Youth Are Never Too Old to Be Adopted

Contributed by:
Cynthia Flynn
Wendy Welch

“You are never too old to be adopted,” said one young woman during an interview for a recently completed study on successful adolescent adoptions. “It´s the most important thing that happened to me,” said another adoptee. “I got a family and found love. I have everything one hopes for. I fit in a family.” These two adoptees were among 37 youth who were adopted as teens and who participated in a study about successful adolescent adoptions conducted by the Center for Child and Family Studies at the University of South Carolina. During interviews, the youth talked about making the decision to be adopted, the best and worst parts of adoption, and why it worked for them. We can all learn from their insight.

Mom and 2 Teens

Deciding to be Adopted

For teens, the prospect of being adopted can be complicated by birth family loyalties, the drive to be more independent, and the sense that they are no longer children who need parental supervision. Adoptees in this study decided to become a permanent member of a new family for four primary reasons.

  • Belonging. Many participants talked about the need to be cared for by people who made them feel safe and secure. They needed to belong. “I felt that I have found a match for myself. I found out that it was right for me,” reported one youth. Another said, “It wasn´t the fact of having a family as much as having people that loved me and cared enough about me to spend time with me.”
  • Stability. Other adoptees considered adoption because they wanted to have a stable family. As one teen expressed it, “I would have a family who would always be there for me. I wouldn´t have to move around all of the time.”  “And no matter what,” asserted another participant, “when I grow up and I move out into my own house, I would always have a mother to come back to. When I have kids, they will actually have a grandmother.”
  • Opportunities. Some adoptees said they thought they would have more opportunities (for school, life options, etc.) if they got adopted. “I decided that I could have a better future in America. I wanted to be a lawyer, and the orphanage could not afford to pay for law school.” Most talked about being a better person and having more chances to try new things. “I probably would have been a hoodlum or causing a lot of trouble,” claimed one youth, “if I didn´t make this choice in my life to be adopted.”
  • Reuniting with siblings. For many teens, adoption was an avenue through which they could live with their siblings. “I was happy,” noted one youth, “because I then knew I would be with my family—if not all of it, at least half of it.” Another adoptee summed it up simply: “Being with my sisters was a big plus.”

Going through the Adoption Process

When asked to identify the difficulties they anticipated prior to adoption, the youth had a lot to say. Among their concerns: adjusting to a new family, school, and community; missing birth family members; and worrying about disruption.

  • “I didn´t know if I would like my parents.”
  • “I thought I would not be accepted, but I have friends.”
  • “It would be difficult to show trust for my parents when they told me things.”
  • “I had to change schools again. I was starting a new middle school, which is a whole new ball game.”
  • “Before the adoption, I was real hesitant because none of the other relationships ever worked out, and I didn´t think this one would…but I´m still here.”

When asked to rate adoption from 1 (low) to 10 (high), most were enthusiastic.

  • “I would give it a 10 because I have a normal life now. I have a driver´s license, and I drive. I have friends, and I get to go on overnights. There is no comparison to what my life is now and what it was before.”
  • “Number 10 all the way. Everything I ever wanted from a family, I got: love, comfort, warmth, someone to love me.”
  • “Eight or nine, there isn´t really a negative part. The whole experience is really great. There were some feelings that were not really great like wondering if they were going to keep me. I didn´t have those feelings after we went to court, and they officially gave me my last name.”

A few study participants gave lower ratings—a seven, a five, and even a one. Without exception, though, the low ratings were given because the process took so long!

The Best and Worst Parts of Being Adopted

At the time the youth were interviewed, all of their adoptions had been finalized for at least one year. Many adoptions had been finalized for five years or more. Adoptees were more than willing to share their feelings about the best and worst parts of adoption. The best aspects mirrored their anticipated benefits.

  • “The best part is to have a family and a home to come home to when you´re not feeling safe.”
  • “I have more freedom, as in I feel more like a human being and not like I am someone´s property. Before I was adopted, I was the property of the state, and when you are a property you can only do so much. Just being adopted feels better.”
  • “If it weren´t for my mom, I wouldn´t be where I am today. In the beginning, I had given up. I really tested her, especially in school. There is no way I´d be where I am today without being adopted. The best part is the relationship I have with my mom now.”
  • “My parents persevered and understood me. I didn´t make it easy for them.”
  • “The attention is the best part. The attention and love are something I never got when I was little.”

