Tips for welcoming a 3x runaway teen nephew into our home?
May 17, 2021 12:21 PM   Subscribe

Our 16-year-old adopted nephew ran away three times from his family this year. Now he's agreed to come stay with us. We need all the advice.


OK, so the kid in question has been a pretty great kid overall but with a complicated history. He and his younger sister were found when he was about 10 years old. They had a normal, stable family until a war started and his father was killed. The mother became homeless and unstable — and unable to care for her son and daughter. This kid took it upon himself to care for his younger sister (ages 10 and 6 at the time) and they were found in a big-box store where he'd take her every day because it was warm and had food samples.

They were in foster care with an international nonprofit for 1-2 years... then my sibling's Chrisitan missionary family (two parents, three bio kids) adopted them four years ago. They all live in the country where he was born. In this time, he's done well — good grades, has real talent and became a sports star at his school and was generally very people-pleasing and helpful. He's been in English school and speaking English at home for the last four years. He's fluent. He's also smart. We've known him this whole time and he recently spent about a month at our house this year when he came to the states to get his US citizenship.

This year, during COVID, he ran away 3 times from his adoptive family. After he was caught at a military checkpoint last time, he's now at a halfway house with some other young men (which he chose instead of being returned to his adoptive family). In the meantime, the adoptive parents have decided to move back to the USA for many longstanding reasons. They broke that news to him a few weeks ago and gave him a choice — move back to the USA with the adoptive family or come stay with me and my family. He chose us.

No one knows why he ran away. He lied each time and gave a different excuse, basically parroting whatever he was asked (finding his bio-mom, needing "space," going to his birth town, etc.). He clearly does not want to be with his adoptive family anymore. And some typical "bad" teenage boy behaviors were discovered (some stealing to prep his runaways, adult online content, vaping, etc.) in all the investigation into his running away. His adopted family is hoping he just needs a "break" and will return to them eventually. But we are all prepared if he decides to stay with us longer.

My goal here is to make sure he's not running away into a war zone, which is a lot harder from the USA, and me and my partner really want to give him a shot at setting up his life in a productive direction. He's got tons of potential, but also clearly carrying trauma.

We are a younger family with two smaller kids (2 & 4) who will both be in in-person school all next year and we have one fulltime stay-at-home male parent who he really likes and connects with. We have a lot more resources than his adoptive family. We are planning to give him his own bedroom and bathroom and set up schooling, set him up counseling and if he wants, a local job for him.

We are also expecting he might run away immediately, or once he's comfortable, again.

We have about 3-4 weeks before he arrives.

What should we be thinking about?
posted by aoleary to Human Relations (31 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
A few questions just to clarify: Are you still living in the US? Is his sister staying with your sibling's family? Is your sibling planning to move close to where you are? Does he have healthcare? Do you speak his language, and is the counselor you're arranging for him going to be from his culture? (I know he's fluent in English, but still.) Is there a local community of people from his culture or country?
posted by trig at 12:32 PM on May 17, 2021


One thing to consider: assume he will run away again. What can you do to make it safer? Keep a recent photo on file, known associates, usual destinations, known modes of transportation. Pre-paid debit card with a low balance that he can use if he gets stuck somewhere. Self-defense classes perhaps.
posted by HMSSM at 12:33 PM on May 17, 2021 [8 favorites]


Best answer: This is really a lot, and I can only offer a little bit of advice. I have had limited experience with kids that come from very difficult backgrounds, and myself came from a difficult background (though nowhere near this difficult).

My advice would be "Treat this person as much like an adult as possible."

He will have grown up in a lot of surprising ways under these sorts of pressures. And in some respects has taken on a very adult role, and will be very resistant to being put into the role of a "kid" in any household. The part that makes this difficult is, of course, that in many other ways he really is just a kid, probably over-confident, and doesn't know what he doesn't know.

