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Teenager Hostile to Adoptive Dad

QUESTION: Do adopted adolescent girls tend to demonstrate more hostility towards their adoptive fathers as they seek to solidify their own identity? How can an adoptive father help his daughter learn respect and yet allow her to become her own person?

Can temporary, out of home placement, be helpful to emphasize to one's daughter the inability of dad to tolerate her sarcasm and seeming outright rejection of and hostility to him without her feeling unloved and rejected?

ANSWER: Adolescence is a time of separation and discovery of self and anger is a separating emotion which can abound during this period. Adoption may increase the intensity of this growth period, as can other issues that have remained latent. It is difficult enough to face the usual demands of finding an identity as a teenager. The additional reality that your biological roots may be a mystery only adds to the natural stress of this period.

Developmental psychologists sometimes describe adolescence as a repetition of the earlier "rapprochement" phase of childhood which occurs around the age of two years. During this early age, a child is preoccupied with his or her autonomy, yet needs continual reassurance and support. This conflict between independence and dependence earned the unfortunate label of "the terrible two's". Tantrums result from the imposition of limits on a child who is pushing the boundaries. Eventually, this conflict resolves when a child is able to establish appropriate autonomy in the context of support.

To some extent adolescence recapitulates the "rapprochement" period but the child is much older and the stakes much higher. If the "rapprochement" phase was resolved with suppression instead of true mastery of some level of independence, the unresolved conflict from this period will surface at this time. Additionally, adolescence is charged with hormonal and other physical changes that can exacerbate moodiness and "bad" behavior in general.

The idea of "temporary out of home placement" as a consequence for disrespectful behavior is extreme. Realize that if you chose to take this action, you are saying to your daughter that problem solving includes banishment in your family. Since this is quite severe, I would recommend saving it for a very extreme situation, perhaps one of repeated illegal activity rather than merely disrespectful behavior. Surely, there are other recourses for consequences than banishment from the household. Seek instead to hold your self-esteem in your own hands instead of putting it in your child's hands. You are still the parents. Take a non-reactive approach to words and attitudes, but set clear limits regarding behaviors. By "behaviors" I mean the contracts that you have with your teenager regarding their responsibilities to themselves and to the family. If they do the dishes because it is their chore, but they do it in a surly mood, accept that they have fulfilled their contract. Do not expect them to reward you with a pleasant face or attitude at this time, but do expect them to follow through on their responsibility.

The more non-reactive you can be to the emotionality of your teenager the better. Model a sense of security in yourself and turn to your wife or husband for support and complaining about the things that bother you. You are one another's shock absorbers for the roller coaster ride that can be adolescence. Accept that she may disrespect you for the next two years, at which time if you do not retaliate and damage the relationship she will come to not only respect, but be grateful to you for accepting her in her full expression of anger and rage. Do not make it an issue unless her behavior becomes verbally abusive to you.

For example if swearing at you is common, you might make a rule that there is to be no name calling in the house. This of course includes the parents! Consequences for name calling might include no car or TV privileges. When the rule is broken, simply enforce the consequence, but do not retaliate emotionally. I used to put the consequences up on the bulletin board when my 15 year old son would swear at me. I felt so empowered, and it usually resulted in calming him down! He eventually learned to control his own emotions. I was also aware of using this period as a time of healing past childhood wounds that reopened for him, and it became a time of healing and taming the rage that lived within him.

If you know your daughter has some unresolved issues related to her adoption, it is possible that this anger is being expressed to the authority figures she is living with now. Talk with your husband and try to identify a larger perspective for her current behavior. Strategize a plan so that you set appropriate limits about behavior and contracts for responsibilities, but allow her feelings and attitudes to be her own. Talk with one another about the feelings of sadness or disappointment that might be behind your own anger and attempts to solve the problem by "controlling" her attitudes. It is not unusual for 14-16 year olds to dislike and disrespect their parents positions on things, only to feel loving and appreciative by 17 or 18. Is it hormones or maturity? Perhaps the choice is ours in terms of how maturely we handle our children at these difficult times in their development.

What is clear is that if you are able to absorb your daughter's aggression without overreacting with punitive behavior of your own she will grow to respect and appreciate you for tolerating her right to have her feelings but setting limits on any tendencies to act these feelings out through abandoning responsibilities or becoming truly abusive. Separate her feelings and attitudes from her actions. Teach her by your example to do the same. And she will learn how to handle her own teenager in the future without taking it so personally!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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