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.

Book Review: Raising Other People’s Children by Debbie Ausburn

I don’t write a lot of book reviews on my blog, but every now and then, a publisher will send me a new title and ask me to write a review. And here’s a secret: I only review the books I can recommend. I don’t want to give real estate here on my blog to something I don’t think is worth people’s time. So from the start, if you see a book reviewed here, you can assume I think it’s worth your time.

Now here’s another secret: for a few years now, I have planned to someday write a book entitled, “Raising Other People’s Children.” I wanted to wait until all of my children were adults and able to give consent to me writing about our family. The title is so apropos to foster parenting, so emblematic of the spirit of what it means to be a foster parent, that it is the perfect title for a book about foster parenting.

I know now that it was a really good idea, because earlier this year, someone beat me to it, and Raising Other People’s Children: What Foster Parenting Taught Me About Bringing Together a Blended Family (Hatherleigh Press, 2021) came out. In it, author Debbie Ausburn captures some fundamental insights about foster parenting (as well as step-parenting). “In my years of raising other people’s children, I have become convinced that popular culture has lied to us: an intact biological family is not an outdated stereotype, but a need embedded deep within each child,” she writes in chapter one. “We… must acknowledge the bedrock truth that, no matter how wonderful a parent we are, we are not and never will be a non-biological child’s first choice. Fortunately, being another person’s Plan B can be pretty wonderful if we give our children time and space to accept the relationship.” I could not agree more, and in my years of foster parenting and, subsequently, adoption, I’ve come to believe that accepting this truth and not taking it personally will make all the difference when it comes to building trust and effectively raising other people’s children.

Before I go any further, I want to be clear: this book focuses on foster parenting and step-parenting. While there are certainly some aspects of what she writes that are true for adoptive parents as well, adoptive parents are not her primary audience. (There are wonderful parenting books out there that help adoptive parents bond and build attachments, and I recommend several of them on my Recommended Resources page.)

That said, there is one thing Ausburn emphasizes right out of the gate that, as an adoptive parent, I can attest to, and it’s this: whether they are our kids because of foster care, remarriage, or adoption, our kids need to know that we understand that we are not the people who are supposed to be there. In fact, that is the title of chapter one, in which Ausburn astutely points out, “Children who have lost an intact family feel deep in their bones that this is not the way the world is supposed to be.” Indeed, some of the most poignant moments I have had with some of my children were when I articulated this very thing to them. My love for them is not enough to make up for the fact that they carry the primal wound of separation from their mother “deep in their bones.” I am so grateful that my children feel safe telling me they miss their mom. Over the years, I have come to see that it has nothing to do with me, and I have learned not to take it personally. As I tell my kids, “it makes perfect sense that you miss her. This is not how it’s supposed to be, and even though I love you with my whole heart, and I love being your mom, I’d give anything to spare you the pain you live with because you can’t be with her.” I am so glad this is the focus of the first chapter, because it’s something every person who is raising a child not born to them needs to absorb and accept.

Another topic any book on parenting other people’s children must devote some important pages to is the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on their children, and chapter two of this book does just that. In “Loss and Trauma Change Our Children,” Ausburn gives a concise explanation for what ACEs are and how they affect a child’s developing brain and capacity for emotional regulation and executive function. In fact, she shares a fantastic metaphor to explain this phenomenon: “Children’s difficulties in dealing with adverse experiences are a bit like a computer with a resource-intensive program running in the background. The program we are trying to work with on the screen will be slow, glitchy, and terribly annoying. Our children’s life experiences have a similar effect on them. Coping with their memories takes up much of their emotional energy. The process running in the background leaves them with few resources to deal with the more immediate problems of school and family chores. They tend to opt for the quickest and easiest way to make those problems go away so that they can continue working on the background program.” This is the best explanation for the effect of ACEs on a child I have ever heard (and I will be borrowing it a lot going forward). There is so much in this chapter that I wish I had known going in to foster parenting. This book will be a vital resource for anyone considering foster parenting for this chapter alone.

