On Being Adopted at 17: A Conversation With My Daughter

This weekend, my daughter and I are on a trip together. I am taking her to New York City for her belated high school graduation present, and during our nine-hour train ride, we had a chance to sit down in the café car and talk about her journey over the past few years.

And what a journey it’s been! My daughter came into foster care at the age of fourteen, and we adopted her when she was seventeen. The road has been—for her and for us—simultaneously wonderful and really hard. None of us knew what to expect: we didn’t know the first thing about parenting a teen, she went from being the youngest in her family of origin to being the oldest of four, and then five, in our family. We were her fourth family in two years, and joining our family meant leaving the only city she had ever known. There have been some growing pains, to be sure.

I have invited my daughter to contribute to this blog in the past, and as we were talking on the train, I asked if I could capture some of her thoughts and share them here. She did the talking, I did the typing, and we collaborated on some of the wording, particularly as we reflected together on some events from the past few years and shared how they looked from each of our perspectives. I paused several times to make sure I was not putting any words in her mouth.

We both hope by sharing some of her experiences here, more people will feel a pull to open their hearts and homes to teens in foster care. It’s risky for everyone involved, but it’s a risk worth taking.

I’m delighted to share this platform with my daughter with you today.

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How old were you when you came into foster care and how did it happen?

I was fourteen years old. I left home because it wasn’t safe for me, and I refused to go back. Someone at my school told a school counselor and she called CPS. The social worker who responded interviewed me, but at the time I wasn’t ready to open up about what was going on, so she gave me her card and I went to stay with a friend. Later, I called her.

At first, I went to a group home, and a few days later, I moved in with the family of a friend from school. They were not foster parents, but they knew me, and I knew them, and they had actually let me stay with them several times during the months leading up to me finally leaving home for good. (Actually, I had not been home in months, because I had been couch surfing with friends for months before CPS got involved.)

I stayed with that family for about seventeen months, and for a while, they were talking about adopting me. One of their biological children did not accept me as a member of the family and made efforts to alienate and occasionally physically assault me. It was decided for me that this placement would have to come to an end.

From there, I moved in with another friend’s family, where I stayed for almost four months. But they had their hands full with existing mental health struggles in their home, and besides that, they never intended to keep me long-term. So I had to move again.

I had a case manager who found me a home with a couple of women who did not have children and wanted to adopt. They lived about an hour away from my school. It was not a good fit, mainly because I really wanted to stay close to my community. So she reached out to another family she knew and advocated for me with them. They were not licensed for a teenager and had actually planned not to take in any more kids at that time, but she appealed on my behalf, and they said yes to taking me for a week or so while she kept looking. I moved in with the Krispins that same day.

How old were you when you were adopted and how did that happen?

I was seventeen when I was adopted, after being with my family for nearly fifteen months. I knew that first night in their home that I wanted to be adopted into this family. I know it sounds cheesy, but there was just so much love.

What made you feel safe and loved in this home?

It was very intentional. My mom asked my previous caregiver what I liked to eat and what I was into, and when I came they had the cereal I liked and rice and soy milk and my mom was listening to a 90s grunge playlist, which I was obsessed with at the time. I could just tell it was safe. The other children in the home, who were all adopted through foster care, were happy and seemed to be well cared for.

It was hard to be in homes with other kids who were the biological kids of the parents in the home. In those cases I really had imposter syndrome. But in this home, we were all in the same boat. It was not uncommon for dinner conversation to involve casual references to birth families or biological parents or trauma, and while it sounds kind of morbid, it was actually really healthy.

That first night in their home, my dad asked me a lot of questions. We joke that he was interrogating me, but its not far from the truth! He had worked with foster teens in a psych hospital and was very open about his experiences with traumatized teens. Again, it could seem like it was intimidating, but it actually helped me put my guard down, because we were all getting our cards on the table and not dancing around the elephant in the room. It was also evident that his questioning came from a place of care.

So it was an easy decision to be adopted?

