Identity formation: an adoptive parent's perspective

One of the toughest parts of being an adoptive parent is watching the struggles my kids have gone through as a result of their identity struggles. They all expressed their feelings in different ways but for all three of them, those teen years were very difficult. One expressed angst by acting out, one by running away from the feelings and one by turning the pain inward through depression.

I adopted my younger two transracially, as infants. When they were little, they observed that my skin was a different colour than theirs and told me they thought it was too bad I couldn’t have nice brown skin like they did. Sadly, our world is not kind and they both experienced various levels of racism and lots of questions about why they were “different.”  My daughter was bullied and called out about her hair and her body shape beginning in grade 2. My son received a different response: his peers thought his Afro was cool and the girls found him to be quite exotic and sexy (even at an age when he was completely baffled by their attention.) By the time he was about nine, he started receiving negative attention in the community and was followed by shopkeepers in stores (even when I was with him!) Since his early teens he has been stopped regularly by the local police for “walking while Black.”

This aspect of adoption identity seemed to be the biggest concern for both the kids. I supported them the best I could by connecting them with adult mentors who were Black and could really relate to their experiences and by ensuring that they were involved with peers who looked like them, including some who had one or more Black parents and some who had also been adopted into white families. They have stayed connected to this support network throughout their growing up years and are close to a number of people of colour and people who were adopted transracially.

For my oldest child, issues of identity had more to do with her ongoing connection with her birth family and sorting out her place in each of her families. Since she didn’t join my family until 16, this has been a struggle she dealt with mostly as a young adult. Luckily, she was welcomed into my extended family and has generally been considered to be a full member of the family, although there certainly have been subtle differences in the way she has been treated compared to the younger two.

Some of her birth family members have been supportive and accept the choice she made but others were unkind and accused her of being disloyal to the family by choosing to be adopted. Her birth parents have been through various stages. I don’t think they really  see me as her mother, but I know that my daughter is clear that this is who I am and she has been able to get more comfortable over time with the idea that she can be part of two families.

It’s important to understand that youth who join their families through adoption, no matter what their age at the time of adoption, are going to have issues related to their identities to work through especially during their teen years. They need to be supported as they struggle to figure out who they really are and where they fit into each of their families. It really is possible to make this work so that kids can have the love, stability and support of an adoptive family, without having to lose their culture or their connections to their family of birth.

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