Bringing Home Your New Teen

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You are adopting a teen and have so many plans for their futures!  You see the amazing child that has been overlooked or dismissed and you want to be the one to help them shine!  After all, time is short before your child turns 18, right?  You have to hurry to get them “caught up” to their peers and help them acclimate to this American lifestyle.

Sound familiar to what you hear, think, and worry about?

Not so fast.  Based on our own experiences with adopting teens, nearly everything about how to approach them is counter-intuitive.

First, 18 years old is not the “end” of parenting.  Parenting is a lifetime journey and especially when we get a later start at getting to parent our children.

There are many things to celebrate -- your long-awaited new child is HOME!!  But there can be many challenges for the new parents, siblings, and especially the newly adopted teenager.

The first six months can be the hardest and THIS IS NORMAL!  Just as with new parents bringing home a newborn baby, there are a range of emotions and changes involved in this monumental shift in your household.  Some new adoptive parents even experience some depression similar to that of post-partum faced by moms who have recently given birth.

The siblings in the home prior to this teen adoption may have difficulty adapting to the new dynamic in their home.  Mom and dad are now preoccupied with their new sibling and many past household rules and norms may seem to be more flexible for the new brother or sister than for them.  This seems unfair and is hard to swallow at times for ANY age child.

Your new teenager is going through an immense amount of stress and adjustment in these first six months.

  • All new things.  Even if they were hosted by the adoptive family prior to their adoption, this is now the “real deal.” They have to learn how to navigate EVERYthing in their lives - from within the home to the entire world outside, too. 
  • They may miss their home country and the people they left behind there. This isn’t their home country and they miss that familiarity of sights, foods, smells, and language.
  • They may want NOTHING to do with their home country as it may bring up negative feelings and emotions.
  • They have many fears:

  • Will their new family really love them?
  • How will they make friends?
  • How will they learn at school?
  • What about when people don’t understand their English?

So what can you do to help this transition for everyone?

  • The first 6 months is a time to learn more about your child, identify any emotional triggers they may have, identifying learning or physical needs to address, and to bond. You are your child’s filter and shield - you stand between them and the big, big world beyond.  Even if they say they want to do every activity under the sun, it is your job to guard, guide and protect them.
  • Focus more on CONNECTION. Even for families that previously knew their children, this is still a major focus.  Many will feel that they “know” their child, but throughout this first year, I’ve seen it happen over and over again that the bond is not as strong as the parents perceived.  This is not a summer or Christmas vacation.  There are now new roles, expectations, and the clash with the child’s past trauma, the present, and the future.  Language barriers, culture shock and cultural norms can collide, but with very diligent work to connect with your child, the healing and bonding will have a space to grow and develop.
  • Be mindful of self-care.. Exercise, drinking enough water, and getting enough sleep.  Take time for yourself that will help give you a break from the hard work you’re doing and help keep your emotions more balanced.  I’ve heard this called “building your own personal capacity” for some people. Take time to be intentional about regularly scheduling family game or movie nights. Keep all other outside activities to a minimum for at least the first 6 months. It allows the margin you will need to change plans if needed or create boundaries that will protect and allow your new family to gain its bearings.
  • REMEMBER, their emotional maturity will not match their biological age.  In fact usually their emotional age is half of their physical age depending on each child’s trauma and years in care. So give these teens grace.
  • Catch your teen “doing good” and praise them for it!

What about integrating my child into their world around them for friends and being a typical teen?

  • Your focus should not be signing your new child up for every activity and school and making sure that they fit in and become more American.
  • I often give people the picture of throwing a baby into the Atlantic Ocean without a life raft. The same goes for throwing a newly adopted teen into the “ocean” called America. They can easily get consumed and drown. They get sucked in by electronics, materialism, and social situations they are not equipped to navigate while already going through the storm of trying to figure out their new role in a family.
  • Limit, limit, limit all electronics for a variety of reasons.  There are numerous studies on this and the impact electronics have on a trauma brain.  It is imperative that you are aware of the challenges and handle your home electronics policies very carefully.

“I have friends who have adopted and my story feels nothing like what I expected after watching their experience."

  • Be careful not to compare your child or adoption experience to anyone else. Each child and family are unique and so is each adoption.
  • Some children immediately begin sharing more intimate details of their story once they are home while others may want to absolutely NOT talk about the past.  Let your child lead on this in the early days and seek guidance from a professional when you need additional guidance.  Trauma has many layers and manifests in so many ways that it is important to have additional help when things are difficult to manage.

What caught you most off guard in your adoption story?

"I had no clue how tired...physically and emotionally I would be after adopting a teen. We went from 4 to 5 children and yet my newly adopted, oldest child needed the most attention. In retrospect, you can verbally affirm your knowledge of what the first year will bring, but you NEVER truly understand until you are thrown into it. There were many good moments, but many hard ones."

The goal is not about making sure your new child obeys all your rules, but rather bonds emotionally.  Creating “yes” moments is key and allowing your child to have a voice. 

"Our son complained a lot, but he was not unhappy as much as he was scared to let go and trust. He had a chronic fear of being taken back to his home country.  This fear reared its ugly head in how he interacted with our family. This process was not overnight - it took many months of slowly chipping away at it.  Some days it felt like one step forward, three steps backward.  But in time, there was progress and growth for all of us."

Teen adoption is not widely understood.  It is a rare occurrence and so many people are caught off-guard - caught between their expectations and their reality.  It is incredibly special getting to see the growth and progress of these children who were statistically deemed “not adoptable” (by the statistics of ages that people adopt).  Welcome to the club and know that no matter how your story unfolds and progresses, you are NOT alone!

A special thank you to our P143 volunteer, Andrea, for sharing your story and insight.

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Traci Mai


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