sullen teenager

Foster Carers' TSD Standards covered:

Author Details

Jill Mack

Name: Dr Jill Mack

Job Title: Counselling Psychologist

Current place of work: The Child Psychology Service

Many adoptive parents are puzzled by the apparent change in behaviours during the adolescent period. They describe their children who were previously warm, loving and kind-natured as turning into something that does not resemble their snugly little girl or boy. We all know that adolescence can often be a particular time of turbulent emotions and disruption. Adoption adds complexity to the normal developmental tasks of teenagers, regardless of the age they were adopted. It may be that identity formation, a crucial stage in the adolescent’s developmental tasks, is the fundamental reason they appear to struggle so much with this stage and potentially suffer an identity crisis. Since the early 1980s, adoption experts have recognized seven lifelong issues experienced by adopted children (as well as birth and adoptive parents). These include loss, rejection, guilt and shame, grief, identity, intimacy, and mastery/ control. These all impact in some way on the formation of identity and the adolescent period.

Identity formation occurs throughout the life span however, it appears more conscious and prominent during the adolescent period.  Fundamentally, the act of establishing identity involves an adolescent answering the question, “who am I?” in relation to various different aspects of life and different contextual environments.  This may have a significant impact on children who are adopted as their potential understanding of their life, which is dependent on knowledge of the self, family, and society, may be incomplete.  Ultimately, when individuals form their identity, they often need to have coherent stories to create and understand the meaning of their life and to link their identity to their past, present, and future (McAdams, 2001). Answering the question, “who am I?” also involves reflection on, if not investigation of, one’s origins, further complicating adolescent adoptees’ completion of the identity task.

Stages of Psychosocial Development

If we reflect on Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development above, it is clear that the stages of development are thwarted by the difficulties experienced by some adopted children who, due to their early experiences, find it hard to trust adults and be autonomous.  The adolescent stage of Identity vs. Role Confusion, can become more complex if the earlier, and most important stage of development during infancy, has not been established. Trust vs. Mistrust between birth and 18 months old teaches the child whether they can trust people around them and the world.

An infant is entirely dependent upon his or her caregivers. During this stage, children learn whether or not they can trust the people around them. When a baby cries, does the caregiver attend to their needs? When they are frightened, will someone be comforting? When he is hungry, does he receive nourishment from his caregivers? If a child successfully develops trust, he or she will feel safe and secure in the world. Caregivers who are inconsistent, emotionally unavailable, or rejecting contribute to feelings of mistrust in the children they care for. Failure to develop trust will result in fear and a belief that the world is inconsistent and unpredictable. Erikson believed that these early patterns of trust or mistrust help control, or at least exert a powerful influence, over that individual’s interactions with others for the remainder of his or her life. Those who learn to trust caregivers in infancy will be more likely to form trusting relationships with others throughout the course of their lives.

Ultimately, the teen is forming their identity and managing social interactions in a world that has previously felt unsafe and where people are not to be trusted.  Quite a task I’d say!  It’s no surprise that this stage of development is often characterised by an increase in confusing emotions and behaviours, as those who find a sense of identity feel secure, independent and ready to face the future, while those who remain confused may feel lost, insecure and unsure of their place in the world.


So surely, it’s no wonder…. When the adolescent period peaks and children who have been adopted are frantically trying to assert themselves in the world, socially and autonomously, it may bring about anxiety, concern and even fear for the adolescent.  Not forgetting they are seeking to detach in some way from parents in order to live independent lives, for some, this merely serves as a reminder of early loss and trauma.

All teenagers must separate emotionally from their families. This can be both exciting and scary. Teens often go back and forth between wanting more freedom and wanting the safety and protection offered by their family. During this time, it is also perhaps common for parents to want their children to find independence and to become frustrated at the adolescent’s attempts to remain ‘cared for’ in varying ways.  In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family suggests that the only stage at which the quantity of time parents spend with their offspring really matters is during adolescence (Milkie, Nomaguchi & Denny, 2015).  A major study by Berlin’s Max Planck Institute (Van den Bos, Rodriguez, Schweitzer & McClure, 2015), is the latest to find that teenagers go through the same rewiring between the age of 13 and 17 as they did when they were toddlers.

