There are many layers of understanding adoptees process as they grow to adulthood. Whether an adoptee has a relationship with his birth parents or not, that connection impacts the child’s development. How can adoptive parents respect the perspective of their children and that connection so that the child integrates those layers and forms a healthy identity?
Katie Naftzger, LICSW, is an adult adoptee, adoption therapist and the author of Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Teen Years*. She’s sharing this guest post with us to help adoptive parents gain a deeper understanding of their children and thus help them move forward in identity formation.
A Connecting Thread Among Adoptees
For many adopted teens and young adults, growing up is anything but straightforward! Of course, growing up is often challenging, adopted, or not and each adoptee is unique in their journey. That said, the connecting thread is that they were separated from their birth parents.
As a psychotherapist, I’ve seen many adopted teens and young adults, some of whom I’ve had the privilege of working with for many years. The adoption experience so often defies description, and yet, the details matter.
I’ve learned that for adoptees, their relationship and feelings about their birth mothers and fathers are very much alive, meaningful, and ongoing. This is also true even for adoptees who have no contact or identifying information.
Let me share an example of what I mean. (Various identifying details have been altered for purposes of confidentiality.)
Jeff, a high school senior who was adopted from Vietnam, was confused and stressed about his life path. On the surface, he might seem like the typical, well-adjusted, lost, anxious teenager at a crossroads between college and work.
However, when we dug a little deeper, adoption themes emerged over time. As we continued to explore the topic of the next steps after high school, I asked Jeff what made this particular decision so difficult. He responded that he wanted to show his birth mother that she had “made a mistake.”
Like many adoptees, for as long as he could remember, Jeff was told that his adoption wasn’t his fault. He was told that his birth mother gave him up because she loved him and wanted him to have a better life. When asked, he repeated precisely that story.
But, when we dug down to it, even more, his version was different. His own personal version of the story was based on emotion, not logic. In his story, his birth mother didn’t think he was special enough or important enough to keep. In his perspective, she underestimated him. He believed that if he could make the “right” decision and maximize his chances of “success,” whatever that means, he could show her that she made a mistake.
He had so much riding on this!
Jeff had something to prove, not just to her, but also to himself. His own feelings of self-worth were on the line. Was he just a loser after all?
Jeff hadn’t yet realized that he would never be successful in showing his birth mother up. Why? Because his birth mother’s decision to place him for adoption had nothing to do with him. Jeff’s version of the story gave him an illusion of power and control in an extreme situation that was out of his hands.
For some adoptees, like Jeff, understanding their adoption is about working through their anger. For others, it’s about wanting to make a birth parent proud. When they “fail” in that effort, their guilt extends to their birth parent(s) as well.
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It was her junior year in high school, and things had come to a head between Becky and her adoptive mother. In one incident, Becky tried to take the car without permission. Her mom wrestled the keys out of her hand, accidentally scraping her daughter’s arm in the process.
Becky called me crying, saying that she was being abused and couldn’t take it anymore. Her mother told me later that her worst fear was being realized – she felt she had failed as a parent.
Becky came in to see me a few days later. Given her mother’s description of irreparable damage, one might have expected Becky to also talk about her mother being a failure. But she didn’t.
She said, tearfully, “It’s been really bad with my mom. We can’t seem to get along, no matter how hard we try. Now I’ve failed with two mothers!”
“How do you think you failed with your birth mom?”
Becky said, “She sacrificed everything for me to give me a better life. Now it’s wasted. I let her down.”
In Becky’s version, her birth mother sacrificed her own well-being for Becky, a gift that Becky felt compelled to repay.
Becky wanted to show that her birth mother made the right decision. Jeff wanted his birth mother to see that she made a mistake.
What Do Our Children Need From Us?
What do they need from us to move forward? They need us to respect their story, even though we see it differently.
Instead of disagreeing with them, we can say,
To Jeff, “You want to prove something to your birth mom. Yet, your future matters for its own sake, separate from your birth mom. It might be hard to figure out which is which.”
To Becky, “You’re living for so many important people. You’re shouldering a lot of responsibility in all of this! It feels like there’s so much riding on how this turns out.”
Putting words to our kids’ experiences is incredibly powerful. This helps them to feel more understood, less alone, and ultimately empowered to move forward.
Thank you, Katie, for the thoughtful observations that help adoptive parents connect with their children to understand and support them well.
Katie Naftzger’s website offers webinars and other learning opportunities for adoptive parents. Sign up for her e-mail list to keep up with the resources she offers.
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Image Credit: Nisha A; Otto Kristensen; State Farm