Chapters three, four, and five of Raising Other People’s Children continue to capture some of what I consider to be the most important things for foster parents to understand. In “Our Children Are Not Perpetual Victims,” Ausburn pulls no punches in recognizing the dangers of treating children as if they are permanently broken. “Our society actively rewards victimhood,” she writes. “From educational institutions to media, from movies to books to social media, contemporary culture encourages our children to explore the many ways in which our society has been unfair to to groups in which they may belong. One very harmful result is that our children start focusing on where they fit on the scale of victims. To use my foster daughter’s phrase, they start collecting ‘victim points.'” Ausburn does not deny or ignore the very real trauma her children have faced, writing, “We must be honest about how hard it will be for them to move past being victims,” but she emphasizes that, “Although we have to start with empathy, it is incredibly important that we do not stop there. As one experienced caseworker said during my foster care training, ‘Sometimes the best thing you can say to a traumatized child is, I am very sorry you went through all that, and you still have to do the dishes.‘” Walking this line as you parent a child with a history of trauma requires a supernatural dose of grace and truth, along with a good therapist and plenty of positive parenting tools. That said, helping our children grow past their identity as victims is one of the things our children need most from us.

But it’s not the only thing. In my experience as a foster parent, one of the most important lessons in this book comes from chapter four, “Commitment is Stronger Than Love.” Here, Ausburn peels back the curtain on what it’s really like to raise other people’s children, acknowledging something that I agree with but have not heard anyone else admit: “Children need love from us, but more important, they need our commitment. We need to rediscover an ethic of following our promises rather than our emotions.” From the moment a new child enters my home, they have my commitment long before they have my feelings of love and affection. Love and affection take time; commitment is a choice. “All children need to be loved, and some of them will want love from you. Some of them may not be easy to love, and others will be even harder to like. Even when we do love them, that alone will not be enough to help heal their emotional scars. More than anything else, they need to know that, even on days when you do not love (or even like) them, you will follow through on your commitment to them.”

I cannot agree with this more, and I am so glad someone had the courage to write about it. I would be lying if I said it is easy to love every child in the same way. I wish I could just turn on my love faucet on demand, but I cannot. Love takes time, affection takes time, and making up for the lost years of bonding with a baby is not always possible. Feeling affection for a child you barely know who is oppositional or defiant, raging, screaming, hitting, lying, hoarding, etc. is a tall order. However, we can choose commitment no matter what, and some days, that it the most we can offer.

Still, our commitments have boundaries, and Ausburn does a good job of recognizing those boundaries. “Unconditional commitment” is a loaded term, and not always wise (or possible). For example, if a child is a danger to himself or others, that child might be safer in an institution set up to handle their extreme behaviors. I once affirmed a heartbroken foster parent’s decision to end a placement after their child tried setting their house on fire by holding a throw pillow up to the gas stove and setting it ablaze. This was after they had taken multiple trips to the E.R. because of suicidal ideations. In that case, this new foster parent was not equipped to handled the extent of his foster child’s mental health needs. He did the right thing when he ended that placement, though he struggled with a tremendous weight of guilt for “breaking his commitment” to that child.

Indeed, the demands of raising other people’s children require a careful balance of commitment to others and commitment to our own mental health and well-being. I created The Flourishing Foster Parent in 2019 because I had spent a few years trying to figure out how to thrive and flourish personally despite the tremendous stress of foster parenting. I had learned that I am not able to give my children my best when I am running on fumes, constantly in a state of reactivity, and trying to dip from an empty cup. Identifying what it means to practice true self care (which involves a lot more than herbal tea, bubble baths, and a weekly yoga class, though I recommend all of those things be part of your self-care plan), Ausburn takes it much deeper, advocating for focusing on your core values, building a support network, asking for help, and developing emotional safeguards. These are all integral to staying anchored when your house feels like a ship being tossed at sea.