It was an easy decision to be adopted, but there was a complicating factor that made it really hard to go through with it…

Two weeks after I moved in, my foster mom took me shopping for new Doc Martens. (At the time, Docs were my signature look—they still are—but I had gotten them from a Goodwill and they were falling apart. So we agreed we wanted to get me a new pair.) So while we were driving to the Doc Martens store in downtown Seattle, I made a comment to her that I never wanted to leave Seattle. It was then that she told me that their family was planning to move to the East Coast in Summer of 2020, which was still over a year away. By that point, I had already started imagining my life with them, but always in Seattle. That put me in a bit of a crisis: being adopted by this family meant leaving Seattle, and I couldn’t imagine leaving everything and everyone I had ever known and living somewhere else that I had never been before.

So how did you finally go through with it?

Ultimately, I knew that having a family is much more valuable than a place. Also, this family lived a bit south of Seattle, and while I was still able to attend the same school, I wasn’t living in my old stomping grounds. I had to adjust to living somewhere else anyway. Also, that summer, I spent two weeks in the city they were moving to and got to see what it would be like. Ultimately, my social worker gave me a deadline—December 31, 2019—when I had to make a decision: either get adopted and move with my new family, or move to another family and, in all liklihood, age out of foster care.

I hated having a deadline. I hated thinking about it, so I didn’t. But with them moving that summer, we either needed to finalize my adoption or find another home, which takes time. So a decision had to be made, and without that deadline, I wouldn’t have made the decision. It was scary, but ultimately, when we got to the meeting with my social worker, my adoption advocate, and my Guardian Ad Litem, and of course my foster parents, I articulated the decision to go through with the adoption. I turned seventeen three months later, my adoption was finalized a month after that (on Zoom because of COVID), and we moved three thousand miles away two weeks after my adoption was final.

Tell me about the hardest and best parts of being adopted at the age of seventeen.

Packing my room was hard. I had spent a year and a half making myself at home there, and dismantling my life (again) was really sad.

Changing families several times during my teenage years was also really hard. There were things I really loved about each of the families, and each family I was with, I wanted to stay with permanently, so when it kept not working out, it was really hard for me to grasp. I just wanted stability, and to keep having that taken from me was demoralizing.

So once I was adopted, even though I knew I was adopted and, in theory, I “know” I can trust my adoptive parents, I really struggle to believe that the time won’t come when they’ll kick me out, too. Every family I’ve been part of, including my biological family, failed me in some pretty significant way.

Having your biological family do so much to keep you unsafe and ultimately completely sever ties, and then having to rely on another family for all of your needs and have them sever ties, then being in a group home, which did not meet my needs beyond giving me a place to sleep, then another family that did not last, messes with your sense of stability and identity.

One of the best parts of being adopted at seventeen is that I’m at a place of maturity where I can begin to find out who I am, apart from my trauma. I had not been able to do that before, because I was still in survival mode all those years. I finally have the space and stability to explore who I am in an environment where they accept me no matter what.

One of the things we talk about a lot in the foster care and adoption world is attachment. What does attachment look like when you are a teenager?

It makes attachment easier being in an environment with parents who recognize the importance of attachment. My biological dad, who was technically my primary caregiver, in addition to being abusive, was completely unavailable emotionally and we had no relationship. When you consider the things that cause attachment between a parent and child, things like safety and connection, those things were absent in my relationship with my bio dad. He did not talk to me, he never showed up for school or extracurricular events, he was not home most of the time and when he was, he was often passed out from a night of drinking or playing video games and totally ignoring me. Or, spending quality time with my biological brother, something I never got.

By contrast, two months after I moved in with them, my foster mom volunteered to chaperone a school field trip. She was worried I wouldn’t want her to, but the opposite was true. Having her show up for me in that way showed that she was invested in me and getting to know my friends.

My foster parents also made themselves available to me every night. The days in our house were so chaotic, because there were several younger kids who needed a lot of attention. So night time, after the little kids had gone to bed, was when I could talk with them without being interrupted, and they were there for it. My dad made popcorn most nights, and I would join them in the living room and talk about whatever was on my mind.

