The challenge of parental authority in adoption

Few people would be surprised to hear that a teenager adopted at nearly 15 years of age, after spending most of her childhood in foster care, might rebel against parental authority. After all, rebellion tends to be viewed as a normal teenage thing even for kids with healthy childhoods. {But not all teens rebel.}

Parental authority may be hard for an adopted teen to accept.

With Lindsey, we realized a large part of this was the focus in foster care that kids “age out” at 18 years old. The foster home she lived in for several years before joining our family housed six teen girls. Most, including Lindsey, had refused the option of being adopted; their foster parents had already signed a long-term agreement to foster them until the age of 18. {Kids over the age of 12 must give consent to be adopted in the state of Georgia, and it wasn’t until the summer of her 14th year that Lindsey changed her mind about adoption.}

Lindsey in Peru, 2013

As Lindsey unpacked her clothes that first weekend here, she started with the questions:
How old do I have to be to date?
When can I get a driver’s license?
Can I spend the night at friends’ houses?

Previously, these were all things determined by the rules of foster care. I didn’t realize at first how difficult it would be to overcome this thinking: the “powers that be” determine the rules, so it was her job to figure out how to circumvent those rules. She had no understanding about real parenting, nor any understanding about how relationship (and responsible actions) would factor into what she was or wasn’t allowed to do.

We never entirely broke through that way of thinking; it’s why she moved out shortly after her 18th birthday. Though we do have a relationship now, it’s not what we’d like it to be. We hope someday that will change.

Foster care and parental neglect set the stage.

Scout and Jem joined our family at the significantly younger ages of 4 and 5. I expected adjustment issues. Perhaps some trauma issues, too. I did NOT anticipate issues with parental authority — but it’s there, alive and well.

chasing bubbles

With the little ones, this mindset didn’t come from the influence of teens anticipating “freedom” upon turning 18. It took some time before I determined the roots of this mindset in kids so young, and then it all made sense.

Though there is only eighteen months age difference between the two, Scout has a far different understanding of early events than Jem does. He remembers nothing before his time in foster care, and very little about his birth mom except during supervised visits. But Scout still has memories of life at her birth mom’s house, and she understood some of the process of the judge determining whether or not birth parents’ rights would be terminated.

Scout’s early life experience has taught her that parents may not be trustworthy. That the “powers that be” — judges, police, teachers at school — make the important decisions. I’ve thought about how many times over the years Scout must’ve heard her foster parents talk about reporting to DFCS or getting permission to go out of town or any number of other things. Or about how the case worker explained to her that the judge would decide whether or not she and Jem would get a new family. Or how she only saw her birth mother under supervision and only at certain pre-arranged times.

After a childhood like that, why would she think parents have any authority?

This comes out in a number of ways in everyday life. If the kids want to know if they can do something like go surfing, they don’t ask about when or if we might allow it; they ask if it’s against the law. We’ve had the same conversation so many times, explaining that there are some laws — like kids have to wear helmets when riding a bike — but most rules are for the parents to decide — like when and where kids can ride bikes. The concept still hasn’t gotten through to either of them.

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With Scout, this often comes out in regards to teachers. If the Sunday School teacher suggests an idea, Scout essentially orders me to do it because the teacher said so. Same goes for any other authority figure; in her mind, they all rank higher than Ken or I do. I explain — over and over — that these are suggestions, but it’s still the parents that make the final decision.

On the tough days I consider how heavenly it would be to have a long stretch of peaceful, quiet hours — but even if I wanted to bring my homeschooling days to a close, sending Scout to school would only reinforce the idea that I’m not in charge. When she was in kindergarten (when they first moved in and I was not yet allowed to homeschool), I experienced this with her EVERY day. If Scout spent such a great quantity of time with someone other than me or Ken, she’d never understand the proper role of parents in her life.

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It’s hard. Scout still challenges our authority with her behavior, but far less than she did in the beginning. I know relationship is key to overcoming this, but her challenging behavior makes relationship difficult on my end. Some days, I just don’t have it in me to be the mom I need to be. Some days, I can’t seem to set aside my feelings and frustration. Some days, the next 10+ years seem insurmountable.

I’m not looking for rainbows and unicorns. Instead, I have to keep things in perspective and remember that parenting any child is a long-haul commitment.

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