You will probably gain a lot of ground by offering him respect, and respectfully discussing what it will mean for him to live with you. Talk about your concerns frankly, ask him about his own concerns, and really listen to what his goals are. This may take some time.

It may help to think of him as a temporary roommate, and perhaps even pitch it to him as such. Build some trust, and start to offer help towards his goals, and having a productive life, when you can do so without him feeling threatened or oppressed.

I really wish you the best of luck, wisdom, and patience in this.
posted by Lafe at 12:35 PM on May 17, 2021 [27 favorites]


Response by poster: Thanks @trig. Answering some questions:

— We are in the Northeastern US. Adoptive family is moving to Texas.

— His little sister is happy with the adoptive family and coming with them to Texas. She is angry at/annoyed at big brother for his "runaway drama" this year. He has consistently said he only agreed to be adopted in the first place was so she would be "taken care of." He views himself as independent and "not needing anybody."

— We do not speak his language. Adoptive parents are fluent.

— We are looking for a counselor who has connections to his culture, if at all possible, in addition to local people who might be connected, but we're in a rural area and that might be limited, although there are lots of international folks nearby because of a close university.
posted by aoleary at 12:36 PM on May 17, 2021


Is the religion of the Christian missionary family his religion? Even if outright abuse isn't a factor, If he doesn't share their faith there's plenty of room for friction.
posted by kate4914 at 12:58 PM on May 17, 2021 [7 favorites]


Best answer: "Maureen Blaha, Executive Director of the National Runaway Switchboard, explains some of the most common reasons that kids run away from home":
Why kids run away
posted by SageTrail at 1:01 PM on May 17, 2021


Each person and child will respond to trauma differently and sometimes not all at once. I would assume that he suffers from trauma and some form of PTSD. He may have been very adept at shielding his sister from some awful stuff that is now weighing heavily on his mind. A think counseling is a must. He is 16 and likely able to get work and be pretty close to living independently. That may be a goal for him.* He could do this especially if he is nearby to you, an engaged support system. I think it's tough to keep kids this age from any background on an even keel because they are not even keels! Hormones, anxiety, peer pressure - it's all constant at this age. It may be that his natural teenagerness + trauma is just running into a parenting wall in terms of his adoptive family. Therefore, counseling. And for you, too, as new adoptive parents. It's one thing to be a fun week away from family, it's another to set healthy boundaries and help this teen through what is typically a time of life with lots of ups and downs.

ETA: *I mean when he is 18, not right away. He needs grounding over the next two years, minimum.
posted by amanda at 1:03 PM on May 17, 2021 [3 favorites]


Best answer: Thank you for your kind hearts and for opening your home to someone in need.

One of the young people I share my city apartment with has lived with us on and off since they were 15. I don't remember exactly when we decided to make it official, maybe when they were 17. Their problem in their original home was that the parents projected their own fears needlessly on to the child. Fears of all sorts, about sex, drinking, drugs, academic failure, you can add on as much as you want. And their method for handling all these fears was a whole system of punishments (not physical) and curfews and demands. These are not bad people at all, but they are fearful people, and they could not handle a curious and strong-minded young person at the time. Which again led to lies and deceptions on the side of the youth. They are all on very good terms now.

I agree with Lafe:
You will probably gain a lot of ground by offering him respect, and respectfully discussing what it will mean for him to live with you. Talk about your concerns frankly, ask him about his own concerns, and really listen to what his goals are. This may take some time.

It may help to think of him as a temporary roommate, and perhaps even pitch it to him as such. Build some trust, and start to offer help towards his goals, and having a productive life, when you can do so without him feeling threatened or oppressed.


