Katie Naftzger, LICSW

family therapist, adoption specialist, speaker, author


How I Connect With Adopted Teens

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-diverse-group-teenage-girls-talking-image26777546It’s not that every session I’ve had with an adopted teen has been easy.  But, I’ve had a lot of practice, a lot of chances to experience what works and what doesn’t.  I know that being a parent is a pretty different role, but if you can adapt these tips to use with your teen, it can really help.

As their therapist, I try to:

In the beginning of our relationship, their story is more important than my perspective on their story.  This doesn’t mean that I agree with their point of view, but more that I make sure they’ve had the air time to allow me to completely understand what happened.  I differentiate my potential opinion with their stated one.  For example, I might say, “So, you’re saying that your teachers don’t understand you and they hate you?  I just want to make sure that I understand what you’re saying, that in your view, that’s what’s happening.”  When I add the “in your view,” I’m reminding them that I’m not corroborating the story, even though I’ve taken the time through it.  I’m not their friend, or their parent, but I am there for them.

It’s important to me to minimize the lying in sessions because, unlike the parent, I’m not giving out consequences.  I don’t usually lead with the ways that what they’re doing is wrong and ruining their life.  I remember, I saw this kid several years ago who had a history of lying to his adoptive parents, after being in multiple foster home placements.  I was pretty sure that this kid had many people telling him that what he was doing was wrong.  He already knew that.  It wouldn’t have helped to say it again.  But, what he hadn’t really done was talk about it, because understandably so, those talks usually lead quickly into lecturing and that shuts the door to communication.  So, what I said was, “You’re pretty experienced at lying.  How many years do you think you’ve been doing it?  How old were you when you started?  Which home were you in?  What did you lie about?”

Another question that I ask adopted teens when they come to see me for therapy is, “Does it bother you?” How much does their narrative about the problem reflect their parent’s narrative of the problem.  “Are you as concerned as your parents are about you getting into college?”And if not, I ask why.

I allow for intermittent quietness to be part of the session.  Teens can get overwhelmed and talking about these issues isn’t easy, so when there is a pause in our conversation, I allow for it.

I frame anxiety as a survival skill.  When a teen worries about separating from their parents or maybe even worrying about something terrible happening to their parents it is painful for them, I know, but it is also a way for them to brace themselves for the worst.  It’s difficult to be that way in an ongoing basis, but adoptees are survivors and why wouldn’t they be scared to take a leap of faith that everything will be fine?  I try to frame it as a source of strength and protection, and help them to recalibrate their anxiety to be appropriate to the given situation.  I talk about the courage it takes to move forward, and into the unknown, and that I respect their courage, knowing that there are no guarantees.

What has helped you when talking with adopted teens, or if you are a teen or young adult, what have folks done that helped you to open up?  Let me know!  I’m interested.


4 Responses to How I Connect With Adopted Teens

  1. Janet says:

    We live in Chicago area. Do you know any therapists here that have experience with international adopted teens?


    • admin says:

      Unfortunately, I don’t. Just wanted to mention that we still have a few slots open for our online group for parents of adopted teens which begins tomorrow. It’s going to be a great group!

  2. admin says:

    That’s a great insight. I think you’re right, that when an adult says “I’m not your friend,” to a teen, or child for that matter, it is often out of fear of their own tendencies to blur the boundaries between being a friend and being a teacher, therapist, etc. In defining and guiding relationships, actions speak louder than words.
    I also know, though, how challenging it can be to be an adult in the lives of adolescents. I am constantly asking myself, “What do they need from me right now, and is that different than what they want?”

  3. Mary Kay says:

    I am in the process of adopting a teen and therefore find your articles extremely helpful. Thanks for sharing your knowledge about the very important subject of “what to say to your teen”. Based on my own personal teen age experience, I don’t think it’s helpful for the therapist to tell the teen “I’m not your friend”. There are many types and shades of friends. When one of my teachers reminded the class that she’s their teacher, not their friend, most of us interpreted that to mean that she didn’t like us. I’m sure she thought that being a friend to a teen would mean they’d take advantage of her. “Not your friend” was designed to keep us in our place. Unfortunately, it backfired because after that, we weren’t anxious to like or please her. Many people think of the opposite of friend as enemy or someone we hold at arm’s length. A friend doesn’t have to be a running buddy or a face book friend. Nor does it mean sending birthday greetings. On a professional level it can simply mean we can exchange smiles, I’m worthy of your professional friendship. I can open up to you easier etc. I’m not going to take advantage of you.

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