Thursday, August 24, 2017

Dear Sugar: Meet Katie Naftzger, International, Transracial Adoptee and Adoption Therapist, on Parenting Adopted Teenagers

Dear Sugar,

Today I'm so thrilled to share with you my interview with Katie Naftzger!  She is an adoptee (international and transracial) and an adoption therapist.  She's the author of Parenting in the Eye of the Storm:  The Adoptive Parent's Guide to Navigating the Teen Years, and let me tell you, every single parent-by-adoption should read this book. Even if you aren't parenting a teen, I encourage you to read the book because being proactive is so important!

Katie:  I'm a Korean-born, transracially, internationally adopted therapist. I have a younger sister who is also a Korean-adoptee but not biologically related. I grew up in urban Chicago, where issues of race, class and safety, were ever-present and interwoven into our lives. It was before most adoptive parents sought out therapy, unless they were in undeniable crisis. There were no online forums or groups. Perhaps because of this, I learned so much from my face-to-face, real time moments and relationships. My public high school was over 80% Black. I was truly a minority in a different way than I am now. Those were learning years for me. 

Being Asian in high school brought with it a specific set of issues - many Asians had recently immigrated, high-achieving but extremely low-income. I felt my privilege as someone who didn’t have to work to be here, but I also felt lost compared to them. They seemed to know who they were and where they were going in ways that I didn't. I tried to include extracurricular activities that didn't put race in the forefront, like playing flute. I played in this prestigious competition where the judges were behind a screen. For that moment, I was faceless and raceless which felt strangely liberating. 

I admired my adoptive parent's passion in continually taking steps to try to level the playing field, in their work with marginalized populations. But, they underestimated what my sister and I needed. This is the book that my parents didn’t have. 

As a psychotherapist I work primarily with adopted teens, young adults and families. I help adoptive families to feel more empowered, connected and more optimistic about the future. I’ve had the privilege of meeting with hundreds of adoptees who share feelings and experiences that they’ve never explored with someone else! And, in those conversations, I’m continually asking myself three questions: 

What are they trying to tell me?
What do they need from me?
How can I address those needs? 

One thing that I’ve learned in depth over the years is just how important their adoptive parents are to them. What they need from you is laid out in the four tasks outlined in the book - “unrescuing,” setting adoption-sensitive limits, having connecting conversations and envisioning the future.

Rachel:  You authored a new book about adoption and the teen years.   Why do parents of adoptees NEED to read this book?  

Katie:  What I was seeing was that many adoptive parents were parenting that they did when their teen was younger. And, unfortunately, what had worked in the past wasn’t working anymore. And, sometimes it even backfired. Their relationship suffered and the teen often felt unprepared for young adulthood. The goals change a lot in the teen years. When they were younger it was about reassurance, security and comfort. In the teen years, helping them to feel more empowered, competent and authentic is key. This book is not just about why that’s important, but offers adoptive parents ways to apply those insights. 

This is book is unique in that it is geared for every adoptive parent, whether you’re coasting or in crisis. It is not pathologizing or minimizing. Our reaction and lived experience as adoptees is not predetermined. That said, there are inherent losses in the narrative which are important to understand, which for many adoptees, remain unspoken, especially with those who aren’t adoptees.

The stakes are so high. The more grounded, informed and empowered you feel, the more access you’ll have to the changing needs of your adopted teen. Even seemingly small changes make all of the difference in the long run.

Rachel:  You are an experienced therapist, working with adoptees.   What do parents, generally speaking, need to understand about their teenagers that you've noticed parents seem to be missing right now?  

Katie:  One of the most important reframes to integrate, is that the adoption story is not just about abandonment or relinquishment, or loss, although there is loss embedded in it, of course. It’s a survival story. 

The adoptee survived something that others in similar situations, did not. Many adoptees talk with me about how lucky they were just to have survived. To have one’s life hinge on luck is unsettling! So, without even realizing it, many adoptees will develop survival skills that will allow them to make their own luck, so to speak. This could mean excelling in school, fitting in racially/culturally/socially, etc. It could mean a highly tuned radar for what others feel about them. There’s often a vigilance, often undetectable and unconscious. 

Rachel:  One thing I've struggled with, and so have many parents by adoption, is when our children struggle, we cannot decide if the struggle is related to adoption or not.  Can you offer any advice on how parents like me can answer that question?  And if the struggle IS adoption-related, what's the next step the parent should take? 

Katie:  Let’s start with the difference between younger adoptees and adopted teens. Teenhood brings a different lens to their relationship, whether unknown or known, with their birth parent. When adoptees are younger, they have questions, possibly hurt feelings, etc. But in teenhood, adoptees can actually identify with the birth mother. Because they’re now sexually equipped, they can put themselves in the position of their birth mother. Teens are often become able to think more abstractly so they often become interested in the feelings, details, the injustices and morals. This often includes variations on the question, how could you do this to me? 

Non-adopted teens have a birth story, but for adoptees, it’s a survival story. For adoptees, the worst has already happened. Of course, teenhood is generally fraught with risk and potential! But, adoptees are often more in survival mode than the garden-variety teen. When adoptees who come in to see me, early on, they’ll often say something like, “I can pick up on other people’s feelings. I’m extremely attuned.” But, through their tone, I know by their serious tone that it’s not just a casual trait. It’s a strategy. 

What I argue in the book is that there is a parallel process between you as adoptive parent and the adopted teen. Just as you are in some ways, a garden-variety parent, you are also an adoptive parent, and are faced with reconciling that! And, although each parent is unique, the four tasks I lay out encompass the vulnerabilities that I’ve seen in adopted teens and adoptive parents. For example, unrescuing is the first task. I believe that adopted teens often believe that they need to be rescued, and that adoptive parents are more vulnerable to rescuing. Why? The rescuing is part of the narrative. 

In terms of next steps for adoptive parents, there are four of them - unrescuing, setting adoption-sensitive limits, having connecting conversations and envisioning the future, in that order! Each task also contains simple, practical accessible adjustments that adoptive parents can make to meet the needs of their adopted teen. 

Rachel:  Besides your book (which I'm reading right now and underlining passage after passage), what other resources do you recommend parents-by-adoption read to better understand their children?  

Katie:  The podcast Journey of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry is helpful if you’re interested in the research, not just about adoption, but a range of mental health issues. Add Water and Stir: Women of Color/Adoption/Foster Care/Parenting is fantastic. The Rambler includes interviews of many Korean-adult adoptees, myself included. The host, Mike McDonald is also a Korean-adoptee. AdopteesOn is hosted by a Canadian adoptee and focuses on open adoption and reunion stories. Might need Kleenex for that one! She interviews adoptees who are also therapists, which I participated in. Creating a Family is hosted by Dawn Davenport, adoptive parent, author, whom I just love. I enjoyed talking with her about the book! And, Renegade Rules is actually a podcast for parents of younger children, but we had a fascinating conversations about teens and adoption. 

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