Someone with a background like your nephew will be both far more mature than his age, and also very vulnerable and lonely because of his losses. Have both in mind when you welcome him. Perhaps he really needs more love than you can give, but you can give him respect, dignity and security. Obviously, he needs to understand that he needs to respect your house rules in return, but in my experience, if he isn't doing drugs, he can honor that.
posted by mumimor at 1:03 PM on May 17, 2021 [9 favorites]


Also that he isn’t an orphan, his mother is known to him and her present situation is “knowable”.
posted by Iteki at 1:03 PM on May 17, 2021 [2 favorites]


Random suggestion -- would he be interested in teaching your kids his native language? It sounds like he has strong sense of responsibility to his younger sibling, so perhaps having him in the teacher role and creating a chance for him to speak his language would be helpful. Of course, ask him if he would be interested. In the meantime, can you buy some books or audiovisual media in his language?
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:08 PM on May 17, 2021 [6 favorites]


In addition, while he's much older than the typical "international" adoption, the trauma of being uprooted from one's birth culture (and homeland) is real, and so is the constant dissonance of being a visible minority even within your own family/household. I spent a chunk of my late 20s in Korea (my parents immigrated from there, but I was born and raised in the US) and I learned a lot from Korean adoptees (from Scandinavia, from the US, from South America). Things can be hard, but I think approaching his difficulties with the sense that you _don't_ understand what he is going through but you want to support him may work better than trying to anticipate all of this reactions. I'm assuming your family is white, and that the community you live in is majority white. Even as someone who had a whole family/home full of people who looked like me, I could still be exhausted by the ways I was the perpetual alien in public/in school. Even when it wasn't malicious, being singled out as other is irritating at best.
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:17 PM on May 17, 2021 [7 favorites]


Best answer: I think you, the adults, need to get through the door of a trauma specialist as soon as humanly possible. It's a weird line to tread between seeing someone for coaching and expertise and trying to therapize him second-hand, but you need the support and he needs you to have the support and that is part of the work of therapists especially when they are working with someone in a parenting/mentorship/responsibility role. I think it would be reasonable to do this remotely if that's what you need to do, but I think it's also pretty critical you do it with complete privacy.

It's worth honoring him (with some indulgence) as a semi-independent 16-year-old who has had in many ways to be older but is also in some ways much younger, but I do think it's important and a safety issue to address the exceptional hardships someone his age will face trying to survive on their own, particularly if he is visibly not white, and that there's a difference between "I am in immediate danger in this home and have to leave" and "I have intense feelings of restlessness and anxiety I want to try to assuage by running away". It might be helpful to figure out where he could safely go if he felt he absolutely had to flee your home for his safety and just tell him to go there rather than the streets, whereas if the issue is really the latter can we please attempt these 3-5 remediative steps first before the nuclear option?

I do think teens are hard to therapize because they don't want to engage and mostly don't know how to introspect, and with younger kids you might end up on a route of play therapy or pediatric occupational therapy type approaches. It might be a more productive approach to engage him in the science of trauma, and I mostly wonder that because I feel like really excellent athletes, even as teens, are pretty aware of the beneficial effects of training and exercise on mental well-being. Definitely facilitate him being able to continue to train/exercise, but if you can also get a trustworthy mentor-coach-friend involved that could be a really big thing for him at this kind of formative juncture.

I would say that aside from setting down house rules* and addressing the most pressing security-related stuff, I would maybe set aside a couple of weeks to do stuff more like if he was a visiting adult family guest, have a little fun, everybody get some laughs in and bond for a bit. Let him loosen up a little, get used to the rhythms of a household with little kids again, get some sleep.

*One of the obligations and privileges of being an adultish roommate and part of a family are regular meetings about the running of the household - meal-planning for the week, chore distribution, synchronizing calendars, planning upcoming entertainments or travel, discuss any maintenance issues. I think you should start that from the first week, just to start this from a place of grownup inclusion and hopefully keep him from penting up any concerns or frustrations until they boil over.

