We’re adopting a teenager: help?

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By: Tammra McCauleyCC BY 2.0
I have loved how Offbeat Families has covered and supported all kinds of families. My husband and I recently and totally unexpectedly became parents to a 17-year-old boy. I have been blown away by the depth of emotions I have felt after only knowing him for a short time.

I’ve been struggling a little with starting to feel like a mom, even though I’m not his mom (he has a strong relationship with his mother).

I haven’t been able to find any resources on the internet or elsewhere about developing some kind of identity as a mother when adopting (officially or unofficially) a teenager. Help! — Babris

Comments on We’re adopting a teenager: help?

  1. Let me start by giving you a big hug and pat on the back. There are so many kids out there who need homes and loving, supportive adults in their lives, most older kids never find that. I dont know of any sites or online resources but you may be able to check with local teen youth homes and see if they have programs you can join or maybe lead you in the right direction. I myself am a mother of 4, a step mother to 1, who I still consider and treat like my own and all I can say is to be present/available as much as possible. Physically, mentally and emotionally. The teen years are rough years and I would imagine maybe a bit more for your teen given the situation. Spend as much time with him as possible , getting to know his likes, dislikes, getting him involved in new hobbies, sports, art, etc and over time it will all become very natural and fluid. Much respect and love to you and your husband.

  2. Good for you! My hubby and I looked after our 17 yr old niece after her mother passed away a few years ago, and while it was a very rocky ride, we did get there in the end. I insisted on joint mealtimes to help connect us as a unit, and hat worked quite well (after we rowed about it alot)

    Clearly I wasn’t her mother – and to have taken on that role would have felt very disrespectful for both of us i think. I tried to act as I imagined an older aunt would, by offering advice and support, demanding respect and adherence to the rules of the house and to clear guidelines set by my husband and myself. We negotiated the guidelines over a period of time, but i did take opportunities to reinforce them and remind her of them where possible (without trying to be too much of a nag).

    You are in ‘mom-role’ whatever that is, so i think it’s okay to feel like you’re being mom, as long as you’re not forcefully taking a role which belongs clearly to someone else – as that infringement is likely to cause conflict longer term, in my opinion. Can you see yourself as a ‘supplementary mom’?

    Best wishes on your new adventure!

  3. Oh how I wish there was more information in this question to really get at maybe some more tailored advice!

    I think foremost, is that you recognize the good relationship he has with his biological mom already. I think continuing to foster that relationship while also developing your own unique relationship to him. Since he’s older, I would really try and get to know him on his level…likes/dislikes/interests/etc. I think opening up the conversation about what you want to be called (or maybe what you won’t be tolerated being called) and titles for other family members. Will he refer to you as your first name, or mom, or some nickname. Is he still in school, and, if so, how will he introduce you to teachers/students/friends. Be prepared to follow his lead as far as navigating this time. When I was in high school I hated ‘outing’ myself as an adoptee because it opened myself up for a lot of unwanted questions from strangers. But I also didn’t want it to be a secret, either, so it was tricky to navigate.

    From a legal perspective, I’m curious why he’s being adopted at 17 (is he in foster care?) and whether you’ve looked at other ‘permanent’ options (like legal guardianship) that might be available. I know when I worked with foster families in WA there was some disappointment for the families that had finished adopting to realize that their adopted child would not benefit from the same scholarships/grants/financial aid that a foster teen would. While I have no idea if holding off on an adoption is the right choice, do know that students who are older than 16 and who have been in foster care for awhile or homeless are eligible for more college $$ (in some cases, fully paid for). Also, adoption will legally change his heritage and familial structure to be yours. So, it will mean a new birth certificate being issued, and depending on your state, the sealing of the old one. I know, for me, that I’m not able to have a copy of my ‘original birth certificate’ because I’m adopted, and my adoptive parents are listed as my biological parents. For some people (especially those adopting an infant, this is a really exciting thing for them), but for me, it’s annoying that my historical birth document is not historically accurate (no, my mom did NOT pop me out her vag! and an adoption decree would suffice). So if your ‘son’ cares about that, retaining a copy of his original birth certificate if he’s issued a new one, would probably be nice for sentimental reasons (though his old one will no longer be legally true).

    I think other things to take into consideration are your extended family and their reaction to this teenager coming into your life! Will he be treated like a grandson/cousin/etc. Do conversations need to happen about updating wills (a tricky topic, but having been left out of a will because we were the adopted kids feels icky, and I still resent my great-aunt for that decision!).

    As far as identity goes, since I know that’s what you mostly asked about, I think maybe finding groups (support and otherwise) of people who are fostering/guardian/adopting teenagers. I know I’m almost 2 years into being a mom of an infant and I still don’t feel like ‘mom’ sometimes, so giving yourself time to figure out what and how it is going to look for you. Maybe reading stories of people who have fostered/adopted older kids (I’m thinking that story Blindside, though she already had kids) to see yourself reflected back in this decision.

    • OP here!

