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Identity Struggles When Adopted Teens Leave Home

A young woman college student, standing on campus.

The late teen years are a crucial time for any child. For adopted teens, this time can bring on an additional host of questions and insecurities. When the time comes to contemplate the future, teens may begin to wonder, “Who am I?” and “What will I be like as an adult?” For adopted teens, it doesn’t stop there. With an entirely new world and new people that leaving the nest brings, questions of identity may also arise.

The teen years can be challenging for parents as well. With less and less input into what your child is doing, it’s important to offer guidance that shows your child you understand and you’re here to help.

What Changes

After moving out, teens begin to think of themselves as separate from the family unit. Managing and maintaining familial relationships becomes their own responsibility. For adopted children, the late teen years make up an especially critical phase. Managing relationships becomes more of their own responsibility than that of their adoptive parents. Often they have two sets of families to manage instead of one, and a lot more freedom in deciding how to handle them. They are faced with a BIG question: Who are all of these people going to be to me now that I’m going to manage these relationships as opposed to my mom and dad?

Adoptees with ethnic backgrounds different from their adoptive families may explore their ethnicities. For the first time, transracial adoptees have to think about themselves as the rest of the world sees them on their own, rather than within the context of their family. They have to explain their story for the first time without the help of their parents. They may feel anger toward their adoptive parents or uncertainty about their own identity if they experience a culture shock amongst peers of the same ethnicity.

If they don’t have an open adoption, teens may choose to search. The desire to find birth relatives may be driven by a desire for a connection with someone who looks, sounds and feels similar. Or they may want to have more information about their birth family and the story of why and how they were placed from the original source. They may not tell their adoptive parents about their search in order to avoid hurt feelings.

How Parents Can Help

There are many ways to make the transition into adulthood and the identity formation process easier for your child.

  • Talk about the future. When talking to your child about your relationship going forward, make sure they know you’ll still be there for them. Talk about life in a way that envisions a long-term relationship with your child, such as planning visits.
  • Don’t change their home space right away. While you may have been banking on using their room as your personal gym, it is important that your child doesn’t feel replaced by an elliptical. Your child still needs to feel like home is home, in order to go out into the world confidently.
  • Support their individuality. In their late teenage years, teens develop her individuality while trying to seek a sense of belonging. Social ties take on increased importance as teens test-drive identities within peer groups. Let this happen and be supportive along the way.
  • Encourage independence. During this time, your child will begin to reconcile their identity created with their family, their biological identity, and the identity they create while on their own. For this reason, it is important to show support for you child’s journey wherever that may take them.
  • Support their search. Parents who support their child’s search, reassuring them that it does not hurt your feelings or diminish your role, protect that child from being alone and vulnerable in the process.
  • Communicate. While independence is important, the most important thing you can do is keep the channels of communication open, so that your child knows he or she can come to you if they need to.

For more help, schedule an appointment with a Cradle therapist.

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