For a while, they also read to me every night. Some people might think it’s weird for parents to read to their teenager, but it was actually really special. I was really into Stephen King, so we read The Stand, Children of the Corn, and The Outsider together, all taking turns reading aloud. That was an intentional move. They read to the other four kids every night, so it just made sense to read to me too!

I’ve been reading about attachment for adults. For a long time in therapy, my therapist guided the discussion. I was in DBT with my mom, and that is a specific approach, which I did not enjoy and found very painful, but was very helpful in the long run. But now, in therapy, I direct what we talk about, and lately, it’s given me the chance to feel more empowered in my own healing journey. I’ve had the opportunity to examine and identify my values, which I have not always had the freedom to do. Now I feel like I’m in a place where I can move at my own pace.

I had heard about attachment and different attachment styles, but I had not really leaned into what it looked like for me. I took an online quiz aimed at helping you explore how childhood conditioning manifests in your adult relationships, and I saw clearly that my parents did not meet my most basic emotional or physical needs as a child. My grandparents stepped in to make sure I had everything I needed in terms of physical needs and, sometimes, emotional needs, but my own parents were simply not present most of the time. For example, after my mom moved out, I have memories of being home at night calling my dad, who spent most nights in bars after work. I would call him over and over, asking when he was coming home. Sometimes he would answer, but mostly he didn’t. That memory represents my experience as a child: feeling totally unimportant, unvalued, and unattached.

So after I took that quiz, I started researching what attachment looks like for adults, and I am learning that the relationship you have with your parents really affects how you attach to romantic partners and even friends in the future. I’m learning about “protest behaviors” in attachment and recognizing some of my own anxious attachment style. I want to learn all I can in order to break that cycle and move into adulthood from a place of emotional health.

What advice would you give to foster parents who take in teens?

Be realistic with your expectations. When teens are in foster care, the psychological wounds they carry can come out in a lot of hard ways. But time is an incredible gift, and giving them stability and security and the benefit of time (and a good therapist) can make a really positive change in their outcome. It doesn’t happen quickly, so taking a long view is important.

Become a student of trauma and the effects of childhood trauma on a person. Talk about it. Read about it. Talk about what you’re reading. Help give your teen language to help them understand what they’re experiencing. Some books I recommend are Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love (Amir Levine, MD and Rachel S.F. Heller, MA) and The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Bessel van der Kolk MD)

Make yourself available. Encourage them to push through therapy, but be prepared for them to resist it. Admitting you need help is hard! Let them see your vulnerability. Talk about your own struggles so they know they’re not alone. Be present and interested.

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I am grateful to my daughter for sharing from her perspective, and I hope it gives you something to think about as you consider the possibility of fostering a teen. Of course, not all experiences are alike, but a lot of what she shared speaks to the universal needs of teenagers. We hope something shared here will help equip other foster parents to offer a sense of belonging, identity, and purpose to more teens in foster care.

Openness in Adoption: An Adoptive Mother’s Perspective

If you don’t get anything else from this post, I hope you’ll get this: adoptive (and prospective adoptive) parents, your children need you to lead the way in practicing openness in your adoptive family.

What does “openness” mean? Simply put, openness in adoption means “lack of secrecy.” As an adoptive parent and parenting coach to many foster and adoptive families, I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important openness is for children who are adopted. So much of their development, identity, sense of security, and self-confidence depends on how their parents handle the openness question.

This is not something I came into adoption understanding. In fact, my journey toward openness has grown with my journey as a foster and adoptive parent. But today, eight years and five adopted children in, I can say unequivocally that our children need openness, and openness is a lifestyle, not a once-off conversation.

Openness in adoption is a lifestyle, not a once-off conversation.

If you would like to dig a little deeper and understand more what “openness” looks like in adoption, I highly recommend this tool from Amara, a nonprofit organization based in the Pacific Northwest that is doing some truly groundbreaking work in the area of foster care and adoption. Their vision is to “change the world when it comes to how we support and care for children, adults, and families experiencing foster care and considering adoption, in our communities.” One of the ways they are doing this is through their “Adoption Openness Assessment,” a free tool designed to help families considering foster care and/or adoption gauge their comfort level with openness in adoption.

