Four Tips About Race for Adoptive Parents in the Teen Years (that might surprise you!)

By Katie Naftzger, LICSW

Distinguish cultural norms from cultural stereotypes.

Cultural stereotypes are automatic, exaggerated, judgmental views regarding a particular race and/or culture. Stereotypes are not open to individual differences or new information. They are often based on little to no information or exposure, and stated in a way that discourages conversation or exploration. One example would be to say—“Asian parents are obsessed with school. They don’t even let their kids have a normal social life.”

Racial and cultural norms are beliefs and actions that illustrate the personality of a culture. Shared expectations and rules, both spoken and unspoken, are a part of cultural norms. Cultural norms are based on relevant information and experience. Cultural norms are humble and open to variations and exceptions. For example—“Asian parents do not take academic success for granted. My experience has been that school takes precedence over socializing and athletic endeavors.” Cultural norms are humble and porous. Stereotypes are impenetrable. It can potentially deepen the conversation if you know which is which!

Know your stereotypes.

Racial bias isn’t always on the surface.  In my book, I talk about how two of my Black therapist friends commonly have mothers advising them on what to do and say when meeting their child. That in itself might not seem unusual, but at second glance, something seemed off. I had never had a mother advise me on how to interact with her child, even though I had significantly less experience. But, for those who are Black, lower intelligence is still a pervasive stereotype. And, for Asians, the stereotype is the opposite— doctors, bookish, etc. We’ll never know for sure if and how racial stereotypes were in play, but we also can’t rule them out.

Let them lead.

I support and respect the conviction that so many adoptive parents have against racism. The fight for justice is very real! But for your adopted teen, it’s not just about justice, it’s about racial identity. During these teen years, especially, it’s an issue of identity for your adopted teen. You can potentially make it harder for your teen to explore his or her racial identity. Your adopted teen needs time and space to figure it out.

Manage your outrage.

When your adopted teen tells you about a racist remark or incident, you may likely feel outraged. This is completely understandable. But, your outrage may hold specific meaning for your adopted teen. As they explore and experiment with their identity, it’s likely that at some point they will think, feel, say or believe something that could be classified as “racist.” So when they tell you about someone who said or did something racist, they may also in some ways identify with that person. When you’re outraged with the person who is “racist,” they may take it to heart. “If my parent can be this intolerant of that guy who said something racist, how will she deal with my mistakes, flaws and racist tendencies?” Try to focus more on the problematic behavior and less on condemning the person.

There’s safety in numbers and it’s harder to feel empowered alone. Reconciling their race with their culture is a daunting task and your support will go a long way!

(Adapted from “Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Teen Years.”)

Katie Naftzger, LICSW, Korean adoptee, maintains a private psychotherapy practice in Newton, MA, working primarily with adoptive families. Katie’s work has appeared in Adoptive Families magazine and Adoption Today. Her book, “Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Teen Years” was recently published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Katie enjoys leading online and local parent, teen and young adult groups. Learn more and get on her mailing list at adoptiontherapyma.com.

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