To write this article to help you support your teenage adoptee, I tried to interview my teenage sons. As you can imagine, that did not go the way that I had planned. (Things generally don’t go as I plan these days.) Mostly because I forgot my manners and made direct eye contact which scared them away into the recesses of their bedroom caves. I’m kidding, of course, but only just.
I asked my boys how I could support them and was greeted with a series of grunts, armpit scratches, and eye rolls that may have meant something to someone but meant virtually nothing to me. Well, nothing besides the assumed “get out of my room, you’re embarrassing me” mantra that is generally conveyed by teens. So I sought out the help of professionals. I asked questions on adoption.org, read some books and articles, and asked some parents who are further along in this journey than I am. I’ll try to give you a concise, helpful guide to help you along the tumult that is rearing teens.
1. Keep them fed.
I know this sounds absurd. They are more than capable of going to the pantry themselves and popping a lid off some Chef Boyardee. Mine likes to eat his cold, straight from the can. It is exactly as disgusting as it sounds. What I mean to say is keep high-protein food that they like in stock. They may revert back to babydom and need feeding every 2 hours. That’s okay. The only time that a person grows as much as they are growing now is when they were babies. Your teenage adoptee needs food that they enjoy eating, that will bring some nutrition to the table, and is easy to prepare.
They may not ask for it but my teens especially like chili. I prepare big batches of it to go in the fridge for after school snacks. I puree the veggies so tiny that they can’t tell they are there. Everybody feels better; I feel better because they’ve eaten something good and they feel better because their stomachs are full (at least for now). The protein helps them feel satiated. Peanut butter off the spoon, beef jerky, heck, even some protein bars if you’re feeling wealthy that grocery shopping trip.
Also, encourage them to drink water. Get a bottle that they like and if plain water makes them gag (who knew this was a thing? I didn’t before these children), get some flavor droplets to go along with it. Most people are fairly dehydrated at all times and growing teens need more water to help their bodies grow. All teens, not just adoptees. But our adoptees may have some residual food insecurities that make the hunger in their bellies seem impossible to tolerate for 2 seconds. I’ve watched my kid go from a raging lunatic to a calm, regulated, normal human in about a minute after being offered a cheese stick and a glass of water. Never underestimate the power of snack time.
2. Be available to talk when they are willing/able to talk.
Ask questions that require more than a yes or no answer. I know this sounds more difficult than I am making it out to be. You may need to change your bedtime routine because the only time your teenage adoptee wants to talk is near midnight. I don’t know what it is about their growing brains but my kids never want to really talk until bedtime. Since my one boy is basically silent from sun-up to sundown, I stop and listen even if I’m exhausted or distracted when he has something to say. I know if I don’t listen now it could be a few days before I hear him string this many words together again.
I wish this was hyperbole. This is the same child we were concerned was mute when we met him at age 8 because he never said anything within our earshot for two solid weeks. He hoards words like misers hoard gold. My other son will talk for hours about absolutely nothing. It turns out I need to listen to both of them with the same level of intensity if I want to take away anything meaningful from the communication. Maybe your teen doesn’t talk to you at all. Try emailing or texting. It feels awkward but it can be the bridge they need to feel the difference between saying you are there for them and them feeling like you are there for them.
3. Don’t get offended when or if they start talking about birth parents.
The teen years are when everyone to some degree starts examining who they are as a person. Several friends of mine who grew up in stable, loving households still wondered to themselves if they were switched at birth with some other unsuspecting infant. Blame Disney movies or TV shows or just blame the human imagination. They will start to wonder who they look more like, what their hair line will look like in their 30s, would they be happier, more successful, or more content if they were with their biological family. It isn’t about you. You haven’t failed as a parent. They aren’t rejecting you as a parent.
I had about 5 older men who were parents of friends or other mentors that I called “Dad” while I was in high-school. My dad is fantastic. It was in no way a reflection on him lacking as a person. I was just figuring out who I was and using other mature adults as a sounding board to that end. Don’t make the conversation about you and your needs. They need to know that you are okay with them exploring their past and, more importantly, that you will be there to help them through whatever they discover.
My sons were adopted from foster care. Their story is tragic and their memories from that time are not so far removed that they fantasize about living with biological parents. That said, there is still pain and regret from what could have been. They carry a great deal of pain from “before” that speaks into how they perceive the now. Allow your teenage adoptee to feel all of those feelings in the safety of your home. If it is appropriate and safe, allow monitored contact. Draw clear lines in the sand with their biological family beforehand about what is and is not acceptable, then help your teen move forward in establishing a healthy relationship with safe boundaries.
