Parenting Challenging Teens

Written By: Norm Thibault, PhD, LMFT
Executive Director of Three Points Center 

For those who watch for it, it seems that adoption has been presented in a less-than-positive light in the media lately. There is a dangerous trend to equate all adoptions with attachment issues, and to focus solely on the significant problems that can accompany some adoptions. Thankfully,research is clear that for most adopted youth, when it comes to Physical Growth, Motor Skills, Language Development, and Social development, they fall within normal ranges of development by two years, post-adoption. In these areas, they are similar to their non-adopted peers.

Nevertheless, it remains a challenge to parent an adopted person who struggles with emotional, behavioral, and learning difficulties. And no adoptive parent should feel that he or she is alone in
that challenge. Most parents – adoptive or not – could not be expected to manage some of these significant struggles, especially when there are other children in the home. How do you parent someone who does not seem to want to be parented? And when the usual difficulties of adolescence are exacerbated by significant adoption issues? And how do you find support in doing so? The task is demanding, the consequences are significant. I have found that a few guidelines can help parents to navigate these difficult waters:

  • You cannot “fix” your child. Your child isn’t broken, but is responding to his or her environment in ways that are driven by a number of variables, some of which were present before you came into your child’s life.
  • It is oftentimes helpful to remember that most of us, including our children, are doing the best they can at any given time, with the resources they’ve been provided with over time. Your primary goal is to connect with your child and not to control your child. By focusing on connecting you may be able to get your child to accept the help he needs.
  • As difficult as it is, we must try to not personalize disruptive and destructive behaviors. It’s not about any particular adoptive parent, and it may not, in any way, be about our parenting style, but it’s often about testing relationships over time.
  • We must try to frame a “mindset of opportunity rather than crisis” meaning in which we strive to be proactive rather than reactive in our parenting. Outline your own goals and decide ahead of time how you wish to respond to unacceptable behaviors, rather than waiting and then responding.
  • Obtain knowledge to allow you to interpret your child’s negative behaviors from a viewpoint of his or her mindset or beliefs. These beliefs are typically driving these behaviors. Stealing can’t be tolerated and if you ask some post-institutionalized children why they steal, they usually can’t answer that question. But if we’ve educated ourselves to understand hoarding behaviors as a coping mechanism of survival, then stealing becomes framed as just that – they are trying to survive. So our task is not to punish coping mechanisms, but guide them. Some good organizations to research for more information:,,
  • It is very common to get mired down in negativity when the family is struggling, and then it becomes more difficult to see positives. I’m a fan of Dr. John Gottman, who has conducted significant empirical research on marriages and families – he has found that we have to have at least five positive interactions for every negative interaction in successful families. Think of your relationship with your adoptive child as a bank account – every time you have to correct, that’s a withdrawal. Your task is to create five positive moments between you to cover every withdrawal. These don’t have to be large gestures – a verbal acknowledgement of doing something right that day can be a good deposit. Try to maintain that 5:1 ratio.
  • Take care and be gentle with yourself. None of us have all the answers so it’s not fair to judge ourselves as if we should. It’s okay to find time to soothe yourself and disengage. And be careful about feeling guilty when you don’t like your child – there are times when many of us don’t like our children, despite our never-ending love for them. And besides, it’s really the behaviors we don’t like – not the children.
  • Get professional help. Yours is a demanding task and you cannot be expected to manage all of the issues that could arise without the input of those who understand these dynamics. Joni Mantell LCSW and the staff at the Infertility and Adoption Center  are a wonderful resource for knowledge, support, and training. She has dedicated her career to furthering adoption treatment for those in need and she is highly esteemed among her colleagues. I first came in contact with Joni as I opened the first residential treatment center designed exclusively for adopted adolescents and their families ( Adoptive parents that I knew worked with Joni and felt that she was their greatest resource in understanding the myriad of dynamics associated with their adopted children, so they referred me to the Infertility and Adoption Center and Joni. She has been extremely helpful in formulating our program to meet the needs of adoptive- adolescent families and, like many of you, I am grateful to her.
  • There are a number of good books for a parenting adopted children and one I especially recommend is by Michael Orlans and Terry Levy: “Healing Parents: Helping Wounded Children to Trust and Love.” It’s a new text and is replete with good ideas for managing self and family.

It is important to remember that you are not alone. There are thousands of parents in this position and there a number of professionals working toward the same goals you hold – a whole and unified family

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Based in Pennington, NJ