Something to watch for: I think kids in his position hear a lot of success narrative from the well-meaning people around them, but kids like him often don't feel safe enough or likely to live long enough to have dreams and aspirations of their own, or if they have simple dreams they get scolded or made to feel inadequate for not aiming high enough. Right this minute it might be enough to focus on "for now" stuff - learning to be a good roommate, dealing with a basic job, maybe learning to cook a little, something where he can get some wins quickly.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:27 PM on May 17, 2021 [8 favorites]


Response by poster: Just as background, he's from a European country and we're all visibly white.
posted by aoleary at 1:30 PM on May 17, 2021


Also, even if you and your partner do everything right -- remember that you won't be the only people he's exposed to, especially if he goes to school. He's probably going to deal with a ton of ignorance from the people he meets, even if they're well-meaning people. He's going to hear about how "lucky" he is to be in the US, and it sounds like he's likely not to agree. People might seem too soft, or too fake, or unrelatable. These things can be really alienating, even when everyone is trying to be nice and friendly. Be ready for that, and support him in it.

Do you live in a very different sort of neighborhood than he's used to? For example, are you in a suburb while he's used to living in a city, or vice versa? Especially if your location means he's going to have less independence than he did before, you'll need to think about how to mitigate that.

If he's been interested before in running away to war zones, he might not feel that life where you are is meaningful to him. He may (or may not) respond well to some sort of social justice involvement or other activities for a meaningful cause. "Studying this thing can help you make your country better" might be more meaningful than "studying this can get you into college", and so on.
posted by trig at 1:38 PM on May 17, 2021


As a guess, he probably taught himself to NOT rely on anyone, and thus trusts no one. He may be secretly fearing being jailed or locked down, and thus have a problem with authority. Not sure what he feels about his sister, maybe both a sense of relief (she's got a good home) and betrayal (not understanding him).

Re-establishing that trust will be difficult. There are many suggestions already here. My own take is treat him like an adult (with a few things to learn), because he emotionally FEEL like an adult, with responsibilities of an adult, but he's still a child. And show him it's okay to ask for help when he needs it. Give him your emergency contact info, and buy him a phone if he wants one, and enter your number as ICE. And promise NOT to locate him via his phone. Trust him to move around, but show him the family schedule, and tell him his expectations up front: go to school, have family dinner, etc. And tell him it's okay to NEGOTIATE if he doesn't want to do certain things. I doubt he learned to negotiate or such things, and his instinct is to runaway from the rules.

Once he learned there's something else to do than run away, the behavior will probably stop. That's my totally amateur guess.

And it's great for you to give him a chance to mature. Good luck and godspeed.
posted by kschang at 1:42 PM on May 17, 2021 [5 favorites]


Many good points have been made, especially with regard to seeking trauma informed specialist. My overriding concern would be to make sure he can talk to his mom. If I were his age I couldn’t imagine setting down roots and moving forward without knowing my mom was okay and I had easy communication with her.
posted by JenMarie at 1:45 PM on May 17, 2021


My background is absolutely nothing like this, but I was sent to live with a relative from the age of 12 and had a different kind of trauma. My one piece of advice is to make sure there is no expectation that this kid should feel grateful to you for taking him in. He almost certainly will not. From his point of view, he didn’t ask for any of this mess and an expectation of gratitude will feel incredibly demeaning to him and cause bitter resentment. At least it did for me. Similarly, it’s a fine line to tread between offering him help and making him feel like he’s broken and fixing him is your project. He needs help, sure, but he also needs to know that we all need help. Obviously I am viewing this through my own personal experience and you might already be perfectly attuned to this issue. Good luck! I’m sure my relative questioned her sanity at times because neither one of us made the other’s life easy, but she definitely did me a good deed.
posted by HotToddy at 1:48 PM on May 17, 2021 [22 favorites]


We cared for a ~16 year old family member for awhile last year under similar circumstances, though his was a different trauma resume. Agree with not implying that expressions of gratitude are expected and with treating him as a member of the household, with attendant rights and responsibilities, from the start and not as a guest or ward.

