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Coping with College

Coping with the senior year of high school and navigating the college application process can be very stressful for all kids. Adopted teens often have additional layers of complexity that make the decision of what to do after high school extremely challenging.

Some adopted children sail through the whole process and thrive in a four-year college and beyond. This article provides some pointers for all the others who do not have such an easy experience.

The first challenge is for adoptive parents to set aside their expectations and focus on what is best for their child. They may have harbored dreams of their child becoming a doctor or a famous musician. They need to calibrate whether their dreams match the teen’s interests, desires and capabilities. The parents need to be willing to support whatever journey makes sense for their child – a delay before going to college, going to community college first,  attending a small, second-tier college where there will be less stress or not going to college at all. Parents need to keep in mind that there will be many opportunities for their child to change career directions and revisit educational choices in the future.

Adopted teens may have emotional challenges which can be exacerbated by separation from their adoptive families. They may suffer from OCD or depression and need a strong support system in place. If the teen is not ready to “leave the nest,, a gap year is a great opportunity. If the teen does go to college, it might be better to pick one that will allow them to live at home or visit home frequently. Most colleges have very good counseling centers. Parents need to make sure their teen is aware of the resources and commits to making use of them as needed. If you are worried about their safety, you may need to set up mechanisms, such as a call once a day or get an agreement that they will respond promptly to texts. There is intense pressure on parents to “let go” of their child when they go to college and not be “helicopter parents.” However, this approach may not be the best for you and your child.

The social scene at college is another area of concern. It might either be very stressful for your child or actually allow them to redefine their identity as they choose. For transracial adoptions, college may provide a space in which the obvious difference in physical characteristics between the child and his parents is no longer front and center all the time. This allows the adoptee to  be more in control of sharing his/her adoptive status.

For a teen with ADHD who has problems with impulsivity and self-restraint, college may provide easy access to alcohol, drugs and other harmful substances and activities, without the stabilizing influence of their families. Compounded with questions of identity and the desire to fit in, the adoptee may not be equipped to navigate these challenge and make good decisions.

Your teen may also have learning challenges which make it very difficult for them to be successful at college level courses. It is useful to take a reduced course load to ease into college and maybe for  subsequent years as well. Some colleges have excellent help, such as tutoring centers and learning resources. You can research this while choosing colleges. Colleges can also provide accommodations such as assistive technologies, note takers or extra time for tests. They will not modify courses, which might have been one of the IEP accommodations in high school. Be realistic about what you expect your child to study. If he had a hard time with reading comprehension in high school, a rigorous liberal arts curriculum may not be the best choice for him.

  1. Help your child prepare to live independently. Make sure they can take care of tasks such as doing laundry, remembering to refill prescriptions and managing their finances.
  2. Choose a college that caters to students with special needs and has good services such as a learning resource center and counseling services. There are all sorts of lists that identify colleges that are best for students with learning issues and special needs. However, most colleges will offer some type of support.
  3. Do have your child register with the college’s access/disability services. They will have to prove their disability (see college for documentation requirements). An IEP can help with this. Parents are not allowed to be involved in the process with the college, so make sure your child is prepared. Doing this may help provide accommodations, such as note-takers, sign language interpreters, assistive technology, etc. Colleges are not required to modify the courses your child takes to make them easier. However, a big value in registering with the school’s disability services is that your child may be able to take a severely reduced workload and may have access to priority registration (which is hugely helpful).

At all times, maintain an open, non-judgemental communication channel with your teen, so that they feel they can come to you if they are in trouble. Again, remember there are many, many paths for your child to have a fulfilling and happy life.


  1. “College choices and adopted teens” (adoptionsupport.org) 

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