Adopting a teen can be a daunting prospect. Most people think about babies when they think about adoption, but there are many older children and teenagers who are waiting for a family. there are many valid fears about adopting an older child, but sometimes older children need the stability and love of a forever home even more than the young kids do. Most of them have been in foster care for a very long time, have face multiple moves and houses, and have face loss not just once, but possibly over and over. Luckily the amount of families looking to adopt older children is growing all the time. Many children who are not adopted “age out” out of the system and have rough lives as adults, often ending up incarcerated or homeless. Those who have been adopted as teens say that it was the best thing that ever happened to them. In the words of one teenager “They’ve really given me a new look on life. Instead of feeling just like that I’m all alone, I actually feel like I have somebody there for me.”
Teens need parenting just as much as a young child would. They need someone to help them navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of middle and high school, which are hard enough to manage for a child who has grown up in a steady, reliable home. They need someone to teach them to drive, how to debate logically instead of argue, and provide direction regarding life skills, such as maintaining positive relationships and budgeting. They often have had little to no experience with positive ways of handling stress and emotional tumult. Often they don’t know anything about home repairs, bill paying, or how to fill out an application. They need guidance as they decide what type of career to pursue, and help selecting a college, technical school, or job. Teens need a parent to cheer on success and to support them when mistakes are made. Adopting a teen gives a person an opportunity to be a mentor and a positive role model. Life beyond the teenage years is much easier with parents.Moving by yourself into a dorm room or getting married with no one to walk you down the aisle is a difficult proposition. Because adoption is a life-long commitment, the role of an adoptive parent doesn’t stop once a child becomes an adult, so there’s no need to worry about adopting a child for a few short years. Even adults need a family to belong to and a support system for life’s setbacks.
While the teen years are hard enough for a biological family, imagine taking away any sense of stability in that equation. Teens from any background spend those years trying to explore and answer questions like “Who am I?” and “What are my beliefs and values?” when establishing their identity, which can be very difficult with no home and no trusting arms to push back against. Questions of identity raise unresolved thoughts and feelings about birth parents from whom teens must still psychologically separate. For some adopted teens, separation can also seem like rejection and independence like abandonment—emotions associated with the loss of birth parents. Adopted teens who cannot express these troubling thoughts and emotions to someone (a parent or therapist, for example) are at risk for potentially serious emotional and behavioral problems including depression, substance abuse, school failure, etc.
Communication with an adopted teen is key. Make your messages clear that you are willing and open to discussing anything. All teens will push boundaries, but adopted teens will be fearful that pushing boundaries will leave them alone again, which can lead to either pushing away harder and faster, or to acting out in different, unanticipated areas, because they are worried about pushing away adoptive parents and being on their own again. Look for red flags in behavior early. After a lifetime of shifting rules and uncertainty, there are often lessons in behavior that were never taught or that kids had to teach themselves. Pay attention to signals that may seem like bizarre behavior at first, because often they are attempts to communicate questions or pain that the child never learned to express through adolescence.
In the end, while it can be infinitely more difficult to take a young adult into your home and life, and you should think very hard about that decision, it can also change their entire world for the better for the rest of their lives, and yours.