptee Amy Martin from the book Pieces of Me, Voices for and by Adopted Teens.
Adoptees often grow up feeling different from their peers. Some describe feeling like there is something missing, like a puzzle without all the pieces. During the middle school and teen years, these feelings can be particularly intense. It is during these years that all kids are beginning the important work of identity and self-concept development. It’s hard for all kids, but can be particularly stressful, and painful, for adoptees who don’t have all the information necessary to form their identities.
Even if an adoptee has a strong attachment to their adoptive family, they may feel a sense of loss and sadness as questions emerge about whom they are. Feelings of grief, loss, and sadness, can be confusing when they are coupled with the love and loyalty they feel for their adopted family.
When adolescents form their self-concept, they look to their parents, community, culture, school, religion, talents and personal interests to help them do that. When they don’t have their biological family around to see what they have in common, whom they look like, and what they share in terms of all these things, they have to fill in that information with guesses. Adoptees often have positive and negative fantasies about what their birth family is like.
Parents often wonder what they can do to help their adopted child through this process. Here are a few strategies I have encouraged throughout my work with children and their parents:
Sit and listen when your child expresses grief and loss. It might be easier for parents to tell their child not to think about it or not to dwell on it but the truth is, an adoptee needs to go through these feelings of loss. Just listening can be incredibly helpful to your child and help her understand that you are there to support her through this process.
Use indigenous art, drama, poetry, music. If your child has a particular interest, exposing her to the arts in her own culture or even from the region of the U.S. where her biological family is from, will help her make a connection.
Don’t assume your child isn’t interested. Parents often think that because their child isn’t bringing up questions about her birth family, birth history or culture, that she isn’t thinking about it. Emotions are very complicated for adoptees and issues around divided loyalty may make them hesitant to bring this up. Instead, parents can open the conversation with an observation or an offer to talk with their child about their adoption history.
Tell stories again and again. All children like to hear stories about how their parents met, how they became engaged, what their wedding was like, etc. The story that many children like to hear again and again is the story about how they joined the family, whether it was by birth, adoption, or kinship. Telling this story is a powerful way to connect and attach. When parents share their own emotions during these stories, (I was really nervous, excited, and scared but also incredibly happy when we picked you up from the airport) mixed emotions are modeled and normalized.
All of the ideas above can help an adoptee through the difficult process of forming their identity and self-concept. It may also be helpful for an adoptee to work with an individual counselor or a group, led by an adoption competent clinician. It is important to realize that this process is lengthy and can continue well into the twenties for an adoptee who is trying to put all the pieces together. Forming self-concept and identity is a life-long process for all people. For adoptees, the teen years can be filled with many ups and downs, but is also filled with rich opportunity for self-exploration and healing.
Karen Chaudry, LSCW
Karen Chaudhry, LCSW has over a decade of experience working with adoptees, and adoptive families. She has worked with families at every stage of the adoption process. She has led groups for adoptive teens for the last several years and creates a safe, comfortable, and creative environment.