A Challenging Journey
“And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5).
Twenty years ago, when my husband and I adopted three foster children, we were the only people in our small Christian community who were doing so. Our children were ages 5, 7, and 9 at the time of each of their adoptions. They all came from a background of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. We knew that this kind of background would mean that there would be challenges ahead, but we had no idea just how difficult those challenges would be.
When two of the children became teenagers, we were facing parental challenges that we were not prepared for, and our church was not equipped to help us. God was faithful to see us through those years. One of the ways He has used those experiences in my life is that I became burdened to help other adoptive parents and their adopted teens through the ministry of biblical counseling. As I have counseled several adopted teens in the past few years, there are recurring issues that I have noted.
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Teenagers commonly struggle with their sense of identity. Teens who have been adopted have a unique form of this struggle as they have been removed from their birth family and placed into either foster or adoptive families. This can create a feeling of having nowhere to belong. This will often manifest as a lack of attachment to a new family. The new family offers love, security, comfort and care, but at times the teen rejects all of their adopted parents’ sincere efforts, because of feeling displaced, confused, and disoriented. If they do not have the tools to communicate their feelings well, they may act out with poor behavior instead (lying, sneaking, anger, defiance, etc.) The family often feels at a loss as to how to help the child overcome such poor responses to emotions and circumstances.
If they do not know or remember their birth-family history, there will be identity struggles. Some will struggle with a sense of (false) guilt over the birth family not staying together. Others will struggle with worry and guilt about being disloyal to their family of origin if they love and attach to the new family. These are all complicated heart struggles that must be seen through a biblical lens rather than just assuming the teen is being rebellious.
Understandably, adopted teens may have trust issues. If the people who were supposed to protect them abused, neglected or abandoned them, certainly they will wonder if others will do the same to them.
Adopted teens may struggle with unbelief that stems from having been betrayed. This often manifests as lying or sneaky behavior. They might think, “I can’t trust, so I really am all on my own. I must protect myself at any cost, even breaking the commandments such as ‘do not lie.’” Self-protection tends to trump God’s Word, even if the teen is a believer.
If adopted teens feel rejected, they often expect that they are going to be rejected again. Some will behave in such a way as to attempt to force the adoptive family to reject them because they believe it is inevitable, and they would rather have some control over the timing of it. Much energy is expended on acting out in order to force rejection. The outward behavior resembles normal teen rebellion, but the heart issues are actually rooted in significant fear.
Typical teen rebellion tends to have a malicious “I don’t care” nature to it. An adopted teen’s rebellion can be less malicious and more self-protective in nature. It is important to discern the difference as you seek to parent, mentor, or counsel the teen.
Applying the Gospel
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Practical help needed for those who parent, counsel, and mentor struggling adopted teens is found in God’s Word. Determine to do your best to discern whether or not the gospel has been understood and received. Once you believe that the teen is a believer, be sure that you teach him or her to view the past through scriptural teaching. Focus on all that the gospel has provided. Talk about sanctification as a process towards Christlikeness. Be sure that grace and mercy are understood.
Teach God’s view of family and the impact of sin on the family. Teach teens to apply the gospel to hurts, struggles, circumstances, and fears. Show them in Scripture that their identity is not in their birth or adoptive family; it is in Christ. Teach them that the fear of man is a snare and that people will disappoint them at times, but that they can fully trust in Christ. They must see that the gospel applies to their salvation and to their sanctification.
Call on a biblical counselor with experience in counseling troubled teens if you need assistance helping an adoptive family. Many adoptive parents endure the struggles alone, but God’s design is that the body of Christ would be a safe place for help and hope.
In the gospel struggling teens meet a very relatable Savior. He has endured betrayal and rejection, too. He modeled forgiveness, mercy, and grace. The entire narrative of the Bible is a story of redemption, and teens need to view their own history in light of that story. This is our hope–and the hope for the teens we are called to love.
Join the Conversation
Do you know an adoptive family that needs to know the hope of the gospel? How can you come alongside the parents and their teen?