Parenting Traumatised Teens
Adolescence is a time of change and growth and can be difficult for any teenager. During adolescence, teenagers form a sense of their own identity and their social and familial relationships change as they transition into independent adults. Aside from the obvious physical changes to their bodies, teenagers will experience a wealth of changes in mood, personality and behaviour as they explore their identity - often with contradicting results. This period can be difficult for any parent to handle but it can be even more perplexing for adopted or fostered teenagers who have experienced trauma in their early lives.
During adolescence, teenagers have three main goals. These are:
- Individuation: Teenagers are searching for the answer to the question 'Who am I?' The are forming a sense of identity that is unique and separate from their families. The may rebel against family ideologies or alter their appearance.
- Separation: Teens are subconsciously preparing to leave the family home. This means developing their independence and spending more time alone or with peers. They may push against boundaries, but they still need them to feel safe.
- Maintain connections: As teens grow and change, so do their familial relationships. As they grow more independent, family dynamics may change and teens need to find a way to stay connected to their families while they explore the world on their own.
Complications for Fostered Teens
Children need a healthy level of dependency before they can become more independent. Those who experienced trauma with their birth families may have learnt from an early age that they cannot depend on adults to meet their safety and comfort needs. This can cause them to later push away from their parents/carers which can slow their progress into independence. As a result, traumatised teenagers may often present as younger than their chronological and need more security than their peers. Teens who have suffered trauma in their early life need more support from adults alongside them to manage their day to day routine, expectations and relationships. Teenagers need a healthy sense of dependency before they can become independent.
Understanding their Birth Family
We develop our sense of identity by understanding how we are like or different from our families. For children separated from their birth families, they may struggle to understand who they are. They may feel a sense of shame from not fully understanding where they come from, or from feeling too different from their family now. They may have a fragile sense of self so may feel a sense of self-blame, not being loved and not being good enough. This may lead to them searching for their birth family as they struggle to make sense of who they are in the context of their in their adoptive or fostered families. Alternatively they may see out peers or families who they feel resemble their birth families or may change their behaviour as a way to express the shame they feel.
Teenagers who struggled to develop healthy attachments due to separation or trauma from their birth families may find maintaining attachments to their adoptive families difficult as they transition into independence. As they have learnt to build their identity as part of a new family unit, they may struggle to understand that gaining an individual sense of identity doesn't change the fact they are still loved. They may become more dependent on parents, or push them away entirely as they try to make sense of this change.
How You Can Help
- Be open with your child about their birth families and their life stories before adolescence if possible). How is your child like/unlike their birth parents? What interests do they share? What differences are there? Understanding where they come from will help them to understand more about themselves.
- Discuss your own shared interests or personality traits with them. If they are able to see similarities between you and them it will help them to still feel connected to you as they develop their own sense of identity.
- Don't hide your flaws. Adolescents may carry a sense of shame about where they come from and what this means about who they are. Being able to learn to about your flaws and your mistakes may help them to feel more connected to you and help to reduce their own sense of shame.
- Give them choices, but set clear boundaries. Giving them the freedom to choose what they do, what they wear will make them feel more independent but boundaries are still important for their own safety and gives them a sense of security, too.
- Make the family home a space of food, comfort and joy. Continuing to nurture your teen will reassure them that you still love them and they can still depend on you when they need to. You can do this by still feeding them even if they won't eat with the family and leaving notes under their bedroom door when they refuse to engage with family life to show they are still being thought about and refer to how angry they may feel after an understanding to help to repair the relationship.
- Use a playful tone of voice. Keep the relationship light and playful at time and use humour with them. Try to avoid sarcasm, however, as this can trigger a sense of shame.
- Connection before correction. Continue to connect with your child as you set boundaries and expectations with them to show them that you still love them even when you're angry.
- Help them think about healthy ways to become independent. E.g. by talking about when you left home, your fears and needs, how you planned for this and how your parents helped
- Blame My Brain: The Amazing Teenage Brain Revealed by Nicola Morgan [Goodreads Link]
- Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Daniel Siegel [Goodreads Link]
- Parenting Your Adopted Teenager [PDF]