Is 18 a MAGIC number?
Absolutely Not, but for our children, Foster and Adoptive teens it is the biggest milestone they face. Ask any teen who is languishing in the Foster Care System what age 18 means and they will yell “Freedom!” After years of being in situations of which they have had little or no control this is finally “it”. If you know them a little better you may hear some of the fear in their bravado as they ponder, “ Where will I live?”, “Who will help me?”, “Can I do this?”.
Given many of their histories which include abuse and abandonment, they have learned there are very few people they can depend on or trust. So this is their time, to depend on No One. Which means No One can let them down. Those teens grab onto the age of 18 like the peak of a mountain ingrained with the fearless caution of youth, singing, “I got this!”. Some will make it successfully through the forthcoming years but statistics show us sadly what the average aging out care youth will experience, and it’s not always success.
In Adoptive teens, many families are taken off guard as the child they have unconditionally committed to and spent much of their lives nurturing and working through Trauma begins to implode. Defiance increases, moodiness ensues and that child becomes like playdough thrown against the wall, falling into pieces as it slides down onto the floor. Why? Because being 18 is a LOSS. Now don’t tell your teen that, because they will laugh at you hysterically as they head out the door to test limits again. Unconsciously they are leaving what they have worked so hard to gain and adjust to after moving through Foster Care and Adoption. Although they may have a more solid base, and hopefully have formed threads of attachment with their families, they are just as scared inside as those teens aging out of Foster Care alone. Inside they worry…will my family be there for me if I leave? No matter how obnoxious they become their behaviors are stemming from fear. As a parent it is hard to stop and remember this as you are watching the child who grew in your heart and soul have moments where their heads spin around in a 360 degree circle!
So what exactly is happening inside the mind of your adopted teenager as they head towards this milestone? Consider this…everything we ourselves experienced ( the need for freedom, fearless recklessness and internal self doubt). Then add their history of loss, fractured self esteem and missing pieces of self. It’s a combustible combination and one many Adoptive parents do not expect. Whether or not Adoptive parents want to admit, the biological family plays a large role during this time too. If your child has a healthy relationship with them then you can support each other during this time. My Son’s Birth mom and I have a strong relationship as we all connected as he was a teen and ready and she was in a better place in life. Recently when in the middle of Teenage drama and angst she helped me find the balance in the situation, and reminded me it would pass. Being in the same page as each other also let my son know he was loved by all the adults in his life. For children who do not have that connection to their birth families it is a piece of their lives that remains missing, and adds to their identity search at this crucial time. Many kids begin the search for these missing pieces which can add to the conflicts they are already experiencing as a young adult.Each child is different as is each family so being there to guide them supportively even before they are 18 can make this tumultuous period less rocky.
My advice for other Adoptive Parents trying to keep their heads above the storm of emotions and challenges as their child approaches 18 is simple. Remember you are a strong and resilient parent who acknowledges your child’s needs before your own. You will all survive and come out on the other side , I promise. Be aware, communicate ( even if you just stare at each other over McDonalds ) and when they push you way , keep coming back. My 17 year old son recently packed a bag and told me I was not his Mother. I told him I was not asking him to leave, and that no matter what he chose I would always be his mom and be right here waiting for him. He left but came back the next day and we are now talking more. One day at a time. After all our relationship, our Adoption is everlasting and I know as long as I breathe I will always be here for him.
So hold on… and buckle your seat belts, it will be a rocky flight, just keep holding on.
Don’t forget to continue to advocate for the hundreds of children who age out of Foster Care because many them have no one waiting for them on the other side.
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