4. Be intentional.
Your teen may be very talkative, outgoing, friendly, and willing to talk. Mine are, by and large, none of those things on any given day. I need to seek them out and ask questions. I need to be willing to hear grunts and sighs as a response while knowing that that might be the best they are able to give at the moment. We try to make a habit of sitting face to face for at least 5 minutes 3 days a week to have intentional check-ins.
It feels weird at first, and kind of intense. My kids really, really don’t know how to share their feelings. Some days, I do all the talking. Some days, we sit in silence for the better part of 5 minutes. My kids still know that they are valued and heard. It is work. It is, for me, an introvert, very emotionally taxing some days. I keep telling myself it will be worth it if it brings some connection to my relationship with my teenage adoptee.
5. Have clear, well-defined boundaries.
Every teenager, whether they’re a teenage adoptee or not, needs boundaries. Sometimes this feels less like support and more like being a 90s movie bad guy. You know you’re aging when watching The Little Mermaid with your kids and Ariel’s line, “I’m 16 years old, I’m not a child anymore!” makes you snort and mutter, “Oh yes, you absolutely are. Listen to your daddy, little girl.” The stomping, eye rolls, door slamming, and general disrespect are about to send me over the edge.
We are right now this minute dealing with a computer issue with our younger teen. He was looking at unsavory content on a school-issued computer. This is not the first time we have had discussions about this behavior. He knows the consequences. He will likely not have computer privileges at home until he moves out at this point but he knows where the line is and that he crossed it. I am the queen of inconsistency. My ADHD makes it difficult to remember from one day to the next what consequences I’m even supposed to be enforcing. Luckily for me, technology is in my favor. I’ve started setting alerts in my calendar with “events” alerting me when there is a consequence.
Right now, his computer goes into my hands from the time he walks in the door until his chore is done. He does his homework in the dining room while being watched. He hands the computer back for bedtime. Until he can model trustworthiness and produces a written apology to the school, this will be his plight. Every time I ask for the computer, he acts as if it is a brand new consequence and brand new information. Delightful. Regardless, he knows that we mean what we say. In the long run, this will help him even if, in the meantime, he destroys his door with all the slamming.
6. Communicate regularly with the school.
This is easier now than it was even a year ago. I have every teacher’s email address and they are amazing at getting back to me, usually the same day. This ties in with the consistency that your teenage adoptee craves, even if they never say it. It is more difficult for them to triangulate with you and the school if you and the school are on the same page. For a solid week, our son was telling us he didn’t have homework. We watched his gradebook online and saw he was missing assignments left and right.
A few emails to the school and suddenly he believes us that he’s been caught in the lie and he has a private one-on-one time with his science teacher for the things he didn’t understand. Yes, he resents this in the way only a teen can. However, he is learning. School was such a trial for him and now he enjoys it. I’m sure this would not be the case if it wasn’t for the amazing teachers who pour so much of themselves into my kids. I’m finding out that teachers by and large want the best for their students, even the difficult ones. They may shrug their shoulders with you while discussing how to help your disgruntled teen but they also care about him getting the education he needs.
7. Take your teenagers shopping with you every once in a while, even by themselves if you can manage it.
It doesn’t have to be for them specifically. My husband started singling out my son to go to the hardware store or grocery store with him when he needed to go for a few things. I have other children that he tries to rotate through as well but it means something different to the teens. Even if they only say 3 words to each other the whole trip, I’ve noticed an attitude change in my son when he comes home after a trip with Dad. There is a connection being built.
8. Tell your teenage adoptee you are proud of them.
Yes, this may cue eye rolls, huffs, sighs, and some other exasperated noises but it means more to them than they are letting on. Truly. My son stands a little taller when his dad compliments him. He works at his chores a little better when he is told he’s doing a good job or is thanked for doing something he was supposed to do anyway. It is such a little thing but it makes a big difference around here.
9. Be the “friend” house if you can.
Stock the fridge with Cokes and the pantry with snacks. Let your teen know it is okay if their friends come over to hang out. Have them invite them over for dinner. My kids are introverted and since they changed schools, we have done this way less but it was so good to get to know the kids my son considered friends. He eventually got tired of having people in his space so it stopped but it was fun while it lasted.
10. Speak to them in their love language.
Visit this love languages quiz site and have them answer the questions. Then try to intentionally love them the way they are most receptive to it. My jam is quality time. My girls are wired the same way. It is easy for me to fill their love buckets. It is harder for me to fill my teens’ buckets.
Teen life is more complicated than it has ever been. Adding the complication of adoption-related grief makes it even harder. Be intentional about your interactions with your teenage adoptee and the people they spend time with and you will both be better for it. Good luck.