I think the best thing we did was teach our guy how to drive, which also made him eager to run errands, etc. with us so he could spend time behind the wheel. (I realize this might be offering your relative additional tools for running away). We had him plan a college tour for all of us so he might get a little more excited about the future (and practice some longer drives involving interstates). I let him take my boat out.

We also played a lot of games, which were low key ways to spend time together where he could practice both winning and losing. We also made sure he had spending money, food he liked, input into TV choices, time to play his music on our public system (shared spaces) instead of just in his room, etc. Last, we were open about having little idea what would make life good for him/us together, so we had weekly check-ins like you would with any roommate. Our guy wanted no contact with his mother, sibling or estranged father and we did not force it.
posted by carmicha at 2:12 PM on May 17, 2021 [8 favorites]


Okay, here's what I think is the absolute best path you could take for his child: do everything you can to find a way to have him stay in his home country. Is there any part of his home country that isn't a war zone? This child has already endured significant trauma: living through war, losing his father, being/feeling abandoned by his mother, taking on the adult role of caring for his sister as a child, being institutionalized for two years, living with a new family. When you are saying he was a "great kid," I am not saying you are wrong. But he probably thought he had to be that way in order to provide a stable home for himself and his sister. He is about to be further traumatized by this move. This is a major disruption.

What should have happened sooner: that international non-profit should have done everything they could to find the biological mom and support them all staying together. I realize it's too late for that, but that's not reason to add to his already significant trauma.

If I could wave a magic wand, I'd have you use your considerable resources to find his birth mom or another living relative, and pay them the money they need to support him and provide him with a stable home in his country and culture for at least a few years. Please do not dismiss this. If you don't try this, I promise that, down the road, you are going to think back to what I am saying here and go, "Oh, we really fucked up this kid even more, even though we thought we knew what we were doing and we thought we did right by him. We really should have done something to try to help him stay in his home country. We spend $2000 on therapy in one year when that money would have made a different to a relative in his home country who could have supported him with some extra funds."

I am writing all this as someone who adopted kids internationally, and briefly fostered another teen. In all of this, I thought I knew what I was doing, and I was pretty well-educated on all of it, and I do have two great kids, but now I realize that adoption that means taking kids out of their home countries and cultures, and that should absolutely be the last resort.

Having said all that: this kid is a survivor who will do what he needs to do to survive. His attachment trauma might mean he's a people pleaser with folks he doesn't know and trust (like you all right now, teachers, etc), but he is going to have a really hard time accepting love, even beyond the normal angst of adolescence. He will test your commitment to him (that's like what the running away was about). He will always be struggling to find a way to get home, to his mom, to his country. He may never feel like he is home again.

I want to urge you to find, as quickly as possible, a local therapist who specializes in working with kids who were adopted, and to talk to this person soon, before this kid arrives. Read everything you can about fostering traumatized teenagers; it won't address the intercultural differences, but it will give you some sense of what you might expect. Connect with foster parents and connect with local folks who adopted internationally, especially if they adopted older kids. You are going to need a support network, and your regular friends, if they don't have any experience with foster care or adoption, are going to really struggle to understand.

I know you are trying to do right by this kid, but I don't think you all can give him what he needs, which is to stay connected to his home.

On a very small note: one of the tenets of adoptive/fostering parenting is that your child's story is not your story; it it not your place to tell. You shared a lot of details here, under your regular account name. Please do not share this child's story anymore, to anyone, except perhaps a therapist as necessary. When he is an adult, he can decide who gets to know all that. I understand that you shared all these details to explain this background, but it's too much. He deserves privacy, and he should choose who knows his history.

Good luck. I wish you the best, and I truly hope you can help this kid get to a more stable place.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:17 PM on May 17, 2021 [33 favorites]


One other idea: get a(nother) dog or cat that bonds to him and for which he has primary responsibility.
posted by carmicha at 2:20 PM on May 17, 2021 [4 favorites]


Best answer: No one knows why he ran away. He lied each time and gave a different excuse, basically parroting whatever he was asked (finding his bio-mom, needing "space," going to his birth town, etc.).

