Several weeks ago I found myself at a child’s birthday party. All around us children screamed with glee, darting in between one another in celebration of turning 6. My son, leading the pack, dove headfirst down a slide. His sister quickly followed behind him, trying to keep up. Another mother at the party gave me a smile. “They are just precious.” “Thank you,” I replied. My daughter ran up and hugged my leg, begging to be lifted up. The other mom continued, “You would never know. Look how much she loves you. They’re just perfectly brother and sister. And totally your kids.”
She means well. Often when I walk the streets of our neighborhood or find myself in line at the checkout at Safeway people smile at my family. Two white parents, one Chinese son, and one Indian daughter. At first, we are a sight to behold but with time people begin to see us as “just another family.” As one relative put it, “I don’t even see color anymore when we’re together. I just see Jack.” It is a lovely sentiment.
But here’s the thing: when there is a substitute teacher and I go to pick up my son, the teacher doesn’t automatically release him to me. Instead, she steers my son toward the one Asian parent at pick-up. At the playground, both children and adults ask if Mira is really his sister. At only 6 years old, my son is fully aware our family is not like others. And at 6 years old, he is already fielding questions from friends and strangers alike as to the origin of our family.
The reality is my son will never be “just Jack.” He is a transracial, transnational adoptee, and his world is incredibly complex. As is my daughter’s. Though they are young now, I know that questions of identity are on the horizon and in small ways these questions have already begun to emerge. No more will this be true than during adolescence.
According to Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, between the ages of 12 and 18, adolescents explore their independence and in the process develop a sense of self. The sense of self develops through adolescents’ social interactions and their perception of where they fit within various social structures. All adolescents will struggle during this time to answer the questions of, “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit in?” but for the adoptee, this can be particularly difficult.
Every adoptee is of two worlds—the world of their birth family and the world of their adoptive family. During adolescence, it is not uncommon for adoptees to experience feelings of abandonment, anger, and frustration. Some adoptees may experience a strong desire to connect with their past. Others may experience issues of control or feel a need to separate themselves from friends and family. As adoptive parents, it can be hard to know what to say or do for the child who has one foot in two worlds. Here are some ways to help a child who is experiencing an identity crisis:
Tell Their Story
Unlike the typically linear path of the biological child, adoptees have a complex origin story. There is the triad of the child, birth parent, and adoptive parent and, if the child was adopted internationally, there is an additional element of culture. Whether or not the full history of your child is known, talk to them about their story. When did you first learn about your child? What was your child’s life like before they met you? Who were their caregivers? If your child is from a different region or country, what is that region or country known for? When did you meet your child? Were you there for their birth or did you meet months or even years later? What was your child like in their first days with you?
If you have a lifebook, read it together. If you don’t have a lifebook, make one together. In my son’s lifebook we have all the information and dates and pictures of his first years in China as well as photos and documents from our journey to bring him home. We make a habit of reading his lifebook at least every other week together and, though there are holes in his story we will never know, we share as much as we can.
Children struggling with an identity crisis are seeking clarity on who they are. One tool to help your child is simply to start a conversation. In my family, we talk openly about what makes someone Chinese? What makes someone Indian? How about what makes someone American? If our children are all three of these things then what characteristics define each of these traits? Is it language, race, traditions, holidays, foods? Even with our young children, we draw Venn diagrams so that they may visually see the intersections between their two identities. We stress that very few people have an identity that is a one-way street but rather an amalgamation of culture and traditions woven together over generations.
One of the most difficult articles I ever read was called, “Dear Adoption, I Hate You.” It was on the website Dear Adoption and I was struck profoundly by the anger the adoptee expressed. But of course, the author did. Though I had always known the hurt our children carry with them, reading that article made me truly aware. It also proved a great jumping off point for discussion. As uncomfortable as it may be, as the adoptive parent, it is important to create a home environment where it is okay for your child to say, “I hate adoption,” or “I wish I had stayed with my birth mother,” or “I wish I never left China.” Adoption is born from loss, and the loss our children have experienced is deep.
A large part of the identity crisis in adoptees is centered around the unknown of the “other path.” What would life have been like had they not been adopted? What type of person might they have been? What language would they speak? What foods would they eat? What religion would they practice? Would they still like soccer or music or dance? All of these questions are swirling around inside our children’s minds, and it is up to us to refrain from judgment and to create a safe space where our children can ask these tough questions. Sit with them. Talk to them. Listen to them.