      Thanks so much for your thoughts…here’s a little more information:

      We are not pursuing adoption at this time, and he hasn’t come from foster care. Basically, he’s someone my husband knew when he was a much younger kid. He came to visit us this summer and for various reasons, we all decided to have him stay. He has a strong and positive relationship with his mother and I’m definitely not looking to replace that.
      The reason I’m asking about identity is this: in the short time I’ve known him, I’ve had a completely unexpected and unprecedented (for me) experience. I cannot believe the depth of feelings I have for him and I’m surprised every day by how strongly I feel about him and by the moments I have where I do feel like a mom. I’ve never had kids, although I do have a stepdaughter, so this has been a really new and mind blowing experience.
      I don’t have any other friends who have adopted (or whatever) a teenager, and I’ve found very little on the internet about it. I’m someone who loves to hear and read about others’ experiences and learn from them, and I’m especially interested in hearing about the development of a “mother-type” identity when parenting an older teen who has parents (or not). Also, although as a clinical social worker I’m pretty well versed in adolescent development, we are not dealing with typical adolescent issues here because instead of working on differentiating and individuating, we’re working on forming a strong attachment (ie instead of wanting to hang out in his room or with friends all the time, he wants to hang out with us. All the time.).

      This has been an amazing positive and fulfilling experience, but it’s also intense and a bit lonely. I’d love to find some kindreds out there…

      • Thanks for clarifying! I wonder if widening your net to search for other people who have ‘taken in’ older students, even for awhile, or even those who have felt an attachment to exchange students or others who are spending a good bit of time with them? I know several friend’s whose parents took in friends or other kids at times, when they were kicked out of their own house, or whatnot, and still carry on good relationships with those young adults now. I’m sorry I don’t have any more specific advice or things to really offer. But it sounds like you’re doing the same identity forming work that I’m feeling with my infant child.

      • I have been living with my friend and her 13-year-old sister for the last year and a half, and both of her parents are in her life though not always around. I have had a lot of conflicting feelings, that’s for sure! I imagine it’s kind of like fostering, because due to the unofficial nature I am constantly thrown back and forth between having to make important decisions for her and feeling like her parent, while knowing that she could disappear from my life forever at any moment, either at her discretion, her sister’s or her parents’. I can’t really disclose any more, especially because things have been a little rocky lately, but I do often wish I could chat with someone in a similar situation and haven’t found anyone, so if you’d like to talk more feel free to email me at [email protected] and I’ll email you from my real email!

  4. All I can offer are accolades (good on you!) and this advice: keep the lines of communication open. He’s a whole person, regardless of his age and relative (im)maturity… Or total maturity… doesn’t matter. What does is that you help him have a voice in the things that happen to/around/with him. It’s a respect thing… And it helps.

  5. My 16 year-old little sister lived with me and my husband for the first year we were married. I just really want to echo the advice about family dinner mentioned above. It was a weird role for me to be in, going from big sister to caretaker, but not being “mom”, and I empathize with you struggling a bit trying to find your footing. But jeeze, you could tell when we skipped family dinner for even just a day or two. You also have to demand that your rules are followed. How the rules are made/how many there are will vary, and I think figuring out with him what the boundaries should be is a good idea, but once they’re in place, there they are. Teenagers are supposed to push boundaries, and it’s the caretakers job to make them clear. Good luck!

    • i am 17 years old and i have been waiting to get adopted a long time now i hope that this message mean something because right now i am in a group home with 12 other kids and i have bounce over 20 foster trying to find a fit one hope this is it

  6. I was unofficially adopted at 18 by one if my teachers my senior year and her husband. They didn’t have any children of their own yet (biological or otherwise) so I was it. The most important thing they did for me was make me feel wanted. I ate dinner with them and was welcomed to their family parties, get togethers, and outings. They spoke of me as their own and bought me things that parents buy kids – clothes and little surprises here and there. They took the time to know my likes and dislikes and they engaged me in conversation. When they had a baby three years later, they involved me in her life (and now, 9 1/2 years later, I am someone’s beloved Sissy!). They gave me boundaries and rules while I lived with them. They tried to understand my dreams and encourage me in pursuing them. They encouraged me to maintain contact with my grandma, to whom I was very close. And they loved me, regardless of what I did or said in my hurt and pain that came with needing new parents at 18.

  7. My parents took in a teenager when I was in college. He’s the same age as my bio-brother. The road has been interesting, of course, but 10 years later, it’s sometimes as if he was always with us. He’s part of the family, no question.

    He’s actually living with my parents right now, and it’s a blessing for me knowing that he’s there to help them, as they’ve both struggled with health issues the last couple years

    I don’t have any advice beyond what’s already been offered. But I just want to applaud and encourage you. What you’re doing is an amazing thing for the teen and your family!

  8. I read a book called, iirc, Don’t Ride Your Bicycle On The Stairs (And Other Things I Never Thought I’d Have To Say) about a woman who adopted several older kids (I think the oldest was 14 at the time.) There was a lot about the change in culture, religion, etc, as these were all overseas adoptions, mostly from Ethiopia, and her family was white, middle class, and Jewish.

    I’ve never adopted a teen or known anyone adopted as a teen, so I won’t try to give you advice myself 😀

  9. I had a foster daughter for year when she was 13 and who I am still very close with, and I’m the stepmother to two and parent of 1 (and I worked with teens a long time). I think that finding a place where you are very clearly an adult in this person’s life but not his parent is really important. I really strongly echo what someone said earlier– teens (like all human beings) NEED boundaries. Holding firm boundaries in many ways communicates your care for him. I also agree that teens so much still need love and to feel like they’re wanted. Good luck. I think the relationship with my former foster daughter is one of the most important in my life, and I am so glad that she came into my life, even though the year she lived with me was also one of the hardest EVER.

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