If there is any part of this book that is going to give someone in the world of trauma-informed parenting trouble, it will be in chapters six through eight. Here, Ausburn wades into some of the practical ins and outs of parenting children with a history of trauma, many of whom come into your home with their values, expectations, behaviors, and sense of morality already formed. This section of the book is where some people might take issue with her approach, which is part Love and Logic and part Positive Parenting Solutions. For people who are adherents of trauma-informed connected parenting, some of the suggestions Ausburn gives for handling certain situations will be problematic, such as her retelling of how she and her husband tried to reinforce the importance of trust when they discovered their son had been lying to them. For a child in foster care who has learned all the wrong things about trust, expecting them to understand what trust even is, let alone how to rebuild it through showing himself to be trustworthy, might be an insurmountable task. Indeed, there is a wide spectrum of opinion when it comes to the merits of using natural consequences, logical consequences, or any consequences at all to teach a child with a history of trauma. Ausburn definitely advocates for heavy use of natural or logical consequences (she even has a chapter entitled “Engineer Logical Consequences of a Child’s Decisions”), which might be problematic for some readers.

That said, I agree with her approach for children who have grown up in your home, have a healthy understanding of commitment and trust in you, and have been formed by your house rules, values, and expectations. I have said many times that I am a proponent and affiliate of Positive Parenting Solutions. I utilize natural and logical consequences heavily in my own home with my five children who are all adopted through foster care. However, for children who might be new to your home, who come with a full set of emotional and parental baggage, and/or who have bounced from household to household (and set of house rules/expectations to set of house rules/expectations), I would look to a book like Beyond Consequence, Logic and Control: A Love-Based Approach to Helping Attachment-Challenged Children with Severe Behaviors (Heather T Forbes, B. Bryan Post). This book would be a corrective companion to some of the consequence-driven responses mentioned here for children who have not had an opportunity to learn what you expect from them, or to unlearn what has been instilled in them through their formative years regarding trust, safety, and survival.

That said, Ausburn hits it out of the ballpark in chapter eight of Raising Other People’s Children, when she explores the idea that “Resilience Requires Structure and Connection.” This is at the very heart of effectively parenting a child who comes into your home with a history of trauma, and she does a beautiful job of articulating how to empower and connect with a child through routines, responsibilities, and opportunities for decision-making. (For more on this, see my video Empowerment and Agency for Youth in Foster Care.) I cannot emphasize enough how important these aspects of home life—routines, responsibilities, and a decision-rich environment—are for building resilience in kids and helping them grow out of victimhood and into confident inter-dependence. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book.

Another area of life that any book on foster parenting must address is dynamics with a child’s family of origin, which Ausburn does in chapter nine, “Dealing With the People Who Are Supposed to Be There.” Again, she does not mince words or dance around the fact that it is very hard to watch a child pine for a parent who has effectively abandoned them. When you treasure a child born to another woman and have to sit back and watch that child’s heart break over and over when Mom does not show up for visits, or abruptly cuts a visit short, or shows up an hour and a half late for a two-hour scheduled visit, it is very hard to maintain a positive attitude toward her.

Still, we must try. Ausburn astutely differentiates between honoring a child’s love for their parents and equipping that child to “separate their problems from their parents’. When a biological parent does not follow through on promises… we have to help our children process the disappointment in a way that does not disparage the parent but makes clear that the situation is not the child’s responsibility.” This is a skill everyone raising another person’s child needs to hone.

In summary, I am really glad Debbie Ausburn wrote Raising Other People’s Children, and I have added it to my list of Must-Reads on my web site. In it, Ausburn shares her years-worth of wisdom for foster parents, and everyone considering entering into he world of foster parenting would do well to heed her insights. Her experiences echo my own, and I stand by everything she wrote (with the caveats already noted.) While foster parenting was not my Plan B—my husband and I always planned to foster and never planned to have biological children—I am certainly my children’s Plan B. Given the choice, their biological families would have been safe and stable, and they would have never been separated from their families of origin.

In an ideal world, I would not be my children’s mother.

But, as Ausburn says in her final chapter, “Plan B is not a consolation prize,” and “being someone else’s Plan B (can be) pretty wonderful.” I did not choose my children’s path, but, as I tell them often, I am committed to doing all I can to give them a beautiful life. I am their Plan B, for sure, but our Plan B life is filled with love, laughter, and opportunity. I can’t change what has happened, but I can do my best to shape what’s to come and ensure they have what they need to build a future filled with hope.

Raising Other People’s Children is a great resource for anyone seeking to do just that.