Find Racial Mirrors
For adoptees of a different race or ethnicity than their adoptive parents, another way to support a child going through an identity crisis is to find racial mirrors within your community. Racial mirrors are essentially other people (typically older to create a big sister/big brother dynamic) who are of the same race or ethnicity as your child. Though we may like to look at our children and just see our children, the reality is the world views them differently. I will never know what it is like to move through life as a Chinese man or an Indian woman. As much as I can try to understand and be supportive, it is important for my children to explore this essential side of themselves. As transracial, transcultural adoptees, my children are of two worlds. And thus, their identities must be cultivated in both those worlds.
Racial mirrors can be found anywhere—in a teacher, a babysitter, colleagues at work, a soccer coach, etc. Though it may make you uncomfortable, try to seek out places where your child may find racial mirrors, like at a cultural fair or a community center. Racial mirrors allow our children to understand and celebrate what it means to be of a certain race or ethnicity. And through that understanding, our children are able to form a more solid foundation for their identity.
Like so many elements of the adoption journey, when your child is facing an identity crisis it can feel like you are all alone. But you are not. There is a whole community of supportive adoptive families and adoptees out there and, as an adoptive parent, it is your job to find them. Look into meet-up groups for adoptees. A quick search can lead to teen adoption support groups in your area. The groups provide safe spaces where adoptees can ask questions, share fears, learn coping strategies, and talk openly with others who have similar backgrounds to theirs.
Social media is another wonderful tool. Online groups may be a good entrance into discussing the challenges adoptees face. There are also a number of blogs written by adoptees. One of my favorites is Dear Adoption as it allows adoptees to write anonymous posts, many of which are submitted by adolescents. Take some time, sit down, and read them together. Does anything resonate with your child? What posts do they agree with? What posts give voice to something they may have felt or experienced?
Another way to get the whole family involved is to try adoption camps. Part support group, part outdoor fun, adoption camps can be a great tool both to help your child connect with other adoptees and to support you as an adoptive family. What’s more, adoption camps provide a platform to connect with other adoptive families not just in the moment but in the months, and years, to come.
Be Open to Searching
During adolescence, it is typical for children to try on different personas in search of the one that is their true fit. As an adoptive parent, this can be difficult when the discussion turns to connecting, or reconnecting, or searching for their birth parents. The adoptee knows the world of the adoptive parents but the world of their birth parents may remain a mystery. Talk to your child about how they are feeling. If they want to search, let them search. If the only clue is the name of an orphanage half a world away, then start there. Wherever their search leads, support them through the journey. As much as we would like to save our children from potential hurt, or disappointment, it is their decision to make, not ours. All we can do is be supportive and keep repeating, “Nothing will change how much I love you.”
Seek Outside Help
But if your child continues to struggle, seek outside help. It is never too early to begin counseling, and the benefit of counseling is that it can provide the necessary tools for children to explore and articulate how they are feeling. Not sure where to begin? Consult your adoption agency and ask for recommendations of area specialists. Be sure to meet with the therapist in advance to gauge their experience level with adoption and to see if they are a good fit for your family.
All or Nothing?
Many adolescents want to see the world in black and white. Things are either just or inequitable. But the truth is identity can be, and is, fluid. No one person is just one thing. You are a spouse, and a parent, and an employee. You are a volunteer, a leader, a teacher. It is okay to be Chinese-American and to define Chinese-American in your own terms. But that’s the difficulty of adolescence. Everyone wants to belong but the question is to which group? It is only later in life that we realize we don’t have to choose.
As an adoptive parent, the best thing you can do for your child who is going through an identity crisis is to keep the conversation going. Accept them for where they are. They may embrace their other half one day and reject it the next. And that’s okay. They may embrace you one day and reject you the next. And that’s okay. Be supportive, listen, offer advice, listen, and then listen some more.
Jennifer S. Jones is a writer, performer, storyteller, and arts educator. She holds an MFA (Playwriting) from NYU Tisch. She has written numerous plays including the internationally renowned, award-winning Appearance of Life. Her amazing transracial transcultural family was created through adoption from China and India. She is passionate about the adoption community and talks about the ins and outs, ups and downs, joys and “is this really us?!” whenever she can. She writes about her experiences at www.letterstojack.com.