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Tips for Parents of Adopted Pre-Teens

Adoption is a blessing for everyone involved. The birth parents know their child is in good hands, the adoptive parents welcome a child into their home, and the child becomes part of a family that loves and cares for them.

But even life’s greatest blessings sometimes present challenges. And as adopted children grow into pre-teens and adolescents, there are bound to be a few tough times. To help you face these challenges, the experts at New Leaf Academy, a therapeutic boarding school for girls, offer the following parenting tips:

Understand the Sense of Loss

Adoptive parents may struggle to understand why their child is anything but grateful for being adopted into their family. Yet even when the adoption is smooth and positive for all parties, there is an inherent sense of loss that results from being “given away.”

“Adopted children experience loss to varying degrees and show it in different ways,” explained Craig A. Christiansen, M.A., Founder & Executive Director at New Leaf Academy, who, along with the entire staff, has received specialized training on attachment and adoption issues. “For some, feelings of grief, loss and abandonment can contribute to emotional or behavioral issues during pre-adolescence.”

In some cases, the emotional and behavioral issues are so deep-rooted that they may be difficult to put into words in therapy, which is why New Leaf uses a variety of non-verbal interventions such as equine therapy and art therapy.

New Leaf Academy is a developmental program, which means the treatment team’s approach is based on each girl’s developmental stage. It is one of the only programs in the country that focuses on the pre-adolescent and early adolescent developmental stage and works to provide pre-teen girls with the experiences and skills they need for their particular stage in life.

Learn the Language Around Adoption

It is entirely normal for adopted children to have a lot of questions, and how adoptive parents answer these questions can be critical. Some common questions include:

  • What are my birth parents like?
  • Why didn’t my birth parents want me?
  • What was wrong with my mom?

“The language adoptive parents use when discussing their child’s adoption is extremely important,” advised O’Kelley. “Even if their birth parents were incapable of caring for them, the child is still biologically a part of their birth parent, so criticizing the adults in their lives can cause the child to feel shame and confusion about who they are.”

The staff at New Leaf Academy works with adoptive parents to prepare them for these types of questions. The therapists also help adopted children talk about their adoption with their peers without feeling embarrassed or pressured to share information they prefer to keep private.

Re-Examine Your Own Thoughts & Expectations

When two people decide to adopt a child, it is natural to have hopes, dreams and an image of what life will be like as a new family. But if a child struggles with issues surrounding their adoption or other emotional or behavioral issues, parents’ own issues can be triggered, creating a situation that looks very different from what they had imagined.

The staff at New Leaf Academy helps adoptive parents embrace the reality of adoption in a healing way. With therapy and support, parents can set realistic expectations for themselves and their child and address their own issues, while reinforcing for their child that they are loved and wanted regardless of any negative behavior.

“Adopted children need to know that they are separate from their behavior,” said O’Kelley. “A behavior can be unacceptable without changing the permanency of the parent-child relationship.”

Build Your Child’s Self-Esteem

Adopted children may struggle with a negative view of themselves and the world around them. Because they were adopted, the child may feel unlovable and act out to prove that they are, in fact, unloved. Positive reinforcement, frequent praise, and consistent application of rules and consequences can help build a child’s confidence and sense of security.

Just as effective as a parent’s positive words are support and encouragement from peers, whose opinions are paramount in the eyes of most pre-teens and adolescents. While it can be difficult for parents to control a child’s peer environment at home, a private boarding school like New Leaf offers the structure and supervision needed to create a positive social setting. With guidance from staff, students make friends and feel a sense of belonging because they are surrounded by peers who understand them.

With a firm foundation in place through therapy and academic success, girls at New Leaf are able to begin getting involved in activities that build a strong sense of self. Equine therapy, working with bunnies and an extensive variety of extracurricular activities help students at New Leaf build a positive self-image.

When you welcomed an adopted child into your family, you may not have known all the challenges that would arise, but you knew you had a lot of love to give. With all that love – and a few new skills – your child can grow into a healthy, happy adult with the kind of family anyone would be lucky to call their own.


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