I feel these are all related reasons, though? He took excellent care of his younger sister when he was a child himself, and she's firmly established in your family and happy. Maybe he's been concerned for his biological mother's welfare all along, and now feels he's of an age to do something about it? Whether 16 is the legal age of adulthood in that country (is he old enough to join the military?) or whether he simply feels like an adult after all he's been through, he's opting to live in a halfway house for young men rather than with your sibling.

We are planning to give him his own bedroom and bathroom and set up schooling, set him up counseling and if he wants, a local job for him.

If he doesn't click with the first counselor, keep trying. I think he should be in college-level classes as soon as is feasible, or some sort of trade apprentice program if it interests him. If he does want a job, find out if he wants to send any of his earnings to his bio-mom and how that can be accomplished safely and securely. (If he has a long-term desire to bring his bio-mom or other biological extended family to the US, his own American citizenship is helpful toward that goal and he could benefit from speaking with an immigration attorney... his plans and wishes are already counter to what your sibling wanted for him, and no one really knows the details yet. There may be more friction ahead, especially if it's a matter of religious differences.)

He sounds like a truly remarkable person. It's wonderful that he's going to be with you, and enjoys a strong relationship with the at-home adult. When he's in counseling -- and not in daily, direct opposition to his adoptive parents and sister -- maybe he'll be more forthcoming about his motivations up until now and what he ultimately wants for himself. Best wishes.
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:22 PM on May 17, 2021 [2 favorites]


One thing that I assume is normal for you because you have small children, but maybe relevant for others looking at this post for guidance: family meals at least several times a week if not every day are a very good anchor for normalcy and trust. The more the better. If you only sit down together for a Sunday dinner or a scheduled weekly meeting, that will often be a bit formal. If everyone can rely on there being a daily gathering, even based on microwaved tv-dinners or takeout pizza, the conversation at that gathering will over time grow relaxed -- and deep! We have our best conversations when there is no agenda and half of it is talking about gaming or pop stars. Then big issues may sneak in unintentionally and we can talk about serious problems in a safe setting.
I would prioritize family dinner over extracurricular activities most of the time. A lot of families spend so much time on sports, band practice and social activities that they have no boring time at home. But boring time is when the magic happens.
posted by mumimor at 2:27 PM on May 17, 2021 [1 favorite]


(If he has a long-term desire to bring his bio-mom or other biological extended family to the US, his own American citizenship is helpful toward that goal and he could benefit from speaking with an immigration attorney... his plans and wishes are already counter to what your sibling wanted for him, and no one really knows the details yet. There may be more friction ahead, especially if it's a matter of religious differences.)

I don't think this is possible if he was given US citizenship because he was adopted. When he was adopted, and when the US government recognized that adoption and gave him citizenship, his legal relationship with his birth family was severed. These kids have no legally relationship with their birth family anymore. Yes, he can talk to an immigration attorney as an adult, but other adult adoptees have tried to do this and failed because the only reason they are American citizens is because of the adoption. Which is to say, the American government doesn't let people immigrate as adopted children of American citizens and then bring in, as family members, their birth families.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:38 PM on May 17, 2021 [3 favorites]


Response by poster: Biological mom is known by the local authorities and (if she's still alive) is in no position to parent. This is not an avenue. We are very open to supporting a return to his home country once he's 18, if that's what he wants. The adoptive parents are also supportive of that option if it's what he wants but didn't feel they could leave him there at 16, which is why we're stepping in.
posted by aoleary at 2:44 PM on May 17, 2021 [3 favorites]


On the bio-mom, you likely know this - do not badmouth her, it’s his dna. He likely doesn’t have great answers for running because of a huge knot of trauma that will take a long time to unravel...and leaving his home country is another layer. Make it easy for him to talk about all of his family. It’s okay to be not okay, you’d rather he tell you when he has “ a running feeling” so both of you can sort it out for his safety

Are there any former Peacecorps volunteers in your outer circle? They will know about adjusting to US life from remote areas of the world - as in going to Wegman’s may be culture shock from his typical day to day. This is to suggest some wider support for you as your sister will be in the thick of re-entry as well.

