The gift of adopting a teen

In the second part of a two-part blog, a Colorado mom talks about how adopting a teen was both the most simple, yet the most complicated, thing she and her husband have done. Read part one here.

Q. Some people are concerned that you can’t bond with a teen, but we know that isn’t true. Were you concerned about this? What put your fears to rest?

A. This is a valid worry, but not one we have been unable to overcome. There are things she brings to our family that she can only bring being a teenager. She is incredibly self-sufficient, which has allowed both of us to continue to work. She asks us for help with homework as necessary, but uses her resources and is doing a fantastic job in high school. She has a strong, developed personality – having a teenager in our family turned into adding another person, not adding a “child.” 

Yes, we still guide her and have rules and expectations. We still protect her from truly poor choices and encourage her to see larger picture outcomes from daily decisions. We could fret the protection behaviors she learned in her biological home, but instead, choose to see those as opportunities to model another way to see the world. 

Would I like her to run and hug me every day when I come home from work, tell me what she is thinking 24/7, and cuddle with me on the sofa watching TV at night?  Absolutely!  What I have, however, is a daughter that sends me paragraphs to edit for the latest book she is writing, shows me drawings of a new character she’s designing and tells me to eat my vegetables. Those are things we’d have had to wait for if we adopted a younger child. She’s unique, quirky, worldly, snarky and wonderful.  This is not a compromise. This is the reality, and in many ways, the gift, of adopting a teenager.

My initial fears were that I would not be there for the “formative years” of her life. When I analyzed my motivation, I realized much of anxiety surrounded my desire to make a child what I wanted them to be, or have the values I felt were so important.  Am I so self-assured to think that my way is right all the time?  The gift of her in my life at 15-16 years old is that she is already such a developed person that if my way is right, I should be able to prove it through action or discussion. There is no, “I told you so,” with our daughter.  There is, “here’s why I think you should consider this viewpoint,” and either I win her over, or she counters with something that changes my perception.

Q. What positive impact has your daughter had on you? What has she taught you?

A. She has taught me patience and shown me that being more open to new experiences is better than always planning and worrying. She unabashedly shares her opinion of both of our fashion choices, and I begrudgingly appreciate her lack of tact in that department (most of the time). She does not speak in platitudes, so when she shares something kind or emotional, it is real.  I’ve watched her become more comfortable as the 14-months has progressed, and cannot imagine how scary it must have been to enter foster care to begin with and then be so willing to place herself in the care of more new people with the understanding that (ideally) this was forever. Working with her on her future plans, reacting to her art or writing, and gaming with her has broadened my knowledge base and forced me to accept that the world has changed in the 30-years since I was her age.

Geek or not, gamer or not, she’s light years ahead of where I was at her age in terms of travel, computer knowledge, and knowing who she is on the inside. So much of previous generations were focused on appearance, clothes, and societal norms that it is freeing to see her be comfortable with herself and live her dual life online and in the physical world.

She’s taught me, most importantly, that there is value in our relationship, even if it was not what I imagined at the outset. She gives me what she can give me – but is that really any different than what I give her?

Q. What does family give a teenager?

A. Guidance. We would have failed if we expected her to conform to our expectations and none of us would have been happy. We were an amazing match as a family – the result of an open and honest home study and patience during the search, partnership with caseworkers and CPAs who truly want to find the right home, not just any home, for these children.

We give her support when she asks for it and sometimes when she does not want it. We give her the freedom to be herself and figure out what she wants today, tomorrow, next year, and 10-years from now, even if that changes with the weather. We offer a safe place for her to know she is loved no matter what, and to take a time out from the frenetic life of a teenager.  We give her two people she can call her parents using whatever words she can muster. We give her protection from foes real and imagined, and listen carefully to her fears and experiences. We are her “people,” always.

Q. What do you want people to know about adopting a teenager?

A. Adopting our daughter has been more difficult and more simple than we ever imagined.  We did not add a “child” to our family – we added a person. The road is harder in some respects, particularly as you accept that no amount of love will undo what she has endured and experienced, all of which put her in the position she is in today emotionally, physically and situationally. My belief prior to this experience was that somehow, adopting a younger child would allow me to love them so hard that it would push out all the sadness and hurt they’d experienced - and it would basically go away, replaced with Our Family Memories, and Your New Parents. That’s not reality. We are all comprised of our experiences, whether we learned positively or negatively from them, and that impacts who we are in a fundamental way.  

Some aspects are easier – the self-sufficiency, the progress through all the baby/toddler/elementary school transitions. Adopting our 15, now 16-year-old daughter permitted us to continue to work full time and afford our family computer upgrades and trips and experiences we might not have been able to pursue on one income. Family decisions are both more complex and less difficult in our experience as we talk about it as a family (yes, with a begrudgingly accepted hierarchy!), and reach a decision. I can explain things to her frankly in ways I would not be able to use if she were younger. Certainly, we are faced with discussions and decisions surrounding teenage and adult behaviors we could have avoided for a few years with a younger child, but these are things I am closer to in terms of actual experience, which facilitates better understanding between us.

Lastly, we like her. We liked her from the moment we sat in the car, driving to sushi after meeting the first time at the Human Services office. The commonality, the opening of our lives to another person, versus adding a child to our home, gave us ground upon which to build our new family.  Do we always like each other, every moment of every day?  Absolutely not!  But the common language we speak, the shared activities we pursue, and the consistency of our treatment of one another is enough to always give us a net for when things are hard.

We may be “vintage” as she calls us, and may never hear her call us anything other than our first names, but she’s our daughter, we’re her parents, we’ve always liked her, and we’ve grown to love her. She picked us, just as much as we picked her. We are better for having her in our life, and cannot wait to see her finish growing up and both delight and horrify us, as we did with our parents.

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