Katie Naftzger, LICSW

family therapist, author, adoption specialist, consultant


The Challenge of Setting Limits For Adoptive Parents

“The task of being respected by your adopted teen is not to control or restrict them. It is to help them to make informed decisions, learning skills that will help them prepare for young adulthood. And strengthen your relationship.

But why might it be challenging specifically for adoptive parents to set limits?

In my experience, many adoptive parents equate saying no with deprivation. It’s natural to want to compensate for deprivation that someone has experienced. If a person was starving for extended periods of time, why wouldn’t you want to give them a feast?

A few years ago, I saw a little boy for psychotherapy, named Nate, who had been abandoned and left for dead at the age of two. When he started with me, Nate was four years old, newly adopted. He was really cute. His smile lit up a room. And, despite it all, he was basically a happy kid. Once, we heard an ambulance whiz by outside. He looked up, as if this wasn’t his first ambulance, quickly regrouped and went back to playing Legos. His speech was delayed and every picture I asked him to draw looked the same—scribbles.

Now, I am really clear about my boundaries but part of me wanted to give him…everything—the rest of the afternoon, snacks and toys to take home. I knew better, of course. From me, he needed a therapist, nothing more, nothing less. My wish to give Nate everything was how I managed my own feelings of helplessness about his trauma. Of course, nothing can alter his past. To think that I could somehow make up for it is an illusion.

Unchecked, our wish can be too similar to pity. Pity suggests that we feel sorry for them, which is the last thing that this boy or anyone needs.

Do you worry that when you set limits you’re depriving your adopted teen somehow?

But even when you’re ready to do right by your adopted teen, how do you set and uphold limits while keeping adoption in mind?”

Excerpt from “Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Teen Years.”

Pre-order on Amazon.


That Defining Story


“I was in graduate school studying social work, in a class on the use of narratives or stories in clinical work with families. In class we were asked to share  story from our life that defined us in some way. One student talked about losing her finger when she battled cancer; another talked about his bitter divorce. Everyone seemed to have that defining story at the read, except for me. My mind was a complete blank. All I needed was one. Why, then, was it so hard for me?

Just then, I realized. I needed to tell the story I never knew, my life before I was adopted. I was born somewhere in Korea, in an unknown setting, from someone whose identity is unknown. There was also an unknown father whose location was unknown. Somehow, towards the beginning, I ended up in an adoption agency. I couldn’t find the words to tell it, because I didn’t have the story. There was no one to ask. And, apart from a sparse adoption file, no information.

I had no words, no witnesses and no documentation. In that moment, I couldn’t move forward without it.

Being adopted is not just an isolated event. It’s a part of one’s identity that is constantly evolving and changing.”

That was an excerpt from the first chapter of “Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Teen Years,” to be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers on March 21, 2017.


Why You Need To Be Informed About Suicide

Suicide is a serious issue in the adoption community.

We’ve all been affected by it. I work with adopted adults and teens who struggle with it, it’s happening in families, to classmates, and others in the community.

Some have been suicidal and made attempts, others have contemplated it in more briefly. Some are talking about it with those who matter, others are not. Some are getting the help they need while others aren’t. It’s happening all over the schools, especially the high schools and colleges. The numbers are rising, yet, it’s extremely difficult to talk about. People talk amongst themselves, families grieve, schools gather together to try to regroup, but that’s not enough.

If you’re an adoptive parent, even if your adopted child, teen or young adult is not suicidal, they are likely to encounter it at some point in their life, and then it will be personal. It’s a scary topic, a taboo topic as if talking about it will make it come true somehow. That’s not the case. Just like talking about safe sex doesn’t give kids permission to have sex, talking about suicide won’t increase the chances of it happening.

But, if you don’t know what to look for, how to find  the help that you need, how to talk to your daughter or son about their feelings, whether about them or about someone else, you’re not providing what they need from you. They look to you for guidance.

If you’re an adult adoptee, as I am, you may feel alone, but you’re not. Everything is more bearable if you remember that you’re not the only one.