Games are good, puzzles can be a good collaboration. See how he is with cards, checkers or chess. Exact Change is something he can teach your 4 year old while sorting out the new cash system, though uno is simpler. Figure out some movies you all can watch - something like The Half of It, and track down some of what he liked as a kid. Any nearby relevant cultural festivals that may be revived by next summer? Baltimore has communities that support Ukrainian and Polish festivals in Patterson Park, and if the situation is dire, these same communities know a bit about immigrants adjusting with some teens among them.

Once he’s here, he will likely be a rockstar for your little ones, but don’t be surprised to find him enjoying play with them or just noodling around with a toy or two...being a parent gives adults more space to play. Let play happen. Stay away from any hint that he will be part of child care, emphasizing that you’d rather he help alongside the adults since he’s so close to being one.
posted by childofTethys at 3:53 PM on May 17, 2021 [1 favorite]


Biological mom is known by the local authorities and (if she's still alive) is in no position to parent. I hear you, and I also want to say that local authorities are really terrible sources of information, truly. They often think it's always better for kids to be with rich Americans than poor single moms in [Country]. This happens in the US too.

At the very least, I want to encourage you all to figure out a way for this child to know what's going on with his mom. Do your in-laws have any means to research this at all? The poor kid probably wants to know if she's alive, regardless of her ability to parent. I mean, imagine not knowing if your mom was alive or dead? That sounds torturous.

We are very open to supporting a return to his home country once he's 18, if that's what he wants.Please tell him this! The sooner the better. Make sure he knows it's a sincere offer.
posted by bluedaisy at 4:53 PM on May 17, 2021 [8 favorites]


Memail me as I have parented in similar circumstances and dealt with running away. Some god awful years but all as adult kids are close to me now.

Please do not repatriate him at 18, way too young - make a goal of after he finishes say community college or some other young adult marker.

Make sure you as a family have his culture interwoven - celebrate local festivals, shop at stores run by his community etc. Its a lot easier to get music and videos from other countries now thanks to streaming. I would say 50% of the media in my household is non-English still. Include meals from his home especially.

He may probably will run away again. You want to be the stable welcoming home for him to return to. That means including his friends however annoying they are. I had basic no violence, no drugs, no underage drinking, no open porn rules. The rest was negotiated.

Get in touch now with parents of teens. Other adoptive parent groups esp. of older at adoption age - ask the local foster care groups, search Facebook for releveant groups. The support and insight of parents of similar situations was huge for me. Regular parents do not get the extent of trauma.

Schedule or find a family therapist to support YOU. Do this ahead of the first big drama.

Oh and consider an art therapist for him esp given English is his second language. Really helped two of my kids process intense trauma.

Also - a lot of home countries for adoptees recognise dual citizenship, a big blessing is to help him get all his paperwork in order so he doesn’t end up screwed as an adult by missing documents.

Like I said, happy to memail and email if you need a supportive ear from someone who went down a similar path.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:15 PM on May 17, 2021 [7 favorites]


I thought of this article for you, about a former Romanian orphan adopted by an American family. Take note of the defiant streak, the push-pull and testing of boundaries, the people-pleasing and manipulation, the fierce independence, the complete devotion to rescuing others.