Aside from typical teen complaints (“The worst part is having curfew when I´m not in church.”), many of the adolescents could not think of a worst part about the adoption itself. They did, however, express sadness at being separated from old friends and birth family members.

  • “The worst is not being able to go home to see my friends.”
  • “It´s hard not seeing my real mom.”

Why It Worked for Me

Toward the end of the interview, adoptees reflected on what made their adoption work and what advice they would have for teens thinking about adoption. Reasons given for success were quite varied, though themes of perseverance and commitment were evident in most responses.

  • “It worked because my mom is not a nutbag. We worked together. We went to counseling. We never gave up.”
  • “My dad is very laid back and doesn´t yell, and that was what I needed. I need him for support.”
  • “I think it worked because my dad and I had a chance to get to know each other, and we were very close. We hardly had any difficulties, and we were both dedicated to making it work.”
  • “It worked because my mom and I had a lot of things in common.” When asked to give advice to other teens considering adoption, the adoptees shared their wisdom and experience.
  • “If you get a chance, it´s the greatest thing in the world. No matter how old you are, you still need love and to give love. You need someone to see on the holidays, and you need grandparents. You need a family and the support they give.”
  • “Do it! You don´t want to be a part of the system until you are 18 because you will have no one. It is never too late for a teen to be adopted.”
  • “Seize the opportunity. You will have a stable family and someone to fall back on. You will have a last name to call your own. You don´t have to worry about where you will be next week or next month.”
  • “Yes, I would do it again…before I was kind of scared to be adopted, and I know what it feels like and how nice it is.”
  • “Don´t give up. There is someone out there for everyone.”
  • “Don´t hold back your feelings. If you want to be adopted, don´t hold back because of what peers think. Do what is right for you and what´s going to help you in life.”
  • “If it looks like it is going to be a good situation, go for it.”

It is not always easy for youth to verbally express feelings and opinions about adoption, but those who had a chance to share their wisdom and opinions through the Successful Adolescent Adoption Study became very vocal. Now it is time for teens considering adoption, adoptive parents, and adoption workers to hear their words and act accordingly. Youth are never too old to be adopted.

Tips for Facilitating Successful Teen Adoptions

The Successful Adolescent Adoption Study was designed to explore the concept of success in adolescent adoptions and determine what leads to success. In listening to adolescent adoptees and their adoptive parents, it is clear that the adoption process needs to be adapted to better meet adolescents´ needs. Below are recommendations for facilitating the successful adoption of adolescents.

  • Individually prepare adolescents for the adoption process by 1) explaining their legal status; 2) offering adoption as a viable option for permanence; 3) offering support and information as they consider the adoption option; 4) explaining how the adoption process will proceed; 5) assessing adolescents to determine their level of adjustment regarding birth family issues; and 6) providing support as needed to help them deal appropriately with birth family issues.
  • Employ caseworkers for adolescent adoptions who have positive attitudes about teen adoptions and who are eager to find homes for adolescents. Streamline the process as much as possible so that the teens can be adopted when they are ready.
  • Include recruitment strategies that offer opportunities for adults in the community to get to know teens in foster care. Work through ongoing programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters or establish a new program with similar opportunities for pairing adults and adolescents. After attachments develop, employ traditional teen adoption recruitment strategies.
  • Initiate or continue contact with biological families when it is safe to do so and teens desire it. Adoptive parents can teach teens how to be safe during these contacts so that teens can learn to protect themselves physically and emotionally

This article was made possible by grant # 90-CO-0891 from the Children´s Bureau, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not represent the official views or policies of the funding agency. Publication does not in any way constitute an endorsement by the Department of Health and Human Services.

About Cynthia Flynn:

Cynthia Flynn conducted research and evaluates social service programs at the Center for Child and Family Studies at the University of South Carolina. She conducted the adopted youth study described below and is now working with other Center and state social services staff to incorporate study findings into trainings for adoptive families and caseworkers.

About Wendy Welch:

Wendy Welch conducted research and evaluates social service programs at the Center for Child and Family Studies at the University of South Carolina. She conducted the adopted youth study described below and is now working with other Center and state social services staff to incorporate study findings into trainings for adoptive families and caseworkers.

Categories: Achieving Permanency, Adoption Practice, Older Youth Adoption

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