Why Our Adopted Teens Are So Stressed Out, Part 2

In Monday’s post I shared how scientists, led by Dr. Daniel P Keating, have discovered that prolonged periods of stress on a pregnant woman can affect the fetus resulting in babies that are literally born anxious. The gene that regulates the stress hormone, cortisol, is locked in the “on” position.  And while super nurturing from parents and caregivers in the first months of life can help offset this, often the gene remains “on.” In addition, if an infant, who was not born with the stress gene locked “on”, experiences extreme stressors in his/her first year of life, the gene can become locked in the on position. Furthermore, this stress-dysregulated gene (SDR) can be genetically passed on from grandmother to mother to infant.

Considering that birth mothers and infants placed for adoption are often in very prolonged and high stressed life situations, this carries significant insight for those of us raising adopted teens, who are regularly suffer from anxiety at rates higher than their non-adopted peers.

To sum it up: Our adopted teens are anxious because they were most likely born that way.

Is it too late for them? Is there anything we can do to help?

In his book, Born Anxious: The Lifelong Impact of Early Life Adversity – and How to Break the Cycle, Keating explains that adolescence is  a period in which there are profound physical changes that make new neurological patterns possible. I’ll spare you the Neuro Science 101 lecture, but know that the adolescent brain undergoes more change than at any time since infancy – with a rapid growth of new brain cells and the building of brain circuits. And, the physical and hormonal changes of puberty open the door for dynamic changes in established patterns.

We’re given a second chance.

As Keating explains, the changes that occur during this time also offer new opportunities for interventions, especially by helping our teens develop new capacities for self-reflection and identity, as well as through deeper social connections with their peers. Key for parents, educators, and caregivers is to help them develop and make use of these new capabilities, in part by recognizing the particularly challenging path they face.

Again. Knowledge and insight help us let grace abound as we raise our adopted teen.

There are ways parents can help a stressed out and anxious child, but what about the adolescent who has been anxious his whole life? Keating has some explanations and suggestions for us:

  1. Understand that your SDR teen is not viewing things the same way you are. Our teens are living each moment of each day with a low twitch stress. They are already amped up. If an SDR teen feels snubbed by a friend, of thinks they did badly on test, the problem seems more magnified to them than to a neuro typical teen who can discern what is and isn’t worth reacting to.
  2. Remember that a temper tantrum = raised cortisol. You’re not dealing with a belligerent teenager, you’re dealing with a human with exceptionally high levels of cortisol pumping through their veins.
  3. Therefore, do not engage with angry behavior. Hold your tongue and walk away, if you can. Close your eyes and count to ten. Breath deeply bringing extra oxygen to your own brain to help calm your own cortisol levels.
  4. Instead of sending them to their room, sit quietly with your teen until they calm down. If your teen values their space and privacy,  sit outside their room, letting them know you’re there for them when they’re ready.
  5. Having too many choices leads to elevated stress. What if they make the wrong decision and then they have to live with it? (This is why your daughter can’t make up her mind on which top to buy at the mall.) Recognize when this happens and understand why; try to have extra patience. If you can, reduce the number of choices you offer your teen.
  6. Speak more frequently to your teen when they’re in a receptive mood. Build that foundation. Opt for less electronics, television, etc. Look for opportunities to engage in conversation with your teenager, as difficult as it might be. Think family dinners, working on chores together, car rides, etc.
  7. Give clear explanations of why you’re asking your teen to do something – don’t assume they automatically get it. “Please move your backpack from the hallway floor so no one trips over it,” works better than “Pick that up”.
  8. Label emotions. “You seem disappointed. Tell me what’s up and let’s see what we can do about it.”
  9. Routine: Teens with SDR have problems dealing with unexpected change. A routine provides a safety net of predictability and an anchor that can ground the stress. Plus it’s good for the whole family. According to Keating, “Routines not only shape how we think and act, but also affect the amount of cortisol – or serotonin or oxytocin-that is produced. Consistent habits and actions quietly sculpt our children’s minds and lives as well as their underlying biology.” Consider, or establish, your family routines around mealtime, homework, chores, and even bedtime.
  10. Understand the concept of MINDFULNESS. Basically, it means being in the present—don’t think about the past, don’t worry about the future, just focus on this present moment—the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the touch. Learn it, practice it, model it for your teen, and teach it to them. Their brain can be rewired with this new skill, eventually replacing old habits of immediately reacting with anxiety.
  11. Counteract negative thinking, which can spark fearful or anxious thoughts about imagined or recalled events. Know that SDR teens are more likely to experience fantasy slights since they have a “hostile attribution bias.” Furthermore, this can raise nighttime cortisol levels which affect sleep. Often these feelings/thoughts carry over into the morning.
  12. Close relationships (good friend, attentive teacher or mentor, romantic relationship) can help teens socially and biologically—offering oxytocin and serotonin to counterforce excess cortisol. But for SDR teens, any negative reaction (real or imagined) can trigger fight or flight behavior that leads to isolation. Parents need to let their teen steer their own course in the relationships while maintaining an emotional connection.
  13. Middle and high school are tough, competitive environments where much is expected of the student. This is especially hard for SDR teens. Teachers, coaches, and counselors need to communicate that the student matters. That they’re a part of the community. Parents need to reinforce this at home. Feeling valued leads a teen to success.

I know. It’s a lot to absorb. But it helps me understand what’s happening when my daughters do or say something. And that helps me know how to react and leads me in how to help them. I hope it helps you and your teen, too. We can do this, one step at a time.

I’ll be sharing more about helping your adopted teen manage stress on the Ripples and Rip Tides Facebook page. Check it out and follow along.