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.