Babies! Everyone wants to adopt babies! They’re cute, cuddly, don’t talk back to you, and trust you for their every need. The only problem with babies is that they eventually grow up. Guiding your adopted teen into adulthood and then assisting them through the minefield that is young adulthood can be a daunting task! Especially when you are having a difficult time connecting with them. Fear not! There is hope!
Trauma. The effects of trauma cannot be underestimated. Vietnam veterans coming back from war suffered the ravages of war for years afterward from only a few minutes of trauma. They were grown men who were trained for war. And yet they couldn’t shake the traumatic memories that were forever stamped upon their minds. Imagine what trauma does to a child. An international adoptee may be still recovering from the trauma of being raised in an orphanage, traveling to a new country, learning a new language, and being placed in a new family. A domestic adoptee who may have been raised in a foster home may have experienced abuse, trauma, or abandonment. Whatever the circumstance, this trauma can be a barrier between an adoptee and their adopted parents. Does time heal all wounds? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no.
Sometimes parents have a hard time connecting with an adoptee because that child is still trying to make sense of the trauma they have experienced. They are still trying to reconcile why the most important people in their lives would abuse them or leave them. They are still struggling with memories of being hungry, being homeless, and being separated from their parents. They may have memories of another country, another language, and another culture, all the while trying to survive in a new one. We are wondering, as adoptive parents, “Why won’t my child hug me?” while they are wondering, “Why did my birth parents leave me?” We are wondering, “Why is my child rejecting me?” while they are wondering, “Why did my birth parents reject me?” We need to view a lack of connection through the lens of trauma. Children cannot unsee what they have seen. Even if their mind forgets, their body remembers. Rather than asking, “Why is this child not connecting with me?” ask, “What type of trauma must this child have experienced that would cause him to be unable to connect?” Rather than asking, “Why won’t she connect?” We need to ask, “Why can’t she connect?” That is a good starting place for any disconnected child.
So how do we connect with adopted children? Well, let’s break this up into three different stages of development: older childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood.
I would describe this stage of development as elementary school age, 5-12 years old. During this time, the child is moving out of infanthood and learning more independence. In a “normal” child the most traumatic day of his life will be the first day of school. Leaving mom and learning to trust and attach to teachers can be a very traumatic event. Learning to play, work, and cooperate alongside peers may be a new skill, especially if they are an only child. Learning to socialize with others is a hard task. Dealing with bullies is a challenge. Learning to meet expectations and deadlines and compete academically is grueling for any child. Now imagine doing all that while also trying to adapt to a new adoptive family. Not only is the school environment new but now your home and family are new as well. So, it’s no wonder that an adopted child who behaves all day at school explodes when he gets home. He has done the best he can for six hours! Where is his safe space? Who is his safe person? Usually the adoptive mom. Though he might get kicked out of school, he cannot get kicked out of his adoptive home. This is a safe space. Adoptive mom will always love me, good or bad, so I can be who I truly am with her.
So, how do you go about connecting with an older adopted child? It is more important that an adult connects with a child than the other way round. First, you need to regulate yourself. As Dr. Bruce Perry, an American psychiatrist, stated, an unregulated adult cannot regulate an unregulated child. Get control of your emotions first, then you can help the child control his emotions. Children need a calm presence when they are going through a storm.
Second, you should connect before you correct. If your child is having a hard time, try to understand it from his point of view. Did he have a hard day at school? Does he miss his biological family? Is he having a hard time fitting in at home? Do not underestimate the frustration of trying to navigate the waters of transracial adoption. It is very tough trying to explain to the neighbor kid why he does not look like his mom. All these things cause stress in a child. Don’t just look at the behavior, look at the feelings behind the behavior.
Third, connect physically. International adoptees may have suffered extreme neglect in orphanages by not being held, touched, or looked at. Ask for hugs, and do not be offended if they say no. Hug on their terms, when they are ready. Make eye contact with your child. Comb their hair. Do not underestimate the power of touch.
Next, play with them. Dads are good for this. Roughhousing and appropriate tickling may be a good substitute for hugging if your child is not ready for that. Board games are a good substitute for TV because it opens up the other side of the brain and creates neural pathways that may not have been used before.
Lastly, there is no substitute for good, old-fashioned family time. Dinnertime around the table may be a new experience. Road trips and family vacations are not always the disaster portrayed in the movies. Holidays and family traditions may also be new but they provide the consistency and connection that an adopted child needs.
Whether you choose to adopt a teen or choose to adopt an infant, sooner or later, you’re going to end up with a teen. There are no two ways about it. Adolescence is a turbulent time. Dr. James Dobson, the former CEO of Focus on the Family, said that surviving the teen years is like getting into a rowboat during a storm with your teen and just surviving the storm without your teen falling out of the boat.
