The Wrong Crowd?

If your teen starts acting out, their behavior could be an attempt to connect with what they see as their adoptive past.

A boy stands alone and thinks about adoption issues in adolescence

As children begin to ask questions about where they came from, they are often told, “Your birth mother was very young and very poor and therefore she could not raise you.” The fact is that many children are adopted from a lower socioeconomic background into a middle-class or upper-middle-class family, so this is the simple story they are told.

What people do not realize is the impact that story has on the inner life of the adopted person. If that is all a child knows about his or her birth parent, he or she may become a champion of the underprivileged.

An Issue of Identity

Many parents come into therapy complaining that their adolescent children are hanging out with the wrong crowd. Many of these kids are simply being loyal to what they believe to be the place and the people they came from.

These affiliations make parents of a higher socioeconomic background upset and afraid for their children. The more parents say, “Your friends are no good,” or “You shouldn’t be hanging out in the projects,” the more angry their children become, because in their hearts and minds they are thinking, “That is my birth mother you are talking about. That is who I really am. So you’re talking about me, not about my friends.” Dialogue about socioeconomic issues is essential to educating everyone involved and clarifying their feelings.

Rachel’s Story

One of the families I worked with was Jewish and had adopted three children, two girls and a boy. The older two, a girl and boy, had had problems growing up but nothing serious. The youngest, Rachel, had been the perfect child–until adolescence when she had begun acting out. The parents came to see me wondering if Rachel’s problems had anything to do with adoption.

I asked the parents to begin by telling their adoption story. They said they were told by their agency that Rachel’s birth mother was Protestant and that she played the piano and sang. Such scraps of information–some true and some fabricated–were typical of adoptions in the 1940’s and ’50’s, and even in the 1980’s and ’90’s.

Rachel was acting out very dangerously and they were worried about her. She was sexually active and using drugs. She was also dating non-Jewish boys. Rachel wondered why should she exclude someone she liked because he was not of the same religion.

I asked the parents, as innocently as possible, “Do you think the non-Jewish boyfriends have anything to do with the fact that her birth mother was Protestant?” There was a long silence. Rachel eventually shook her head and said, “Yeah. If they don’t like people who aren’t Jewish, they must not like me very much.”

During Rachel’s therapy, another interesting issue was brought to the surface. The family had decided to get a family pet. The father said, “My secretary raises Persian cats. They are all pedigreed, and we’ll get one of those.”

Rachel said, “No. I want to get a cat from the Animal Rescue League.”

Dad said, “No, no, no. You don’t want a cat from there. You don’t know anything about them. You don’t know where they came from, or what they might be carrying.”

Rachel was furious. It was Mom who understood and said, “I think that maybe Rachel is identifying with the cats from the Animal Rescue League, and maybe we are learning something about the way she feels.”

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