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.

Recognizing and Responding to Our Foster Children’s Grief

I am in several online support groups for foster parents, some of which have thousands of members. While I have largely bowed out of social media engagement for my own mental health and time management, I saw a post not long ago that has been haunting me. A woman wrote seeking advice regarding her foster daughter, who never seemed to want to come out of her bedroom. The women wrote that the youth showed no interest in family meals or activities and was “on her phone” all the time. She was asking for tips on how to get her to engage more.

What has haunted me most is the responses. Dozens of people chimed in, and the overwhelming sentiment seemed to be, “Welcome to the teenage years!” Some people encouraged her to take the child’s phone, or at least put parameters around when she could access it. Others encouraged her to just accept that this is how teens are and lower her expectations of that child.

I did not see a single comment that addressed the grief this child is enduring. Granted, I didn’t read through every comment. But I read enough to recognize an astounding lack of awareness among my fellow foster and adoptive parents when it comes to grief in our children. And while it is certainly true that, in a typical family, the teenage years are when a child is supposed to start pulling away from her parents and asserting her independence, things get very complicated when that teen is in a new foster home. How can she pull away from someone she was never connected to in the first place?

When it comes to parenting other people’s children, we need to recognize that grief plays a huge part in our kids’ lives. Here is how adult adoptee Aselefech Evans put it on her blog:

Despite the new life I was given, I carry with me always the experience of my life before adoption. The smell of coffee that my birth mother used to roast, the siblings and other family members I loved, the language I lost, and the emptiness I felt in April 1994 when my twin sister and I were placed in an orphanage with very little explanation. Add to that the recurring dream I kept having as a child of my mom coming back to the orphanage to visit me and rock me back to sleep. I dreamt of holding to her tightly and wished that that moment could last a lifetime. Then later, after 18 years of holding onto that dream, my heart was shattered into a million pieces because I found out that it wasn’t a dream: it actually happened. My mother did come back for me—but the way the system worked, I was no longer hers. She wasn’t empowered to know her rights. But this is how the system works. It preys on the vulnerable, and it leaves them disempowered.

“The Unwanted Arrival of Trauma in Adoption,” EthioAmerican Daughter, November 21, 2018

JaeRan Kim, another transracial adult adoptee, writes, “In addition to losing birth parents, (a foster youth or adoptee) may have lost extended family members and old friends, his home and neighborhood, contact with people who share his heritage or looks, his family surname, or even his home country and native language.”

Can we take a moment for the grief these adult adoptees just described? While both are describing their experiences as international adoptees, what they describe befits children in foster care as well. While it is not emphasized much in training (at least it wasn’t in the curriculum we used), being attuned to the signs of grief and equipped with tools to help our children process their grief is a vital part of what the foster parent is called to do. If we don’t devote time to growing in those areas, we will miss one of the biggest ways we can serve and love our children.

Recognizing Our Children’s Grief

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry lists some of the more common signs of grief in children. As a foster parent, this list will be very familiar. “Children who are having serious problems with grief and loss may show one or more of these signs,” the AACAP writes. [This list assumes the grief is due to a death; I have added some foster care clarifications in brackets.] See how many of these look familiar: 

  • an extended period of depression in which the child loses interest in daily activities and events 
  • inability to sleep, loss of appetite, prolonged fear of being alone 
  • acting much younger for an extended period 
  • excessively imitating the dead person [or, in the case of a foster youth, their mom or dad]
  • believing they are talking to or seeing the deceased [i.e. separated] family member for an extended period of time
  • repeated statements of wanting to join the dead [separated] person 
  • withdrawal from friends [lack of interest in making friends]
  • sharp drop in school performance or refusal to attend school

Foster parents are well acquainted with “challenging behaviors.” But we absolutely must not stop at lamenting these behaviors and venting to our support groups about how hard it is. It is hard. It does take a toll on us as foster parents. But behavior is a form of communication, and as foster parents, we cannot wait for a child to put their grief into words. We need to learn to “speak the language of challenging behaviors” and respond fluently and effectively.

Responding to Our Child’s Grief

Recognizing our child’s expression of grief is an important starting point, but it can’t end there. We need to also be intentional about how we respond. Here are some things I have learned over the years as I have sought to serve the children who have come into my home because of foster care.

