It is a familiar cry to many adoptive parents: “You don’t love me! You’re not my real mom!” When a teenage girl doesn’t get her own way, she often hollers that it is proof her parents don’t love her.
If you say, “No screen time until after you finish your homework,” it is proof you don’t love her. If you ask her to put away her laundry, it is proof you don’t love her.
Unwelcome requests are seen as affirmation that you are not her real mom, that you do not care about her.
It really doesn’t matter what you say in reply. During an adolescent’s fit of temper, even the most reasonable, calm responses by a parent will somehow be twisted around and thrown at mom or dad as further proof that somehow your daughter is the unloved, unwanted adoptee. It is an argument that you cannot win, because the calibration of love is never exact.
But facing an impossible argument doesn’t mean you should stop trying to soothe her, no matter how frustrating it is.
Because when your daughter is shouting, “You don’t love me”, what she’s REALLY saying is:
“I am afraid you don’t love me enough. I am going to push every button and test every limit. My worst fear is that you will finally break and say, ‘you are right. I don’t love you. Leave my house.’ And God help me, Mommy, if I ever do turn that fear into a self-fulfilling prophecy by driving you to the edge, so please, please prove me wrong. Love me unconditionally.”
Adoptive parents need to develop a consistent system for responding to these accusations and meltdowns. Try not to escalate the mood, and keep your own voices measured and even. If you do yell, be sure to apologize right away. Encourage your daughter to eat something, even if it means just leaving a healthy snack outside her slammed-shut door, because she will be at her worst when she is hungry (aren’t we all?).
Then back off and give her physical space, as much as possible. But always come back to her, even as frequently as every ten minutes, offering reminders that you love and accept her, until the storm passes. Tell her that she is a good person, that nothing she does will make you stop loving her, that you will not leave her. Sometimes there will be multiple iterations; the dance might go on for hours. Other times, it will pass in fifteen minutes.
In talking with parents of teenagers—both adopted and not adopted—I have come to see that much of this unpleasant behavior is simply due to the raging changes of adolescence. It is important not to make everything just about adoption. There are plenty of parents whose biological daughters can become touchy, moody, angry, and impossible when asked to do things they do not want to do. This comes with the territory of hormones, social stresses, increased academic pressures, and a growing desire for independence. This isn’t about the “flawed adoptee”, a stereotype that creates much sensitivity. It is about the “teenage girl”. They are not easy creatures to decipher!
But, at the same time, the adoption factor cannot be completely disregarded, either. In my experience, when an adoptee is feeling vulnerable or irritated or mad, the fact of her adoption heightens some of her emotions. This is when the doubts about belonging in the family creep in—when she is already primed to be emotional due to normal life stresses—and you cannot ignore the reality that you must respond to an adoptee in a different way than you might respond to a child who wasn’t adopted. Rather than chastise your moody adolescent for acting out, you must first re-affirm the good in her and try to strengthen your attachment.
Later, after the storm has passed, and she is acting calm and connected, then you can discuss expected behavioral boundaries, and if necessary, implement a consequence. Many girls are receptive to these discussions, once she they feeling better. And, like many teenagers—adopted or not—your girl will become silly, affectionate, and playful again.
And sometimes she might even tell you, “I’m sorry for how I acted earlier. I know you love me, Mommy. And I love you.” That’s about as good as it gets from any adolescent.