If you’re a clinician, as I am, your comfort level with these issues has to be much higher than the average person. And, it’s not enough just to assess for suicidality. It’s about understanding someone in that vulnerable moment when they feel suicidal. In this day and age, it’s necessary for you to know how adoptees might be more vulnerable and how best to respond to them in a supportive, compassionate way.

I will be facilitating a webinar about this topic on Tuesday, December 1, 2015, right after the Thanksgiving weekend. Seating is limited. I will share what I’ve learned about the intersection of adoption and suicidality including statistics, specific adoption themes as they relate to this issue, and guidance about what to say and signs to look for.

This webinar is for everyone because this issue affects everyone.





Feedback About Parent Groups

Four-week LOCAL group for parents of adopted teens begins this Friday, Oct. 30, 2015 from 9:45 am to 11:00 am.

The ONLINE group begins this Monday, Nov 2, 2015 from 12:30 to 1:30 pm.

Don’t wait for a crisis! The time to learn more is now!
Book ONLINE Group Book LOCAL Group

“There are so many families with questions and issues, living in places where adoption competent therapists are nowhere to be found. My husband and I attended your tween group last January. Both of us grew as parents as a result. Thank you for doing this.”

Beth O’Malley

“Katie had a certain way of explaining things that made them both clear and powerful.”

Adoptive parent, New England area.

“I decided to join the group because I am always looking for additional supports from people who understand the complexities of parenting kids like mine. I’m always interested in learning more about parenting adopted teens. I benefited from the group by hearing about the variety of all of our experiences and commonalities. Also, because of support from the leader and other group members, and from Katie’s calm and thoughtful insights.

There were some micro-interventions I learned which empowered me and potentially had a positive effect. For example, being more direct with my teen when I thought he might be keeping a secret from me. I also really liked the theoretical framework presented in the beginning and the discussion about being “savvy.””

Adoptive parent, MA

“I got an increased understanding of my teens and my own role in their lives as they grow up.”

Adoptive parent of two, MA



What I’ve Learned From Adopted Teens

The teen years can wreak havoc on families. Understandably, so. There’s so much packed in — the emotional turmoil, surging hormones, academic pressures, expectations  — I could go on and on. The stakes are high, the future looms and every decision counts. It’s a critical juncture for adoptive parents and adopted teens.

As a psychotherapist, I’ve seen and known hundreds of adopted teens and have had the privilege of learning more about them than they usually share in their everyday life. And, as an adoptee, I’ve lived it. It’s an incredibly vulnerable time!

What I’ve learned from them:

  1. Whether they are “attractive” or not is critical. As parents, I think we forget how gut-wrenching appearance is during teen hood. It matters a lot. Parents often come to me saying, “I think she’s gorgeous, but it doesn’t matter how many times I say it,” or “he looks fine, but he doesn’t think he measures up.” That’s true. What you think is not as important as what they think. It will take more than encouragement to help them through that. It will take rewinding back to the feelings that many adoptees face – fear of rejection, low self-worth and difficulty trusting others.
  2. Contemplating adulthood feels like jumping off a cliff. There’s a moment in this documentary film, “Winged Migration,” in the Arctic, a mother bird was pushing her baby bird off of a cliff with the water way way down below. A moment later, you see the little bird bobbing along contentedly. That’s what it feels like for adopted teens except that we’re not naturally equipped to bounce back from such a drastic situation. For many adopted teens, the idea of being an adult is unfathomable. Why? Well, a few reasons. One is that they don’t have the information that their non-adopted peers do about who they could become. Another reason is that they’re not prepared to handle the stresses of adulthood because they never had any practice! Developing a sense of responsibility and being accountable takes time. It doesn’t just happen.
  3. Their peers are hugely impactful, for better or worse! While adoptive parents are talking about their teen’s school failure and anger outbursts at home, what do you think the teen is talking about in therapy? Yes, that’s right, their peers. There are so many stories that accrue throughout the day, once I’ve established a rapport, all I have to ask is, “What happened?” and we’re on our way. Also, don’t be too critical of their peers in their presence, because deep-down, they worry that you feel the same way about them. They’re not just defending their peers actions, they’re defending their own. That’s why they get so stirred up.

