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Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms in Adopted Teens

The teenage years can be very difficult for adopted children – at this point, they are mature enough to  comprehend the loss that comes with adoption. Simultaneously, they are also struggling with all the usual teenage challenges – how to fit in, body image and identity.

Many television shows and movies, such as “The Secret Life of An American Teenager,” which glorifies teen pregnancy and shows totally unrealistic images of a teen mom managing her baby, a 4.0 GPA in high school all the while looking gorgeous, may cause an adoptee to agonize again over why she was given up for adoption. For some adoptees, this secret anguish is never far from their minds.

Body image and questions of identity can come to a head, particularly in trans-racial adoptions, or if an adoptee is small in stature, either due to genetics or early malnutrition. Learning challenges are also exacerbated in high school.

Your teen may show signs of depression and anxiety, including sleeping too much or insomnia, lack of interest, lack of energy, lack of appetite or panic attacks.

And unfortunately, teenagers often don’t have healthy ways of coping with stress and may resort to the following unhealthy strategies:

  • cutting or self harm; inflicting purposeful cuts on hidden parts of the body to help cope with strong emotions
  • anorexia or other eating disorders
  • alcohol abuse
  • smoking cigarettes or marijuana
  • drug abuse
  • being sexually precocious

We know adopted kids who have struggled with one or more of all of these unhealthy strategies. The good news is that with early intervention and compassionate help, adoptees can overcome these challenges.

Some ways that parents can help include acknowledging the stress teens are under and the problems they might be having. It may also be helpful to find a therapist, enroll in a support group and seek treatment options as appropriate, which may include rehab or residential wilderness programs.

Please contact professional experts for further help.


  1. “Cutting and self harm” (webmd.com)
  2. “Mental health issues in adopted teens” (paradigmsanfrancisco.com)

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