adoption identity

10 Tips to Help Teens Explore Identity

Written by Katie Rogala, LSW

We all have an inner and outer self – whether you are adopted or not! This often looks like presenting as different version of yourself based on the people you are around. This is an especially relevant topic for teens and tweens, who are managing many different levels of identity at once: adoptee identity, identity related to sex and gender, physical appearance, etc.

  1. Start the Conversation

    As hard as it can be, it is important for parents to begin these conversations. Don’t wait for your teen to speak up first. Identity is a raw and emotional topic for many, and often your child may not know if it’s something they can discuss with their family.  Your child will be much more likely to explore this topic with you if you’ve already made it clear that you’re ready and willing to have this conversation.

  2. Normalize

    Everyone has an inner and outer self. Consider what this means for you: how are you different when you’re with family? At work? With friends? Even if the changes across environments are small, they are still there. Don’t be afraid to share these personal examples with your child! This will help communicate to them that having multiple facets to your identity is a universal experience, not one limited to adoptees.

  3. Validate

    Whatever your adolescent feels about their adoption and identity is okay and valid. This can be hard for a parent to sit with, especially when their child expresses more complicated or negative feelings.  Saying things like, “I hear you,” “You have every right to feel that way,” or, “I can see why that would make you feel _____” sends a powerful message to them that they are understood, and that you will be there to support them no matter what they may be feeling.

  4. Listen

    Don’t just hear your teen – listen. When they share something that you don’t quite understand, seek out the feeling behind that emotion. The goal is not to make complicated feelings go away, it’s to create a safe space to talk about them. Reflect back on what your child says, using phrases like, “What I hear you saying is….” – this allows you to get clarification where needed, without shutting down what’s been disclosed. By using reflective language, you are also demonstrating that you are actively listening to them and seeking to understand. 

  5. Give Them Space

    Let’s be honest – sometimes teens and tweens just don’t want to talk to their parents! However, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t still thinking about adoption and identity; rather, they may just need to explore it on their own terms. Start the conversation, but don’t force it. Think of creative ways for your child to explore their adoption on their own. As an example, you may consider creating an album or memory box for your child related to their adoption and keep it in their room or other accessible space.  In doing so, you retain control of the narrative, but give your child the space and freedom to access it when and how they choose.

  6. Manage Your Own Emotions

    Conversations about identity and adoption can be emotionally charged, for both parent and child. However, it is important that, as the parent, you keep your own emotions in check so you can fully support your child. I’ve heard from many adopted teens the frustration of trying to talk to their parent(s) about adoption, only to have that parent become tearful and emotional. Even though these are often happy tears, it discourages the teen from wanting to share again in the future. In that moment, they need their parent to be in control and to support them, not the other way around. Before you get started, utilize your own calming down skills and tools to be sure you’re in the right frame of mind. If you find yourself becoming emotional – don’t worry! You can always take a quick break and come back to the discussion when you’re ready.

  7. Be Willing to Share of Yourself

    Conversations related to identity and adoption are not about you, they are about your child. However, it can be difficult for a teen (or any child) to feel comfortable sharing so much of themselves if it’s not part of a reciprocal process. Even if you are not an adoptee, look for the universal experiences in what your child shares and use that to help support and validate your child. As an example, if they say, “It really bothers me when kids at school ask why I don’t look like my sister”, you could say, “When I was in school, sometimes kids would ask me insensitive questions, too. I remember feeling hurt, and even annoyed. How do you feel when that happens?” By posing a question back to your child, you are keeping the focus on them, but also sharing some of the more vulnerable parts of yourself, which will help your teen feel more comfortable doing so, too.

  8. Use Tools

    As previously mentioned, identity is a complex topic. It can therefore be intimidating and uncomfortable (for both parent and child) to have a conversation about it.  The good news is, there are tools that you can use to facilitate conversation without the intensity of a face-to-face discussion. Consider doing a mask-making craft together in which they can decorate to reflect their inner and outer self. This can be done through writing words, collaging magazines, drawing pictures, or even using color to represent themselves.  

  9. Books/Movies

    In addition to more therapeutic interventions, such as the mask-making exercise mentioned above, you can also use books and movies to spark identity conversations. They need not be directly adoption related – you’d be surprised how many books/movies include themes of family, adoption, and identity! Think, for example, of Harry Potter: an orphaned child raised by family members who learns that he is a celebrity in a world he never knew existed. There are many relevant themes in this story for adoptees, such as Harry’s longing to know his mother and father, and, more generally, seeking out his place in the world. As you watch movies or read books together, consider commenting aloud when you notice an adoption theme, or maybe bringing it up the following day. You don’t need to make it specific to your child’s adoption; instead, you can say something like, “I really liked the scene where Harry talked about his mother and father. It makes me sad that he never got to know them, but happy that he finds ways to stay connected to them. What did you think about that?” or, more simply, “What character do you relate most to? Why?”

