The Center for Adoption Support and Education, Inc~ Teens typically have an endless appetite for talking with friends, but when it comes to talking with adults or (even worse) parents, conversation often consists of one-syllable words, grunts, and eye rolls. When it comes to talking about adoption with some teens, parents might as easily climb Mount Everest. During adolescence, however, adopted teens need parental guidance, comfort, and support as much as ever, and parents must work to keep lines of communication open.
Extra Challenges for Adopted Teens
Identity formation and separation are adolescents´ two main developmental tasks. Teens explore and answer questions like “Who am I?” and “What are my beliefs and values?” when establishing their identity. Separation involves moving toward independence and personal responsibility—a prospect both exciting and scary that can evoke a “leave me alone, but don´t leave me” response in teens. Adoption adds extra complexity to these teen rites of passage. Questions of identity raise unresolved thoughts and feelings about birth parents from whom teens must still psychologically separate. For some adopted teens, separation can also seem like rejection and independence like abandonment—emotions associated with the loss of birth parents. Adopted teens who cannot express these troubling thoughts and emotions to someone (a parent or therapist, for example) are at risk for potentially serious emotional and behavioral problems including depression, substance abuse, school failure, etc.
Why Communication Is Difficult
Parents who have trouble getting young children to stop talking may be stunned with the wall of silence and withdrawal that accompanies adolescence. Teens, though, have good reasons for keeping to themselves.
- Teens may stop talking to create distance from their parents. Distance helps teens feel separate and independent, and even children who used to share every thought with their parents may desire complete privacy. Parental attempts to communicate may fail because teens often perceive personal questions as intrusive.
- Adopted teens may not be able to articulate what they are feeling—even to themselves. Adoption-related issues can be some of the most emotionally loaded issues teens will ever face. They may experience sadness or anger without really knowing why.
- Thoughts about birth parents may make teens feel disloyal to their adoptive family. This added guilt can make adoption conversations with parents extremely uncomfortable.
So, what´s a parent to do?
First, parents must think about their teen. What is he like? (Quiet? Analytical? Dramatic?) What times of the day does she seem more receptive? Next, parents must be honest about their own communication style. Many teens complain that parents don´t pay full attention when they are trying to talk. When teens actually want to talk, parents should take the time to really listen.
Ellen Singer, an experienced clinical social worker, is an adoption specialist at the Center for Adoption Support and Education, Inc. (C.A.S.E.) in Maryland. At C.A.S.E. she leads support groups for adoptive parents, offers trainings about adoption issues, and writes articles for parents and professionals. Ms. Singer is also an adoptive parent.