I have no specific expertise except that I was pretty severely messed up as a kid and I do a lot of the things that Romanian orphan did and I kind of identify with the kid in your story and.... I agree with bluedaisy 100%. And imagining myself to be the kid in your care I predict severe conflict ahead. It's something in the way you write, something in the way your ideas come across, which kind of raises my defenses and makes me not want to trust you. Nothing personal, I'm sure you mean well, I just tend to not trust people who mean well because in my experience it's usually some kind of trick, there's some kind of catch, some performance expected, some kind of humiliation to be extracted. So I suppose that's what I would prepare for if I were you.

Put another way, you're taking this kid in and giving him all these things... he is gonna wonder why, and be super on guard for the "catch" to show up, and might be defensive or combative to try to test the situation and "prove" that this safety being offered to him is not unconditional.

Here's where the catch is that made me bristle: "me and my partner really want to give him a shot at setting up his life in a productive direction. He's got tons of potential"

What happens if his ideas for his life aren't "productive", and he's not interested in pursuing his "potential"? What if the potential you see is really just something he's been performing in order to please his parents and keep a roof over his and his sister's head, and underneath that he's a confused angry mess? What if he fucks around at school to see what happens, and to test whether this home you're providing for him is conditional? I can't really tell you what to do, except try to avoid the extremes of letting him destroy himself vs. crushing him with authoritarian rules. Just like ... be prepared for this.
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:27 PM on May 17, 2021 [22 favorites]


Additionally, since it sounds like you don't have experience with his home country - just because he's white and European, do not expect him to act like an American boy would. The US is profoundly different even from Western European countries, never mind the Eastern parts, so you will have to explain a lot of things. If there's any community of that language and religion in your vicinity, offer to facilitate him attending events and talking to people who have experienced that adaptation.

(Source: just on a visit to Minnesota while at uni, I had profound culture shock over the fact I couldn't walk to a store or a restaurant from my hotel - and I didn't have a driver's license at that point. Also all the people my age talking about the Simpsons, they're absolutely not popular here, and a lot of other comedy and music doesn't translate.)
posted by I claim sanctuary at 2:05 AM on May 18, 2021


My sister was fostered by my family as a teenager. She was 16 when she moved in had lost both parents in a violent conflict in her country of origin, had sustained incredible trauma, did not speak English and had no formal schooling. (My family speaks her native language but we are white and she is not.)

My parents got a lot of things right and some things wrong. The biggest thing they got right was humility. They recognized that they could not understand big parts of my sister's experience. They expected things to get fucked up and were willing to put in significant time, attention and money to un-fuck them. They continue (15+ years later) to support my sister financially as needed and to help her send money and resources back to her remaining family in her country of origin. They have done everything in their power to make sure that she feels and, in fact, is independent and able to chart her own course and that includes the fact that she often wants distance and they respect that.

Things that they wish they had known (I imagine): That no matter how hard you think its going to be it's likely to be harder. Both for the parents and for the kid. That the process is non-linear and good years can be followed by tough ones. Same with good days. That therapy is important but the therapist needs to be able to handle the full extent of the situation that the kid is dealing with and those therapists are few and far between especially in rural areas. Things may be easy at first but they are unlikely to stay that way. I would echo that it is not helpful or appropriate to expect gratitude or even intimacy or closeness. Mutual respect is pretty much the ticket and those other things sometimes follow.

Finally, we are all in our 30s now and my sister's life doesn't look like what I bet my parents imagined when they thought of a 'good' life. But my sister is generally happy, she works hard, she has excellent community. And that is a good life and all of us can see that now. She and my parents love and respect one another even though the road was absolutely a rocky one.
posted by jeszac at 10:13 AM on May 18, 2021 [7 favorites]


Oh one more thing-- while I tried to thread the needle here in terms of details, my parents were a LOCKED BOX when it came to discussing my sister's life with anyone. Even their very close friends. Even I only know the roughest of details. They also didn't talk about the 'good' things they were doing for her or seek praise from others for what they were doing. They are people who really value privacy and they made her privacy a non-negotiable priority in our family.
posted by jeszac at 10:24 AM on May 18, 2021 [7 favorites]


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