The Challenge of Adolescence for the Adopted Teen

Adolescence is a time in which teens are forming their unique sense of identity. They begin to do this by pulling away from their family, looking for role models in their social group, and imitating those they like. Teens are walking the bridge from childhood to adulthood and this path can be, at times, more tumultuous for those who are adopted. For instance, three main issues that adopted teens face are:

  • Discovering their identity while knowing little about their past
  • Being sensitive to circumstances of abandonment and rejection
  • The presence of psychological illness

Discovering their identity while knowing little about their past.

The task that is characteristic for being a teenager – identity formation – can be difficult for adopted teens. This is particularly true because they have two sets of parents – their biological and adopted. Adopted teens might wonder who gave them their personal physical traits. In their process of discovering who they are, adopted teens might begin to wonder:

Why was I given up for adoption?

Would I be a different person if I were still with my biological parents?

Why can’t my adoptive parents be my birthparents?

Will I ever really know who I am?

Can I find my birth parents?

“I’m trying to figure out what I want to do in my life” said sixteen-year-old Jennifer, “but I’m so confused. I can’t move ahead with my future when I don’t know anything about my past. It’s like starting to read a book in the middle. My big family with cousins and aunts and uncles only makes me aware that I’m alone in my situation. It never bothered me when I was younger. But now, for reasons I can’t explain, I feel like a puppet without a string and it’s making me miserable.”

Asking the questions listed above and attempting to find their answers might not only stem from curiosity, but also from low feelings of self-esteem and self-worth. Some adopted teens might struggle with a greater sense of unworthiness because of concerns regarding abandonment from their biological parents.

Being sensitive to circumstances of abandonment and rejection

A belief in being abandoned as a child can create significant distress during adolescence and adulthood. If not addressed, it could lead to drug use, poor relationships, sexual promiscuity, depression, anxiety, and significant psychological disorders, such as Bipolar Disorder and Major Depression.

Abandonment is a strong psychological experience that can influence a teen’s perception and experience of life. Although birth parents may have gone through the adoption process with care and tenderness for their child, the experience, no matter how smooth it was, might lead to feelings of loss, rejection, denial, and depression for children. Addressing abandonment during adolescence can curb mental health concerns later in life. A therapist, psychologist, or other mental health professional would be able to adequately treat underlying issues that stem from adoption and facilitate living a healthy and happy life.

The presence of psychological illness

Research shows that many adopted children tend to develop a mental health diagnosis. In fact, a 2008 study compared about 500 adopted and non-adopted children and found that the odds of having an ADHD or Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) diagnosis were approximately twice as high in adoptees compared with non-adoptees.

This can be even more problematic when adoption agencies hide information and mislead parents who are leaning towards adopting. Then, when adopted children begin to exhibit mental health symptoms, parents may not know how to respond. Furthermore, they may not have made the decision to adopt if they knew that their child might develop a mental illness.

The mental health of adopted children is becoming more and more significant, particularly because the number of adoptions in the United States continues to rise. According to the National Council For Adoption, there were 130,269 domestic adoptions in 2002, whereas in 1996 there were 108,463 domestic adoptions.

The United States 2000 Census indicated that nearly 1.6 million children and teenagers under 18 years old in the United States and Puerto Rico are adopted. This is a significant portion of American youth. Understanding the mental health of these children and teens, particularly their early attachment experiences, is becoming essential in supporting their overall well being.

Although adolescence can be difficult for the adopted teen, it doesn’t have to be. Allowing him or her to express her feelings, providing significant family and professional support, and giving your child the space he or she might need to move through challenges can ease their transition into adulthood. Your consistent acceptance of your teen will support him or her in facing the challenges listed here and become the healthy adult he or she is meant to be.


Further Reading