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How Do You Describe Parenting?

Rewarding. Exhausting. Life-giving. Fulfilling. Crazy-making. So very hard. Joyful. Humbling. Unpredictable. Relentless. Challenging. The best. Extraordinary. Chaos.

Any honest parent will tell you that it can be all of those things (and then some!) at the same time. Regardless of whether you’re parenting adopted children, foster children, or biological children. And: it can be all of those things at any age, whether you’ve got a happy infant, a rambunctious toddler, an inquisitive middle-schooler, or a teenager with roller-coaster-like moods. 

If you’ve parented a child from infancy to adulthood, then maybe you feel like you know the ropes. You’ve been through it a time or two, you’ve figured out what you didn’t know the first time around, and you’ve successfully guided your child through various stages of development so that now they’re functioning young adults out in the world.

Or, if you’ve taken the fantastic leap into adopting a teenager, maybe you don’t feel like anyone even gave you any ropes, let alone told you how to know them. Maybe it feels like what you figured out the first time around doesn’t work. Or maybe there was no first time around – perhaps you’ve jumped head-first into parenting a teen, armed with what you hope is enough training and surrounded by what you hope is a big enough village. 

First, let us say that we applaud and celebrate you – all of you, the “know the ropes” parents and the “what ropes?!” parents. If you’re parenting an adopted teen right now, there may be a few things you’re wondering about. If that’s you, keep reading!

Teens and Brain Development

There’s a lot of research that shows that the brain doesn’t really fully develop until you’re about 25. Last time we checked, that was 7 years after the end of teenagedom! The part of the brain that’s last to fully develop – the prefrontal cortex – is responsible for things like impulse control, planning, and prioritizing. That explains a lot of teenage behavior, doesn’t it? If it seems like your teen is making decisions without thinking them through, or has the impulse control of a much younger child, you can take comfort that there’s a scientific reason behind some of that!

Teens who have had experienced early trauma may be more prone to impulsive, potentially risky behaviors. They may also struggle with learning new problem-solving skills: they’ve relied on their survival skills for so long; or they may need to develop a bond with their adoptive parent before they can start to view the parent as a reliable source of information for new skills.

Some ideas:

  • Take the opportunity to help your teen think through the risks and implications of their decisions. Perhaps you spend some time talking through their personal goals, and working through a pros/cons list, or “what happens if…” exercise.
  • Give your teen lots of chances to take “good” risks that are likely to have positive results and positive reinforcement: like trying a sport they’ve never played before, or picking up a new musical instrument.

Teens and Identity

Who am I? What do I believe in? Who do I want to be? What are the things that make me me? These questions aren’t unique to teens – but they are pretty common in the teenage years. And for teens who have been adopted, these questions can be especially fraught with anxiety and confusion. 

  • Encourage your teen to learn about their culture and heritage, even (and especially) if it is different from your own. This is a critical time for teens to explore their ethnic, racial, and even religious identity. If you haven’t already, look for ways to connect your teen to activities that may help them understand who they are.
  • Talk with your teen openly about their birth family, culture of origin, and other aspects of their life before adoption. These conversations may not always be comfortable, but they’re important to helping your child understand who they are and begin to form an idea of who they would like to be.  
  • If your teen doesn’t already have a Lifebook, consider helping them make one. Lifebooks don’t have to follow a specific format, but they basically serve as a record of the important events, people, and times in a child’s life. If your teen is the crafty sort, pull out the scrapbooking supplies. If your teen shows an interest in video, consider making some videos or interviewing family members to capture those important events.

In our second installment of “Parenting an Adopted Teen,” we’ll look at some of the challenges of parenting an adopted teen who is nearing adulthood. How do you ensure they’re ready for adulthood? How much independence should you allow? What are the skills these youth need most? In the meantime, though, we highly recommend this in-depth and accessible article from our partners at ChildWelfare.gov. 

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