Dear Director

Dear Director,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

We fostered our daughter from the time she was 11 months old through Children and Youth Services. She had only been with her birth parents till then but was taken away due to neglect. Her adoption was finalized when she was 3. We wrapped her in our love and created a beautiful family, until about 4 months ago.  Our daughter turned 13 and suddenly, we don’t recognize her. She is slamming doors, screaming at us, and spending tons of time alone in her room. We can’t reach her. We have decided to seek professional help. Please let us know if there is anything special we should look for when choosing a counselor for her? What’s going on?

~From, Frustrated and Perplexed

Dear Frustrated and Perplexed,

Don’t worry, your daughter is in there somewhere, but welcome to adolescence!  These years are, of course, focused on teens finding their identify, trying on different personas and hair and clothing styles and manners and also in creating the emotional distance from their family needed to “launch” and leave at some point with that family still in their heart. Your daughter is also full of hormones that are changing and going up and down, and these change moment to moment so you are never sure which daughter will show up.

The challenge for adopted children is they and their adoptive parents have this “shadow” family lurking in the background, the birth parents. It was probably easy until now not to think of that birth mother who was labeled with a mental illness that prevented her from safely parenting your daughter, or the substance abuse, domestic violence, criminal activity; whatever the birth parents experienced that led to the termination of their parental rights. But it may sneak out now to lead you to believe that what you are seeing in your daughter is just her birth parents’ showing up in the mood swings, anger, etc. Please, don’t go there just yet.

So much of who birth parents are is from their own childhood environment (their nurture) over the genetic material they passed down to your daughter (their nature). And we will assume that the nurture your daughter has experienced since coming to you before her first birthday was more stable, enriched, and, well, nurturing, even if it could never be perfect. Nobody is guaranteed to have a mental health disorder or a criminal background just because their birth parent did. That is why adoption changes lives for children.

Remember, so much of what your daughter is experiencing could be considered “normal” or within the range of normal adolescent behaviors, with a dab of birth parents material in there. But she may also be wondering, am I doomed to make the same mistakes my birth parents did, or can I have a different life? I bet you are too. This question is central to the adolescent development of adopted children. So even if she can’t say it out loud, it is in there.

That is why it is so important to find an “Adoption Competent” therapist-someone with experience, training, and knowledge of how adoptive families and adopted children are different from birth families. You need someone who does not start working with your family by assuming that your family created both the nurture and the nature that led to any difficulties. You all need someone who can tease out for you what is part of the typical adolescent developmental pattern while also acknowledging the impact of the early neglect and trauma your daughter experienced, and the family history of the birth parents that may impact her future development. Do not be afraid to ask any potential therapist about their experience, and their theoretical approach when working with adoptive teens and families. Look for someone who understands trauma and its impact on child development. Grill them on their understanding of attachment theory. If you find someone who understands these factors, you will all be on track soon.