THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Drama Of The Adopted Daughter

As the former head of two high schools for girls, I know that this is the time of year when many parents begin wondering what is going on with their teenage daughters. I used to get a lot of calls from parents asking, "What is that school doing to my daughter?" With a bit of inquiry I heard pretty much the same thread from the mothers who called me looking for answers: "Crying, unhappiness, secretive, sudden emotional outbursts--she is completely disrespectful. She used to tell me everything, we were like best friends, now she spends all her time in her room on the Internet and won't share anything. Slams her door to her room. Pouts. What's going on?"

My first response is that this behavior is normal.

Between the ages of 14 and 16 girls begin their search for independence. This journey begins with a girl's need to establish an identity that is separate from her mother's. This process is often a source of conflict for the young girl who is often still immature and unsure of just how to separate from her mother. It is even more difficult and conflicting for a daughter who has been adopted because she is trying to find her own identity as separate from her adopted mother, but underneath, she is also unconsciously trying to find out who she is in relation to the absent birth mother. This produces more conflict in the adopted teen because she often feels the need to be grateful for being adopted at the same time she experiences the need to reject the parent in search of her own identity. This creates confusion over who she is rejecting--her birth mother or her adopted mother? It's both. Rarely are girls mature enough to see this, but my experience with dozens of confused adopted girls has validated that the coming of age process is sometimes more turbulent for them.

This all happens at the same time an adolescent girl is undergoing enormous hormonal changes. This process is not easy for anyone involved, however, understanding what is going on can be very helpful.

The most difficult year of high school for most girls is the 10th grade. For some girls, the process begins at the end of the 9th grade, but in general, the 10th grade is the most difficult year of high school. Keep in mind--this doesn't last forever. Sometime between 10th grade and the junior year, girls begin to settle down and find their strength as independent young women in their own rights.

Common behaviors are more time spent in the bedroom (a girl's room becomes her sanctuary). You may suddenly see signs on the door that say, Keep out! Girls who have been thoughtful and sweet, may suddenly turn impulsive and prone to saying less than kind things. Everything is "so stupid", "boring" or " like, duh". Eyes roll, tongues cluck, "as if". Her cell phone is always clutched in her palm, or pulled from her pocket in the middle of an important family moment to receive a text from--who? Who is it? She brushes her parents off. Her excessive communication is the result of one thing: in her mind, her friends are now the most important people in her life.

In becoming a person in her own right, separate from her mother, she will push her parents away and pull her friends in too closely. Her friends, no longer her mother, are her new role models. She may become critical of her mother, making unkind comments on her style, her shoes, things she says. This behavior can be very painful for mothers.

Calming the Storm

Here are some simple suggestions for making these times go a little more smoothly. First of all, despite her behavior, your daughters want you to talk with them--not at them. They want you to listen to them more than anything else. Girls will talk and talk and often mothers will respond with sage advice. To the dismay of many mothers, girls often do want advice; they simply want to feel understood. Resisting the desire to give advice is practically counter intuitive; however, there is a time and place for giving advice and it's not the same as lending an ear. When things are really tense and upsetting for teen girls, parents can help with empathy: "I know this is a hard time for you, it's hard for me, too, we will get through this. Tell me what you are experiencing, I want to understand"

Girls who are adopted want to talk about being adopted. Yet, they are scared to talk about it with their adoptive mothers because they sometimes feel guilty. One girl once said to me " I am starting to feel mad at my birth mom and I can't possibly bring this up with my mom because it would get her mad to think I was thinking so much about my "other" mother--especially now that we aren't getting along."

The reality is that parents and teens, adopted or not, are in it together and a sense of togetherness coming as an offering from the adult will help girls with all the confusion they are feeling.

Remember, even though your daughter may say and do things that hurt your feelings, you have a responsibility to guide her through these times.

Pick your battles. Don't make every issue the big issue. If you want to preserve family time, maybe you should let up on the messy room. Many of her new behaviors will rub you wrong, but if you are constantly correcting her, she will only recoil. Take a stand on the things you believe are most important and be patient in the passing of some of the other behaviors.

The turbulent years for mothers and daughters often give way to rewarding adult-to-adult relationships. Half the battle is in understanding what is normal and what isn't. Rapid change in weight, either loss or gain; drastic change in physical appearance; too much or not enough sleep; rapid, significant change in friendships are warning signs that something may be amiss and not healthy.

There is a wide range in the definition of normal for teens, so don't be shocked by the often clumsy attempts at defining themselves. Let them choose their own style, their own hair, clothes and music. Avoid criticizing their choices, this will only entrench them. Be clear about what matters most to you and negotiate these things with her so she feels you are respecting her independence. Finally, remember, like you did, most girls will mature and time will cause the storm to pass if you walk through it listening to her unique voice.

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