Many parents ask what they can do to support their children during this time and often voice feelings indicative of blocked care (found on:  Here are a few ideas to help keep your child, family and self grounded, through what can sometimes be a turbulent period.

  1. It’s often very difficult to know what is actually causing teens to behave or feel the way they do and this can sometimes leave you feeling hopeless and out of control in supporting them. It’s fine to ask “What’s wrong with you?”, if you genuinely want to know but this question can be experienced as critical if it’s coming from a place of anger and frustration. Asking the question in a way that conveys compassion and a real desire to know what’s going on for them can help to ensure that our own worries and frustrations don’t get in the way of developing a closer relationship with our adolescent son or daughter. What’s actually ‘wrong’ with teens is that the frontal lobes of their brains, which control impulses, reasoning and planning, are the last to be rewired for adulthood.  While this re-arrangement is going on, decision-making is re-routed via the amygdala, a primal part of their brain which reacts instantaneously and emotionally to any perceived threat. To a confused adolescent, despairing comments from a parent can cut deep and can get turned inwards into negative self-talk.

angry mum and teen daughter2. Find opportunities to connect. As children head into the teen years and appear to want to be around you less, it can sometimes be easier for all involved to allow and welcome this time apart. It can also be difficult to find ways to spend time with a teen who does not appear to want to be around you and this can also leave you with your own feelings of rejection. Of course, adolescents need this time, to grow as individuals and become autonomous. I guess the balance is to let them know they are still fun to be around and that you want to spend time with them.  Being creative with how you spend time will let them know that whilst you respect their need for alone time, you are ready and willing to spend time with them and positively hold them in mind.  Spending time together can include walking the dog or having a drink together in a café, find regular slots for the two of you to be together, no strings attached and no pep talks. This suggestion will probably initially be met with as much enthusiasm as if you’d asked them to mop the floor. Persevere. If you let them know you want to spend time with them, it will encourage a positive self-belief.

sullen teenage boy3. Make it known that you are willing to talk about adoption and your teen’s related feelings. Many adopted children feel guilty or disloyal for talking about their birth parents. Your teen may have recently received information or developed questions, but may not be ready to talk right away. Just by letting them know you will be waiting when they are ready is support in itself.

4. Provide full disclosure. As their logical thinking skills develop, adopted teens may require or need more details than when they were younger. Let teenagers know what you know or can discover about their histories and their birth and adoption circumstances. Include information that may be upsetting or difficult to share, but be sure to help teens learn to cope with the painful aspects. Therapeutic Life-Story Work ( is often a useful way for adolescents to explore this information in a safe and supportive way.

5. Be willing to discuss their birth parents and help to develop a balanced view of them.

6. Be patient as communication may be difficult. Teens are often known for their monosyllabic responses (or nonresponses). Not talking may be a part of their efforts to separate and gain independence. Avoid lengthy, one-sided lectures, and continue to invite conversation. It’s often easier for teens to discuss things while engaged in an activity with the parent, even something as simple as driving together in the car. If parents appear to be calm, relaxed, and open, teens are more likely to open-up. Using PACE as an approach can greatly support this process (

Parenting any teenager is both rewarding and challenging at the same time.  Support is often needed around this time from family and friends and sometimes professionals.  The experiences and responses we have parenting an adolescent can often link to our own experiences of adolescence and we imagine that they are experiencing it in the same way.  Although there may be similarities which are useful at times to share, each adolescent’s experience is individual and unique.  This is why responses and support need to be tailored to the understanding of their unique experience.  Here are some general guidelines that may create thinking around supportive approaches to parenting an adolescent.

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