Why Our Adopted Teens Are So Stressed Out, Part 1

If you’re looking for it, it’s all over the news. Even if you’re not, you’ve probably seen a headline or two. Here’s the jist:

Adopted teens are over-represented in mental health treatment and facilities and adoptive families are struggling to help them. 

Not surprised, either? My adopted daughters are amazing young women, but anxiety, depression, and anger are no strangers in our home. We do our best, offer unending support, give countless back rubs, invest in every stress-busting candle, noise machine, and lotion, and read every article and book we can find on anxiety. Sometimes it works; often times it doesn’t. What does help is knowing that the canvas for our adopted teen is different than that of our friend’s bio son with the Midas touch. The more I learn, the more I realize how much our adopted daughters’ life stories affect their adolescent development.

In his book, Born Anxious: The Lifelong Impact of Early Life Adversity – and How to Break the Cycle, Dr. Daniel P. Keating addresses the question of why some people are born to struggle and others to strive. It’s truly fascinating, and reading it from the vantage point of an adoptive parent, it just makes so much sense.

Keating and his team of scientists, researchers, and physicians discovered that some infants are literally born stressed-out. If the expectant mother experiences sustained and significant stress during the pregnancy, then, within the developing fetus, the gene that is designed to tell the stress system when to turn on and off gets stuck in the “on” position. This results in something called stress-dysregulation (SDR) that leads to an oversupply of the stress hormone cortisol on a pretty constant basis for the child.

How’d they figure this out? They studied children born in the war zones of the Congo, children born during short periods of famine or deprivation, and Romanian orphans in the 1980s and 90s.


Stop and think about this. What do you know of your child’s birthmother’s pregnancy? Of her life situation? Odds are the woman was under a lot of stress during her pregnancy. Perhaps she couldn’t afford to raise the child. Maybe she had too many mouths to feed, or no family support. Perhaps she was shamed socially, suffered health issues of her own, was in an abusive relationship, feared for her own safety and that of her unborn child. The list is endless.

And it gets even better: according to Keating, this locked “on” stress gene can be inherited, so if the grandmother was stressed when she was pregnant with the birth mother, she could have passed it on to her daughter, who passes it on to her child. Your child. Mine.

Then Keating offers more sobering news. “Stress doesn’t discriminate – regardless of cause of stress it can affect babies in utero and in their first year.”

Did you catch that? It’s not just in the developing fetus; this potential for a dysregulated stress system in your child could have happened in his or her first year of life. What do you know about your child’s first 12 months? Did she spend too much time fighting for attention in an orphanage? Was he passed around to different homes and different caregivers? Did he go hungry? Was she homeless? Did he have medical needs that went unmet?

The very nature of the high-stress circumstances that typically lead to adoption likely inflicted extreme stress on our children’s birthmothers. It’s very likely that our adopted children suffer from anxiety because their birthmothers were stressed out while pregnant (or inherited the stress-methylated gene), or our children experienced a very stressful first year of life.

How can we tell? Symptoms like anxiety, agitation, anger, distress, distraction, and withdrawl are all classic indices of stress in an individual. Have you ever seen any of this in your child’s infancy or early years?

Yep, me, too.

Keating explains that in the first year of life, parents that are highly nurturing can mitigate the impact of SDR on an infant. Or, adversely, a very stressful first year of life can lead to stress-dysregulation in an infant that was not born with it.  Thus, the more time you had with your child while they were an infant, the more chance you had to nurture them and hopefully reduce their level of stress-dysregulation.  But if your child came home as a toddler, or older, you might be dealing with a human being that has lived his or her entire life stressed out.

Understanding why something is happening, or why someone is the way they are, makes it easier for me to let grace abound.  It lets me discern behavior more accurately, listen more intentionally, make that back rub just a little bit longer, and pray even harder.

Keating advises parents of SDR children on how to adjust their parenting style to help their child manage the high levels of stress. He suggests that instead of time outs, the parent sit in the room with the child. Don’t offer them too many choices. Don’t engage in angry behavior. Speak more frequently to them and give clear explanations of why you’re asking them to do something.  Help them learn to label their emotions. And most importantly, keep to a daily routine.

This is all well and good. But what about us and our overly anxious teens? Is there anything we can still do to help them? The good news is that during our child’s adolescence, when their brain undergoes more change than at any time since infancy, we have a second window of opportunity to help our stress dysregulated child.

Ours is a God of second chances.

Join me on Wednesday’s post when I’ll share what Keating says about adolescent anxiety and what we can do to help our teens. And please share this with someone you know who can benefit from this information as well.