My son will be thirteen-years old, this August. He was delivered into our family via adoption, from Russia. When we brought him home, he was just eleven-months old. Over the years, he’s not been one to speak much about being an adoptee; he’s somewhat quiet regarding the topic.
As an international adoptee myself, I don’t press the matter. My son knows that we carry an open-door policy on the matter of adoption discussion. In other words, there’s never a bad time to ask a question, and there’s never a bad question to ask. As his mother, I want my son to know that he is safe to explore his feelings and emotions with his family. I want him to understand that, in our home, transparency is held as top priority. It’s important for my son to feel safe as he enters into his teen years: safe to discuss his adoption story, openly and honestly.
Just this week, my son asked my husband, “Dad, do you think that my birthfather has a beard like you?” My husband replied, “I don’t know. Do you think you’d like to meet him someday and find out?” There was a slight pause, and then a reply. “Yes, I would.”
This statement was a big development. My boy has never mentioned his birthfather before. Yet, even though we were never given information about this man … somewhere deep inside, I know that my son can sense his birthfather’s presence within him. As our son nears his thirteenth year, it’s really a beautiful thing to think that he is probing — for himself — who his birthfather is.
I can remember, prior to my own adolescence, becoming very curious about my adoption story. It’s a time in life when I wanted answers that were more factual than, perhaps, I’d been given as a child. I became keenly aware that to be adopted meant that someone, at some point, had to make the decision to let me go.
Adolescence is a confusing time — whether adopted or not. Here are important “why” questions that adopted teens will have. I know because I used to be one.
- Why was I adopted? Yes, this question will come up — if it hasn’t already. One of the most difficult challenges of parenting an adopted teen is answering the why of their child’s adoption story. Sometimes, we — as parents — can wander off point when our conversation begins to move into uncomfortable territory. We don’t want to upset our child and so we shy away from sharing the whole truth. It really is best to practice transparency in this situation. If you don’t know the answer, be honest about that. If you do know, be honest about that, too. Once the truth has been shared, you can expand upon your dialogue with loving and supportive thoughts and suggestions to further your conversation. You could say: I know it’s frustrating to try to put these pieces of your story together. I’m here to share with you all that I know and to support you along this journey. How does that sound to you?
- Why did my birthparents leave? When I was a child, this question could be answered with a more general explanation. As I grew into my teens, however, I wanted — and longed for — specifics. Gaps or holes in an adopted teen’s story can further damage his/her sense of identity. The facts, even if hard ones, are far better serving than the fantasies that teen adoptees might feel forced to create when this question is left unanswered. You could say: I believe you’re ready to hear all that I know about your birthparents and the reasons that they made an adoption plan for you. I want you to know that what I’m telling you is all that I have been told. I’m being completely honest and open and, if any of these facts are troubling to you, I’m here to talk it all through. What does that sound like to you?
- Why do I feel so different? As adults, we all know that adolescence is a time when all teens can feel different, or out of place. Teenagers desire to fit in, be accepted, and included. For the teen of adoption, however, this question can carry many levels of emotions. Teen adoptees can feel different in a variety of ways. Perhaps, they are being raised in a different culture than that of their birth family; or are of a different race than their adopted family. Perhaps, they just wish to be like their friends who are growing up with their own biological families. The key here is to remember that your teen of adoption will feel different from his/her peers. Often, even different from you; and being tender to this fact is so very important. When I was growing up, I looked very different from my adoptive family. I was darker in coloring and I was often treated poorly by my peers at school. It was difficult for me to explain to my family the words I was called and the harassment I endured. I kept much of this hurt inside of me. Your teen doesn’t need to suffer in this way. You could say: What are you experiencing at school? Are you being treated differently? If so, why do you think you are? I would really like you to share this with me because I don’t want you to feel alone. We will navigate these waters together!
- Why do I feel like I don’t know who I am? This is the “Who Am I” question that every parent wants to help their teen with. For the adopted teen, this question takes on extra meaning as they struggle with who they are, and where they came from. Forming a healthy identity is essential. Teens will often look to their biological parents as they form/mold their identities. Who do I look like? Where did I get this talent for art, or this ability in sports? Where did my brown eyes come from? Adoptive parents need to understand that their teenager will need to look to their birthparents for some of these answers. This, in no way, means that their teen is loving someone else more. You can give them the great gift of knowing that it is safe to explore the information they long for. Keep birthparents in your conversation. Let your teen know that you think of their birthparents, too…and that you value them. You could say: I am so grateful for your birthparents. I’m always thinking of them, holding them close in my heart, and saying a prayer for them. I’m here for you and I support your quest for information. Let me be your partner in seeking out the answers you need. How does that sound to you?
- Why do I think about my birthparents so much? Teens can often experience deep feelings of guilt that relate to their thoughts about their birth parents. I did. Sometimes our thoughts of birthparents are interrupted by, “It’s not okay to think these things because it might upset my parents!” Or, “I can’t let my parents know that I’m thinking of my birth family. It might really hurt them or make me seem ungrateful.” The teen will often struggle through these thoughts alone. This isn’t okay, and it’s certainly not healthy. Parents should know that all adopted children will ponder the existence of their birthparents at some point. The intensity will vary, of course, depending on the child and the situation — however, your child will ponder! As your child grows, it’s important for them to know that thinking about their birthparents is okay. For the teen of adoption, it’s really essential. You could say: I want you to know that it’s okay to think about your birthparents. It’s really very important that you do! I also want you to know that I’m here to talk to if you want to share those thoughts and feelings.
As parents of teens delivered into our lives through adoption, we should let our kids know that we are not afraid to talk about their birth story. We should let them know that we are not threatened to talk about their birth parents. We should let them know that their birthparents are very much a part of who they are. And, that this is honored and valued.
By showing love and appreciation for your teen’s birthparents, you’ll go a long way in forging open and honest dialogue about their adoption and the feelings and emotions that come along with it. You’ll be able to move through the questions of why — together! And, in the doing, you’ll build a strong foundation of respect and understanding to last a lifetime.
Onward to healthy and happy teens!