The teenage years are a period of enormous change and development for all youth, as their brains are continuing to develop and they forge new and independent identities. Adoption can add yet another layer of complexity to this developmental period, regardless of the age at which the child was adopted. Because chemical changes in the teenage brain make them less able to control impulses and think through the consequences of their actions, it’s especially important that all teens receive guidance from the caring adults in their lives.

When a child is abandoned or has been removed from the care of their birth parents, he or she can gain many benefits from being adopted into a loving, supportive family. Adoptive families can provide their children with a safe, supportive neighborhood, enrollment and support in a school environment, as well as love, emotional support, and stimulation at home. Even with all of these supports from adoptive parents, sometimes adopted children struggle through their teenage years in a way that non-adopted children do not. Gaining awareness of some of these issues as well as therapeutic supports to put in place can help your child learn to thrive during this difficult time.

Common attachment, emotional, and behavioral issues for adopted teens

Teens who have been adopted, at any age, can struggle with emotional, behavioral, and attachment issues throughout adolescence. Researchers suggest that these challenges can start with certain elements of brain development. Because the teenage brain experiences significant cognitive and social-emotional development, teen brains may be vulnerable to the impact of early childhood trauma and/or adoption. Adoption itself may not impact brain development, but a child’s early life experiences, such as trauma or abuse, do. For those children who have experienced trauma, their brains can become wired to be hyper-alert for threats to their safety.

Outside of brain development, teens who have been adopted are at a higher risk for many emotional issues. A key tenet of adolescence is discovering independence and oscillating between wanting more freedom and wanting the safety and protection offered by their families. As teens prepare to transition to greater independence that events such as graduation, getting a job, or attending college provide, they may start questioning the permanence of their families. Looking ahead to this separation can trigger the emotions reminiscent of the loss of their parents, siblings, or other relatives. This can result in fear or anxiety of losing another parent and can cause teens to avoid or undermine this transition to independence.

Adopted teens may also struggle more with identity formation than their peers. Questions such as “Who am I?” and “Where do I belong?” help to define beliefs and values and forming this identity can be more complicated for adopted teens. They may question who they are on a deeper level as they struggle to reconcile how similar and different they are not only from their adoptive parents but from their birth parents as well. If birth family information is missing, identity formation can be further complicated as teens wonder where certain characteristics or abilities came from. This can often take the form of teens searching for more information about their birth families.

Other common emotional and psychological issues in adopted teens include feelings of rejection, loss and grief, self-esteem, and genetic problems. As teens reflect on their familial situation they may experience extreme feelings of rejection, wondering why their biological family did not love them or want them. These types of feelings can also create behavioral problems such as angry outbursts or impulsive behaviors.

Adopted teens are also more likely to struggle with behavioral issues and perform worse in academic settings. A research study reported that adopted students were twice as likely to have their parents contacted about schoolwork problems, three times more likely to have their parents contacted about behavioral problems, four times more likely to have repeated a grade, and three times more likely to have been suspended or expelled from school. The study indicated that these academic and behavioral issues can be related to a higher number of psychological and physical conditions in adopted children such as severe emotional disturbance, intellectual disabilities, autism, and ADHD.

Lastly, many adopted children can develop RAD, Reactive Attachment Disorder. This occurs when a child or teen cannot attach and trust as they should, and therefore struggles to develop close and intimate relationships. When a child is taken from their birth mother, even if placed in a loving and supportive home, this can cause confusion and lessen the trusting abilities of the child. These issues can often be hidden until adolescence and then can manifest in a variety of ways, such as angry and rageful behaviors, pleasing behavior so more abandonment will not follow, or refusing to get close to anyone because they don’t believe any positive relationship will last.

If your child is experiencing one or many of these impacts, adoption therapy, either individually or as a family, can help him get the support he needs.

Adoption therapy and how it can provide help to struggling teens

Adoption therapy can be beneficial support for adopted children at many phases of development but particularly during adolescence. Adoption-competent therapists have a working understanding of loss, attachment, trauma, brain development, and issues associated with adoption that can help address concerns of adoptive parents as well as treat their children. These therapists can help children and teens heal within the context of their new family system. It’s important to choose a therapist that understands the importance of including the parents in the treatment process.

Before the therapy process starts, most therapists will administer a complete assessment of the teen which helps to identify the challenges that need to be addressed. This can include a health assessment by a physician, a psychiatric evaluation by a psychiatrist, or a vocational assessment. In addition to a variety of professionals to choose from, there are also different types of therapy that could benefit your teen based on her needs:

Behavior Modification Therapy:  Helps focus on the specific behaviors of an adopted teen that are of concern to the family.

Family Therapy: Seeks to achieve a balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the family, and these sessions focus on building positive attachments in relationships and improving communication between the parents and the child.

Group Therapy: Can allow adopted children to share experiences with people who have gone through similar situations to them.

Cognitive Therapy: Will help your teen focus on the present, learn how to problem-solve, and how to control how they perceive situations.

Trauma-informed Therapy: Is for those adopted children who experienced trauma and abuse in their past and works on specific ways to process traumatic memories and experiences so they become tolerable.

Attachment-Focused Therapy: Focuses on building a secure emotional attachment between child and parents that can serve as a model for future positive relationships.

Once you’ve identified a therapist and the type of therapy that would best benefit your child, it’s important to be involved and support your child through this journey. In order for therapy to be successful, it’s essential to have open communication between you, your child, and his therapist and to commit to the full length of treatment. Teens may be resistant to therapy in the beginning, so it’s important to support them through this process and work with the therapist to find out what methods work best for him. If your child is struggling with adoption related issues, BlueFire Wilderness Therapy can help.

How BlueFire can help

BlueFire Wilderness Therapy is a premier wilderness therapy program for troubled teens struggling with emotional, social, and behavioral challenges. We utilize a comprehensive approach to teen treatment based on research and decades of experience. Our strength is combining clinical expertise, adventure experiences, academic assessments, and a family systems approach.

Unlike other wilderness programs, our family systems model of treatment includes the whole family so that when the child returns home, the systems are going to be in place for the child to be successful. At BlueFire, we help repair the family dynamic with careful communication policy that blends one way communication such as letters, videos, and emails with shared phone calls and teleconferences where families can reconnect and reform the bond and trust that may be lacking.

We establish a fresh common ground to help support a new start for the parent(s) and child. Parents see their child’s growth, progress and maturity, and teens feel confident in their transformed level of independence and personal skills. Spending quality time together without the distraction of technology and work/school stressors is often the single most powerful factor in creating these strong connections.

Near the end of your child’s time with us, the entire family participates in the Family Spark Workshop, a 4-day intensive family retreat. When families participate, they have ample time to develop and practice new skills to prepare for their child’s return. During this workshop we work on family reunification, equine therapy, adventure activities, family therapy with primary therapist, parent workshops, comfortable overnight camping, and evaluation and planning for future goals.

We utilize highly trained staff, cutting edge technology, and the latest research to create the best environment for change. This environment provides a supportive opportunity for parents and children to reconnect and strengthen their relationship. For more information, please call (208) 502-2326.


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