If you’d like to talk more about this, please join our group for parents of adopted teens, online and local!





The teen years are the hidden gem of childhood. Don’t get me wrong. These years can try even the most veteran of adoptive parents. They’re emotionally exhausting, stressful, scary


Why Reassurance Hurts Your Adopted Teen

Adoptive parents might say things such as,

“We’ll always be here for you, no matter what.”

“You don’t have to worry about that anymore. We are your forever family.”

“You can trust us!”

“You can talk to us!”

These statements are variations on a theme in adoptive families. The idea is that if the adoptee hears it enough, at some point, it will start to sink in. It’s meant to be encouraging and stabilizing. And, for the most part, it is! That is, until the teen years. When the teen years hit, those words of encouragement don’t have that same connecting effect. Adoptive parents find that when they are trying to be encouraging and supportive, it can actually make things worse.

Typical scenario:

Let’s say the adopted teen with a learning disability who is struggling with their homework, throws it across the room and says, “This is so stupid! In fact, I’m so stupid!”

At that point, the adoptive parent might say something like, “Sweetie! You’re not stupid. You’re incredibly smart. If you would just apply yourself and put in some more effort then you would do a lot better!”

Adopted teen says, “You were a straight A student, how would you know! You really don’t get it, do you! I can’t do it!”

Adoptive parent says, “That’s because I applied myself! You could be a straight A student if you wanted to!”

Adopted teen storms into their room, homework is strewn all over the living room.

In these interactions, adoptive parents may find themselves disagreeing with their teen in an effort to make them feel better. But, instead, the adopted teen ends up feeling invalidated, misunderstood and even more alone and isolated than they already were.

That response is more appropriate for a younger child, but not for teens. With teens, the role of the parent is to maintain guidelines and expectations in a supportive way, but not try to change their mind or to make life easier for them. And, if possible, to help them to feel a little bit less alone.

How does one do that?

In this situation, less is more. It is better to simply say something like, “I know that it’s been difficult. I need you to go pick up that stuff though.” This way, the adoptive parent is acknowledging the adopted teens pain, but not letting her off the hook, but also not lecturing or abandoning either.

If you’d like to talk more about this, please join us for our parents of adopted teens groups that are starting soon  — one online and one local! We’d love to have you.





A Quote About Relational Trauma In Adoption

“Trauma theorists have taught us that it is not necessarily a specific event that is traumatic so much as it is the failure of the relationship that permitted that event to occur, allowing its impact upon the victim to go unrecognized, unacknowledged, and without amends.”

Virginia Goldner Ph.D. (2014) Romantic Bonds, Binds, and Ruptures: Couples on the Brink, Psychoanalytic Dialogues:  The International Journal of Relational Perspectives, 24:4, 402-418 (p. 406)


Beginnings and Endings For Adoptive Families

Beginnings and Endings

When adoptees become teens, they find themselves in the midst of an ending of sorts—their childhood. But, they may also continue to grapple with another ending from their past—the dissolving of their birth or biological family. At times, adoptive parents lose sight of the power of those endings, especially during significant life transitions.

Example (names changed):

Jack, foster parent of twelve-year-old Dorian, had been coming in for family therapy for over a year. From the beginning, Jack planned to adopt Dorian and that is what came to pass. Their day in court made it official. The visits, the therapy, the time and effort were all worth it.

I saw them later that afternoon for their appointment, and inquired about their momentous day in court.

His father answered, glowing, “Best day of my life. I’m the happiest guy in the world.”

I looked at his son who looked away.

“Dorian? What about you?” Still not looking at me, he shrugged, as if he wanted to join in but couldn’t.

For Jack, this was everything he’d always wanted, but in that moment, what Dorian felt was the loss of his biological family, which had become permanent. They were in two very different places.

In the midst of his joy, Jack had inadvertently lost sight of Dorian’s pain. Beginnings and endings are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. My goal was to help Dorian’s dad lean into his vulnerability, without sacrificing his joy.