Teens are going through tremendous change in their lives: physically, emotionally, intellectually, socially, and spiritually. The more your adopted child’s body grows, the more he may wonder whether he looks like any of his family. If you have an open adoption, it may become clear who he looks like. That may be a good thing or that may be a bad thing. There may be hereditary physical ailments. There is a new awareness of the opposite sex.
Emotionally, your teen is experiencing great upheaval. Feelings she never had before are now popping up. Describing her emotions like a rollercoaster ride would be an accurate description. She may vacillate between loving her adopted parents and then hating them. The same will go for her birth parents. Phrases like, “You’re not my real mom!” are not uncommon to hear in teens during this time.
Intellectually, youth are now starting to think more abstractly. They are starting to doubt and question many of the things they were taught as a child. This is not necessarily a bad thing. They are now learning how to think rather than to just accept things blindly. It is at this point that a teen may start to think about why his birth parents didn’t keep him. He may start to question the motives of his adoptive parents. Conversations about their adoption are possible and ugly emotions may pop up as well.
Socially, young people may now be interested in the opposite sex for the first time. Friends are now more important than family. It is during this period that teens try to distinguish themselves from their parents by being different from their parents. Hence, the loud music, the different hairstyle, and the weird fashion choices. To a point, this is also acceptable because your teen is trying to express their independence. A little bit of rebellion is to be expected. The most important thing is to be there for your young person.
Spiritually, teens are now starting to think about spiritual and philosophical things such as: Is there a God? What happens to me after I die? What is my purpose in life? Why do bad things happen to good people? These questions should not be ignored. Also, you should not panic if your teen chooses a different religious heritage than you are used to. This is also part of the change and growing pains that are to be expected during this time. As long as these questions do not lead to self-harm and the harm of others.
How do you try connecting with a teen without losing your mind? First, let them explore who they are. Of course, there is a natural tendency to want to protect them but most of what they are exploring is temporary. Second, let them fail. They will never learn to make good choices if they are not allowed to make bad choices. Natural consequences are a great teacher in life. Not lectures. Third, focus on their strengths. Yes, your teen may have many faults, but they have many good things about them as well. Focus on those things and help them to develop themselves. Also, just listen. Your teen may be trying to say something. Listen without judgment and without defense. Lastly, be there for your teen. It is not always necessary to teach your youth a lesson. But just being present works wonders. Setting a good example, being there to be a shoulder to cry on, and participating in the things they like can make a huge difference! Teens are candid, transparent, and real. As Josh Shipp, a motivational speaker, said, “Every kid is one caring adult away from a success story.”
Behaviorists are now saying that the adolescent phase lasts well into a young person’s 20s, so it is not unusual for a young adult to act like a teen until they are 25! This is because the reasoning centers of their brains are not fully developed until 25 years old. And yet we expect them to get a job, go to college, have healthy relationships, live on their own, and make good choices during this time. This is not always the case, especially for adult adoptees. They still need our help. They may still be struggling with their identity and feelings of grief and loss. They may also want to search for their birth parents and feel disloyal to you for wanting to do so. That’s okay. Give them permission to search. It may actually be the connection that they need, and it may give them a greater appreciation for the sacrifice you have made as an adoptive parent.
Stinking thinking: As adoptees go through childhood into adolescence and young adulthood, they may go through incorrect thinking. Because of this, it may cause emotional upheaval and a barrier to connection. There are many feelings that older children, teens, and young adult adoptees have that can be a barrier to connection.
– Feelings of unwantedness. The feeling that “since my birth mom/dad did not want me, my adoptive mom/dad doesn’t want me either.” If this does not gets resolved before adulthood, then this toxic thinking could bleed over into toxic relationships.
– Feelings of rejection. The feeling that “since I was rejected by my birth mom/dad, my foster/adoptive mom/dad will reject me also, one day.” Or “since multiple foster homes have rejected me, I am going to reject them first.”
– Feelings of inadequacy. The feeling that “I wasn’t good enough for my birth mom/dad.” Or “I will never be good enough for any family.”
– Feelings of alienation. The feeling that “I don’t fit in here in this home. I don’t fit into any family because I don’t have a family.”
Connecting with older adoptees is hard. It is a challenge, but it is not impossible to connect. Be patient. Be consistent. Be calm and press on. These adoptees have got to know daily that adoption is not an ugly word. It is a blessing. They must feel daily that they are loved, they are wanted, and they were chosen. They must feel that you would adopt them again if you had the chance to do it all over again.
Derek Williams is an adoption social worker and has been in the field of child welfare and behavioral health since 2006, where he has assisted families in their adoption journey. He and his wife started their adoption journey in 1993 and have eight children, six of whom are adopted. His adopted children are all different ethnicities including East Indian, Jamaican and Native American. He loves traveling with his family, especially to the East Coast and to the West Coast and is an avid NY Mets fan! Foster care and adoption are his passions and callings for Derek, and he is pleased to share his experiences with others who are like-minded.