This tool has been in the works for years, spearheaded by Angela Tucker, founder of The Adopted Life, subject of the documentary film Closure, and leading influencer in centering adoptees’ voices in conversations around adoption. I have learned much from Angela over the years and am grateful for her presence in my journey, from leading the orientation my husband and I attended way back in 2013 when we were first starting our journey, to inviting me to sit in on an early presentation of the Adoption Openness Assessment tool when it was still being developed.

One of the things I love about the Adoption Openness Assessment is that it not only helps you identify where you’re at in terms of openness, but it educates people as to what how broad openness is. Openness in adoption is a spectrum, taking many factors into consideration. It is not something that is decided by adoptive parents or birth parents alone. Where you are on the spectrum depends on where everyone else is on the spectrum as well.

I highly recommend taking some time to read through this information from Amara, and since I’m always eager to share from my experience in order to help others learn and grow…

Here’s How Openness Currently Looks In My Family

My family represents five children who came from three families of origin. In each case, openness looks a bit different, but here’s the overall gist.

  • We talk about adoption. Often. Sometimes, I initiate the conversation, sometimes my children do, but most of the time, it just comes up.

    For example, my dad is in treatment for cancer at the moment, and as we discuss my family’s health history, we address the fact that there are questions about our children’s families of origin’s health histories. Same goes for conversations about height (“You’re going to be taller than me, baby girl, because from what I know, R is taller than me, and I think you’re going to take after her!”) Also, every now and then, when they are particularly tired or particularly frustrated with me as a mom, two of my children will comment that they “miss Mommy.” Those are my opportunities to say, “I don’t blame you one bit. It makes perfect sense that you miss her! Do you want to look at the pictures from your last visit with her?”
  • We affirm and offer language for our children’s grief over being adopted. We recognize and discuss the sadness that adoption carries. While there is a lot of love in our family, and our children are generally happy kids, we are open with our children about the fact that they have legitimate sorrow around being adopted, and it’s OK to both love us and miss their parents of origin, to both love the life they have with us and mourn the life they imagine they might have had with them.

    Recently, my seven-year-old, who has been with us since he was a newborn, said he missed his other mommy, whom he has seen once in seven years. I affirmed him, and after we talked about it for a bit, I asked him how he was feeling. After a long pause, he said, “I don’t know, Mom.” Another long pause. “I don’t have a word for how I’m feeling.” And I said to him, “Sweetie, I think the word is ‘grief.’ I think the right word for what you’re feeling is ‘grief.’ It’s sad that you couldn’t stay with her. It’s sad that she didn’t get to be your mommy forever. And it makes perfect sense that you feel sad when you think about her.”

    Another time, when my son was six, he was alone with my mom in the car. Completely out of the blue from the backseat, he said, “I wonder what my daddy looks like.” Thinking he was talking about my husband, my mom said, “Yes, he changes his looks a lot! Sometimes his hair is long, sometimes it’s short; sometimes he has a beard, sometimes he doesn’t…” And my son responded by saying, “I don’t mean him. I mean my real daddy.” My six-year-old son, who has been with us since he was five days old, who adores his father (my husband) and knows he is profoundly loved, was wondering about his “real daddy.”