  10. Adoptee Support or Social Groups

    Understand that your child may prefer to share their experiences with another adoptee: someone who truly “gets it.”  Look for ways to build an adoption community for your child. Some options include an Adoption Mentorship Program, support groups, adoptive family meet-ups, social media-based adoptee groups, etc. These types of groups will continue to normalize and validate the adoptee experience for your child, while providing a safe space for them to share their innermost thoughts about adoption and identity.

    The exploration of adoption and identity is a lifelong process. It will likely change as your child gets older and their worldview expands, which is all the more reason to build a solid support foundation now. Spence-Chapin offers parent coaching, counseling services and other community programs to support adoptees and their families.

To learn more about programs and services that support your adopted tween or teen, please contact us at or 646-539-2167.

Meet our new 2015-2016 Mentors!

We're excited to welcome five new mentors to our Mentorship Program.  This program empowers adoptees through friendship, building self-confidence and challenging them to discover and understand their adoption identities and experiences. Patricia PatriciaThis is my first year as a mentor and I am so excited to be a part of this program! I was born in Armenia, Colombia and was adopted at 1.5 years old. I was raised in Washington State with two older sisters and one younger sister. My younger sister is adopted as well, but from Guatemala. I grew up in a small town where most of my friends were adopted from different countries all over the world. It was very neat to grow up in a town where adoption was important to the community. I have a strong interest working with people and majored in Psychology in college. I worked as a nanny while going to school and knew I wanted to continue working with kids and teenagers once I moved to New York. My adopted parents and I visited Colombia several years ago. I was able to see where I was born and better understand the Colombian culture. This year, my husband and I are planning another trip to Colombia and we are very much looking forward to seeing the country. We hope to adopt from Colombia someday. Until then, I am excited for the time I will get to spend with the mentors, the mentees, and to get to know you all.

Michelle MichelleI was adopted in New York when I was a young child. Although I faced many struggles growing up and my parents were not open at all to discussing my adoption, I have thrived, becoming a philanthropic humanitarian who gives back to the world and honors the people who have helped to transform my life. At my graduation commence ceremony, I walked twice. Once for each undergraduate degree I’d earned. It was a defining moment. I’d defied every label and diagnosis ever placed on me and in front of me. Since then I’ve traveled the world, worked for the government, went to law school, completed graduate school, and become a minister.  I love to travel, cook, exercise, sing, write, read, and learn new things. I am passionate about public speaking, team building, American Sign Language, and learning from different cultures. As a mentor in this program I hope to share, shape, influence, and empower adoptees during one of the most impressionable seasons of their life-the journey in which they discover their identities.

Marielle MarielleI was born in China and was adopted, at the age of 7, into a loving family.  My father was Sicilian and my mother is Irish and German.  Unfortunately my father passed when I was 10 years old.  I believe that has made me the strong and compassionate person I am today.  I am 24 years old and a graduate of SUNY Geneseo.  I knew I always wanted to help people; therefore, I am currently applying to physical therapy school and hope to be admitted next year.  Presently, I work in a physical therapy practice as a physical therapy aide.  In my spare time I love to work out at the gym, ride my bike and hang out with friends.  I am looking forward to becoming a mentor this year and hope to help the mentees feel more comfortable with any issues they may have regarding their adoptions.

Jon JonMy name is Jon and I am pleased to be with you here at Spence-Chapin. My adoption background is fairly well known compared to most that I know and I am looking forward to sharing my experiences as well as promote my positive outlook on life.  Being adopted from Chile at a very young age from the most supportive parents and family unit has helped shaped who I am today when it comes to relationships.  I work for an internet marketing firm, Taboola, as an account manager, analyzing ad campaigns and helping foster ongoing relationships between client and company. While I am away from the media/internet scene, I enjoy parks, beaches, walking, seeing as many live shows and concerts as possible, or just relaxing with some Netflix after a long week.

Dana DanaIt’s like being late to a movie.  You know the characters, location, mood and general plot – but the whole time, you can’t help but feel like you missed an integral part in the beginning that could affect every scene. I had always known I was adopted, but wasn’t aware of its meaning until age 7 when we learned about basic genetics in school.  I can remember the specific point in time when I realized that my brown eyes weren’t my mom’s or my dad’s.  I was different than the other kids. Between being a sensitive and emotional person to begin with, coupled with having been nurtured by incredibly loving, strong, supportive parents, I have grown into an adult who values emotional connectivity to self and others. Thirty years ago, I was privately adopted from North Carolina days after my birth.  I grew up in a happy home in suburban New York where my childhood was filled with piano and horseback riding lessons, summer camp, sports – everything a child needs and wants. My mid-twenties were difficult, naturally exploring my identity as maturity set in.  I discovered that my birth mom had died years prior and that I was part of a biological family that I had never known existed.  Before I was able to search, my birth sister found me through Facebook.  I met her soon after and learned so much about my birth story and more importantly about myself. I was part of my birth family, but had also never felt more connected to my parents. I love learning about new things and have a natural curiosity about people.  I work with children in orthopedic healthcare and love art, music, TV and sports, and anything science! I am excited to form meaningful, genuine relationships with mentees and hopefully I can learn from them as well!