Give them space, but don’t leave them alone. It is common for a child who is struggling with grief to choose to spend a lot of time in their bedroom. It’s important that they know they have a safe place where they can let down their guard and relax. However, they also need gentle reminders that they are welcomed and loved, and they need time and opportunities to learn that we are safe. One five-year-old girl who came into our home did not say much for the first couple of days and stayed in her bed for the most part. However, she was very drawn to our dog, and every now and then, I would bring Samson into her room, telling her, “Samson wanted to say hi!” She would smile, sit up, and pet him. After a little while, she seemed to relax and let her guard down. She began joining the other kids to play and even started smiling and laughing.

An older child we had stayed in her room a lot when she first joined us, and we let her. But nightly popcorn is a ritual my husband and I have had for years, and he started taking her a bowl as well. Every night, he would deliver a bowl of popcorn to her, and eventually, she began to join us in the living room where my husband and I were watching TV after the younger kids were in bed. That time of night became her time to open up, and thanks to the small gesture of nighttime popcorn, this quiet, withdrawn young person began coming out of her shell.

Offer validating language without putting words in their mouth. “It makes perfect sense” is a phrase that has been very helpful and effective in my foster parenting journey, and saying it has opened some really important lines of communication with my kids. For example, “It makes perfect sense that you miss her,” “It makes perfect sense that you wish there were more brown people in our family,” and “It makes perfect sense that you are confused about our house rules—you’ve lived in four families in the past four years” are all phrases that have validated my children’s experiences given them permission to open up about their feelings. While we can’t always find a quick or easy solution, validating language can help a child feel seen and heard, which holds a lot of emotional weight and goes a long way toward helping us connect.

Feed them. A couple of years ago, a wonderful tweet by Joy Marie Clarkson went viral. She wisely wrote, “This is your gentle reminder that one time in the Bible Elijah was like, ‘God, I’m so mad! I want to die!’ So God said, ‘Here’s some food. Why don’t you have a nap?’ So Elijah slept, ate, and decided things weren’t so bad. Never underestimate the spiritual power of a nap and a snack.”

Loss of appetite is very common for someone who is experiencing grief, and our children are no exception. When a child refuses food, we often consider it a power struggle (which it very well may be). But it just as likely could be associated with grief. Rather than make a big deal out of it, meet them where they’re at. When it comes to meal times, don’t stop inviting them to the table. Also, I recommend including at least one or two comfort foods at each meal. For one child we had, white rice with soy sauce was a comfort food. There were many meals during her first few months in our home when that was all she ate. Another child loved ramen soup, and I made sure he got to have ramen at least a couple of times a week when he first arrived with us. One child loved Life cereal and soy milk, and I tried to make sure we always had some of both in the house. As I have shared in my “Food and Foster Care” videos (here and here), there is a huge emotional connection to food, and providing comforting foods to a child who is grieving can go a long way in helping them cope.

Play Therapy. One of our children went through an intense period of grief shortly joining our home. Though he was fully potty trained and in elementary school, he expressed a desire to wear diapers and drink from a bottle. While we did not recognize this for what it was at the time—it took him taking another child’s diaper for me to see what was going on—we eventually “got it” and worked with his therapist to come up with an unconventional but effective form of play therapy that met him where he was at. After getting the go-ahead in writing from his case manager and child therapist, we gave him permission to “Play Baby” for one hour every day. During that hour, he was allowed to wear a diaper, sit in the playpen, have me rock him, and have me feed him from a bottle. He would intentionally use the diaper so I would have to change him. It was very hard for me emotionally to treat this older boy like a baby, but there was no denying its effect. Within two weeks, he informed me that I could give away his diapers because he did not need them anymore. From that point on, there was no more mention of “Playing Baby.”

Another time, shortly after his mother abruptly disappeared from his life, a child began dragging a life-sized stuffed giraffe he had gotten from her at their last visit to our breakfast table, asking me to make her a cup of coffee. I obliged, and this ritual lasted for many weeks. Every morning, I would dutifully pour this stuffed giraffe sitting at my table a cup of coffee. I even provided clothing for her at his request. She traveled with us to therapy appointments and rode with us to school, sitting in the front seat beside me (with her seatbelt on, of course). Eventually, she stopped appearing at the table in the mornings, and I stopped putting her in the car for appointments. She had done her job during that stage of his grief.