    Of course he was. It makes perfect sense.
  • We are friends with a lot of foster and adoptive families and former foster youth and adult adoptees. For example, at our church, there are a number of families formed by adoption, and in fact, my children’s Sunday school teacher shared yesterday that when they discussed Israel’s name change to Jacob, six out of the ten children in the class had stories of their own name changes after being adopted. My daughter’s softball coach turned out to be a transracially adoptive parent, having adopted two sets of siblings, and long after the season was over, our families continued to invest in friendship. My son was on a soccer team last year, and one of the moms recognized me from my work on YouTube. She let me know that at least three of the eight kids on the team had been adopted through foster care. A single mom on my son’s baseball team shared that she was a foster mom, and when I shared that we had that in common, we sought each other out at games, trading stories of being a foster and adoptive parent that no one else gets. You can’t always guarantee that you’ll find other foster or adoptive families, but when you do, invest in those friendships, and make sure your kids spend time in spaces with other kids who share that aspect of their journey.
  • We are in touch with members of our children’s families of origin (and we visit with some of them in person). The closeness varies from family to family, but we have made an effort to be in touch with the members of the families who want to be in touch with us (and who are safe for our children to maintain contact with) and visit when we can. In two cases, I send pictures once a year to relatives and know I can reach out with questions when they come up (“Did their mom need braces?” “What were her hobbies/interests?” “Does anyone in your family have this rare genetic eye disease the ophthalmologist is concerned about?”) In two other cases, we talk and visit with members of the family of origin who want to remain in relationship, and we consider them members of our family as well. The blessing of this is that, as they grow, our kids will always be able to talk with someone who knew their birth parents, even if their birth parents are not available to maintain contact for one reason or another.
  • I Google their parents and report back what I learn. Every now and then, a child will wonder if his or her parent is still alive. When it has been a while (i.e. a year or more) since we have heard from a birth parent, I search for them online, including searching arrest records. The reason for this is to give our children as much knowledge as we can and spare them from letting their imagination take over. Telling them, “She can’t call back, because she is in jail,” is better than telling them, “She can’t call back, because she is dead.” (Just be prepared for your child to announce on the playground, “My mom’s in jail!” and get some strange looks!)
  • We acknowledge that representation matters, we admit our limitations, and we engage our village to help fill in the gaps. This is particularly true when it comes to parenting transracially. As a family that includes a child of color, but is otherwise overwhelmingly white, we have been intentional about where we live, where our children go to school, the church we are part of, the books we read, the movies we watch, and the art that hangs on our walls. When our son articulated that he wanted to let his hair grow out and have an afro, we made an appointment with a hair stylist who specializes in natural hair care for people of color and paid for a hands-on tutorial with her. We also research a lot on YouTube (shout out to Kuron J for his amazing natural hair care videos!) and, of course, listen to any advice our friends of color feel led to give.

    But it’s not just our child of color who needs representation. We have introduced all of our children to adult adoptees, and I love that they have people they can talk with about the things that we will never understand, because we are not children of adoption.


Last week, as my three elementary children and I were walking home from school, we walked past a house where two boys live. They were outside with their dad, and as we walked past, the younger one asked the dad, “Am I adopted?” The dad said, “No, why would you ask me that?” The son responded, “So-and-so (the older brother) says I’m adopted,” to which the dad responded, “You’re not adopted.”

I looked at my eight-year-old daughter, and we both burst out laughing. “Can you imagine if he didn’t know he was adopted?!” she said, incredulously. I responded by telling her that, in fact, in the past, people didn’t talk about adoption much, and many adopted children did grow up not knowing they were adopted. Then we talked about how awful that would be.

There are some questions no amount of openness will ever truly answer, especially the question of why. Why was I adopted? Why couldn’t my mom raise me? These are questions that will likely remain. But the more we can do as adoptive parents to cultivate a lifestyle of openness, and the more we can create in our households a safe space for all adoption-related questions and conversations, the more we can give our children a solid foundation and, according to Amara, “strengthen their sense of identity and decrease their sense of abandonment, which many adoptees feel by their birth/first families.” One other thing I learned from Amara’s research, which gave me great encouragement, was that “embracing a spirit of openness will increase adoptees’ attachment to their adoptive parents.”

In the end, maintaining a “spirit of openness,” though sometimes messy and often vulnerable, is the best approach for everyone involved.

If you are a foster or adoptive parent, and you would like to explore openness or any other topic related to parenting children via foster care or adoption, I’m available for one-on-one coaching! Click here to schedule your coaching session.

(Photo by Richard Balog on Unsplash)