I asked Jack how he decided to adopt. His initial answer wasn’t surprising. He wasn’t getting any younger. Wasn’t in a relationship, running out of time and wanted to have a family. But, I pushed him to go deeper…for his son.

I leaned forward. My voice intensified, “What about that moment, though, before you decided? Before you knew you were going to adopt? Why then? Tell me about that moment.”

He looked directly at me and said, “My father died. I didn’t want to be the end of the line.”

Dorian turned to look at him, engaged again.

“So, you felt alone, lost.” I continued. “It was hard to imagine how you were going to move forward.”


“It was an extremely difficult time for you.”

“Yes, it was.”

Adoptive parents and adopted teens are at risk of getting polarized. I wanted Jack to access that experience of feeling vulnerable.   Suddenly, Dorian wasn’t the only one. When his father was able to access his own feelings of loss, Dorian to felt less alone. I could see the change in his body language, and the way that he became more engaged. I didn’t want them to be on opposite sides of the same coin. It’s easy to feel alone in loss. That shared moment of vulnerability enabled this father and son to come together, not for a fresh start, but a beginning of something special, nonetheless — the family that they’ve always wanted.

(Online class to learn about parenting adopted teens, this fall, and adoption webinar to support the Korean-American Adoptee Network Conference. Learn more at http://www.adoptiontherapyma.com/groupswebinars/)


What Your Adopted Teen Won’t Ask You

question markWhat Your Adopted Teen Won’t Ask You

Don’t underestimate how important your relationship is with your adopted teen. They notice everything. They see when you don’t uphold a limit. They know when you’re overwhelmed, and at a loss. They care because they want to know whether or not you’ll still be there for them. Unfortunately, using words to reassure them that you’ll never abandon them doesn’t help. Actions speak louder than words. At times, it can seem like you’re being tested, over and over. Adoptees don’t want to be blindsided again, or to be the last to know. They are vigilant and often have developed into savvy readers of people.

Your adopted teen has questions about you.

Have you changed your mind about parenting them? How much wear and tear have you sustained over the years? Are you starting to unravel? No? What about next year when they’ve dropped out of high school? What about when they’re still depressed despite years of many therapists and countless trials of medications? What about when you’ve told them again and again how beautiful they are, and they still hate themselves when they look in the mirror? What about when you don’t know what to do, again? What is your breaking point? Are you strong enough to say “no” to them? Will you do what’s best for them in the long run, even if it means that they hate you for a while? Do you know what’s best for them?



Is This About Adoption?

Is this about adoption?

It’s an important question.  After all, It’s difficult to move forward when you don’t understand why your adopted child or teen is struggling.  When adoptive parents ask me whether a situation is “normal,” what they mean is, “Is this really about adoption or is it garden-variety teen growing pains?”

Often, there are differences of opinion between parents about whether it’s a problem, or how big of a problem it is.  Much of the time, the adopted teen’s opinion also differs from their parents, but not always.  Often, it’s the teen who insists that their parents are overreacting, but the opposite can also be true go to the website. Teens express frustration that their parents didn’t recognize sooner that they needed help.  The sense of urgency can get lost in translation, sometimes.

Of course, the differing views include, not just with family, but, with friends, doctors, therapists and teachers.  With the views ranging from minimizing to maximizing and everywhere in between,  it’s no wonder that you second guess yourself or feel that you’ve completely lost your parental intuition.  You may even start to wonder whether you’ll ever get the answers you need.  Perhaps you vacillate between one answer to the other, or maybe you feel compelled to include both sides when it comes up in conversation.

Is this about adoption, or not?

In a nutshell, the definitive answer to this all-important question is, yes, it’s absolutely about adoption.  The experience of being adopted is “live,” which means that once you’re adopted, it becomes an ongoing part of your identity, similar to one’s gender and sexual orientation.  The experience of being adopted continually changes.  It is inextricably linked to other areas of one’s identity.  so, yes, it’s about adoption, but, no, it’s not all about adoption.

So, where does that leave you?  Yes, it’s about adoption, but no, it’s not all about adoption.  The answer is simple but these issues are complex and messy.

How is this about adoption?”  

This is a better place to start.