I’ll share one more example of how playing can be very therapeutic for a child who is experiencing grief, because hearing from others has helped prepare me for some of the things I’ve faced more than anything else. One of our kids began demonstrating signs of grief as she came into a fuller understanding of her history. Having come into foster care as a baby, she had no conscious memories of her mother, and around the age of four, she began fixating on her. She named a doll after her, made up a game about her, and talked about her a lot. Thankfully, I had been prepared for this stage of grief that is common to many children who are separated from their parents through foster care or adoption, and I was not caught entirely off guard by it. Rather than discourage her from this expression of her grief, I joined her in it. I played with her, asking her questions about what her baby doll (named for her birth mom) was feeling. Sometimes, bedtime books were followed by a long conversation in which I told her every detail I knew about her birth mom (for the umpteenth time). We looked at the few photos of her mom we had. When she expressed the conflict she felt about loving her birth mom and loving me, I assured her that there is enough love to go around, and she can love us both. Again, the phrase, “It makes perfect sense” was very helpful, as I sought to validate her feelings of grief around being separated from her mom and being adopted.

Lest I give the impression that all of this came naturally to me or that it was easy or comfortable, let me set the record straight: it was none of the above. This is why I emphasize the importance of reading books about childhood trauma and listening to those who have gone before. The research I had done prepared me to at least recognize the signs and begin to “speak the language of challenging behaviors.” I would not call myself fluent by any means, but I remain a student and continue to learn.

Be Honest. While it may be counterintuitive, I recommend telling your children the truth about their stories from an early age. Some professionals I’ve heard recommend that a child should know everything you know by the time they start puberty, but I recommend you shoot straight with them even sooner than that. My children all know their stories, and while it can be a bit disconcerting to hear them incorporate drug addiction, abuse, and abandonment narratives when they are happily playing with their dolls, it’s an important part of their journey of self-awareness and identity. A few months ago, one of my children and I traveled out of state to visit with some of his relatives. He sat and listened as they told us more about his story, and we have discussed what we learned several times since. It’s a lot for an eight-year-old, and I’d give anything to be able to spare him the pain of it all. But, by all adult adoptee accounts I’ve heard, the not knowing is even worse.

Involve Your Village

During our seven years as foster parents, we relied on the support of our wonderful community of friends. When a new child came into our home, there were a few members of our village who could be counted on to step up in some pretty remarkable ways. While we could not magically create friendships for our children, we had friends who would bring their children over for play dates and treat our newest foster children as if they had been part of our family forever. They would make it a point to invite our foster children to their children’s birthday parties. While nothing could change the fact that our kids were out of their element, those gestures made a big contribution toward helping our children feel like they belonged.

Likewise, getting to know your child’s school counselor and teachers is a good idea. Our children have gotten so much support from teachers and staff who recognized that they needed some extra support and TLC, and with a stronger push in recent years toward social-emotional learning, more teachers are trained in trauma-informed best practices than in the past. I make it a point to stay in close touch via email and will send a quick note to the teacher or counselor if one of my kids is going through a rough patch. It has been amazing to see how well cared for our kids have been by their educators over the years.

I said it before, and I’ll say it again: grief is a huge part of a foster child’s reality. Just think of all the things a child loses when they come into care: contact with their family of origin, including siblings; their belongings, bedroom, toys, posters, clothes; a school or teacher they loved. We have had children who came to us from other foster homes they had been in for over a year, adding another layer to their sense of loss. Their reasons to grieve seem endless.

Don’t Ignore Grief

When a child comes into your home, be intentional about recognizing the signs of grief, and be proactive about responding appropriately. Grief is a huge part of the foster care experience, not just after an initial placement, but even years later. But it does not have to be the only part.

Healing can come, and we as foster parents can play a role in that healing. From learning to recognize grief in all its many forms to taking proactive steps to respond to our children’s grief, we can help build resilience in our children and equip them for the many stages of grief they will continue to face throughout life.

For more on how foster and/or adoptive parents can help their children through grief, check out the article “Ambiguous Loss Haunts Foster and Adoptive Children” by JaeRan Kim on the North American Council on Adoptable Children’s web site.