When is your adoptive child's behavior a stage in normal adolescent development, and when is it cause for concern?

Q: We adopted our daughter at 18 months old. Early on, she was social and popular with all of the kids in her classes. She enjoyed extracurricular activities and excelled in school. But over the past few years, she has been seeking out the loners, the kids who act out and break rules. Now that she’s 12 years old, we’re concerned about how these peers will influence her. We have tried everything to create some distance between them and her, but she defies our rules and seems determined to associate with these “friends.” Is this just a phase? Do we intervene or trust her to choose her friends? How do we help her make better choices?

A: What you are experiencing with your daughter is a common phase among adolescents—yet, sometimes, it is more than a phase for adopted children, particularly if it starts before middle school. As parents, you want to fuel your child’s success and support independence, but in this situation, these goals conflict with each other. Knowing that social circles for pre-teens greatly impacts their future-defining choices, it’s difficult to just sit by and watch your child involve herself with those who could lead her down the wrong path.

Perhaps you can relate to this scenario...

You start with some calm, heart-to-heart conversations about good choices and the proverbial “don’t-jump-off-a-cliff-because-your-friends-tell-you-to” speech. When that approach doesn’t make the desired impact, you try to infuse positive socializing through extracurricular activities like Girl Scouts, swimming, or softball. Your child may or may not excel in these activities but still flocks to others at school or in the neighborhood who may influence her negatively. Feeling out of other options, you then may feel compelled to tighten the reins a bit—limiting use of the cell phone and computer and narrowing down the social events and hangouts to where she will more likely be positively influenced. Some children become very resourceful and skilled in defying those limits, and you discover weeks or months later that your child has been pretending to work on a project in the library so she could meet up with peers, or had her friends create an alias Facebook account.

Unfortunately, situations like these tend to escalate. Grounding for one week becomes two weeks. Using the cell phone on weekends becomes no cell phone access at all, with passwords on other family members’ phones and computers—ultimately inhibiting the trial-and-error process of social development. In the end, none of this is effective, and it becomes a vicious cycle of control and broken trust.

Let’s clarify a few dynamics that may be in play:

First, you can’t rely on your teen’s logical thinking since the decision-making and cause-and-effect area of the brain doesn’t fully develop until about 25 years of age. So when you ask your daughter, “What were you thinking?!” and she says, “I don’t know,” she may be giving you an honest answer. While we hope teens consider the consequences before going along with their friends, keep in mind, their brains don’t fully work that way yet. In walk-through conversations about various situations, your teen may express the right or safe way to respond—but the moment it’s happening, that step-by-step storyline gets lost in translation from hypothetical to real-time situations.

Also, physical and emotional development impacts teens’ perceptions and behavior, and adoption can make the process more complex and difficult to navigate. 

Here’s the parental challenge: this is part of your adoptee’s journey that you cannot resolve for her, but you can walk with her. Consider providing opportunities for your teen to form a connection with other adoptees. Many agencies have mentors and support groups, some specifically for adopted teens. Meeting with them (separately, apart from you) can help ease some of this internal conflict. What’s impactful is not necessarily talking about adoption. Simply being in proximity with someone who intimately knows their grief can be beneficial.

This can also be a good time to revisit family therapy with an adoption-competent professional and make some additions to your daughter’s Lifebook. It’s common for adopted children between 8 and 12 years old to long for more details about their birth family, what adoption means, and how they came into your life.

Finally, encourage judgment-free discussions about tough topics and express your intentions to support her through both successes and failures. Share personal lessons-learned or ask other respected adults share their stories with her. Admit to your daughter that your job is to protect her, and it’s tough to let go. Proactively seek encouragement and guidance from friends, family, and faith.


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