When adopted children reach adolescence and face the difficult issues of sex and dating, it can be a daunting or promising time, depending on the anxiety level of the adoptive parents. So says Mary O'Leary Wiley, a central Pennsylvania psychotherapist who was adopted as a child and who now specializes in treating other adult adoptees.

"Sometimes the only clear thing that an adopted child knows is that his [biological] parents were sexually active," says Wiley. "That causes some anxiety with child and [adoptive] parents. `What does this mean about me? Am I going to be more sexually active than my peers?' Parents worry about that, too. It's a lot more difficult to talk about sex when the child is a product of someone else's sexuality."

Then there's the struggle with looks and identity and whether the adopted teenager feels attractive to others. Wiley remembers that as a teenager, she was always looking at people around her in order to find someone who resembled her. "The adopted child doesn't have those physical role models others have -- `You have your father's eyes, your mother's hair.' They don't know if they are going to be handsome or homely, or what their special skills and strengths as adults will be."

This becomes more complicated with interracial adoption, says Wiley, noting that teenage girls especially tend to be very critical of their looks, and their adoptive families may not know how to cope with their unique physical traits -- such as curly or straight hair. One of the most painful situations is when an adoptee of one race or ethnic background is sexually drawn to someone more similar to their adopted family. There may be no fuss over dating, says Wiley, but when the time comes to be more serious, such as engagement, racism can rear its head.

Dating and identity are tough for all teenagers, but Wiley has treated adoptees who realized that they dated only people who were very, very different from themselves, because on some level they had to be sure that they weren't related. There also are cases where an adopted teenager repeats what she believes is her birth parents' story. According to Wiley, the teenager may have an unplanned pregnancy and relinquish the child for adoption. Adopted teens can romanticize or demonize their unknown birth parents, says Wiley, but they often are unsure of what it all means and whether they will follow in their paths.

"The kids don't feel comfortable talking about all of this," she adds. "Even when the parents have the best of intentions."

Robin Allen, executive director of the Barker Foundation, a comprehensive adoption center in Cabin John, has four adult children, two of whom are adopted. "It's a sandwich phenomenon," Allen says, speaking of the layers of issues when parenting adopted children nearing or in the thick of adolescence. "The whole idea of launching children and creating the independent person against the backdrop of adoption where sometimes parents feel less entitled, the sense of loss is more threatening."

Kids quickly learn when a parent feels that insecurity, so they may use it to create havoc with curfews or dating rules, says Allen. "Adoptive parents have a responsibility to figure out what buttons are being pushed. Likely it goes back to [feelings about] infertility. When parents are less on top of their own feelings, they are less able to see their child's needs. It's such a tumultuous time."

And yet, adoptive parents do matter, even if they don't resemble the teenager or haven't a clue what their child's roots are, or are embroiled in family rules. "They are the ones that the kids are going to look up to and react to," says Allen. "Families are in desperate need of a healthy view of adolescence and adoption. Sometimes experts pathologize it and that doesn't help them."

"We have to be careful not to claim everything as an adoption issue," says Bruce Pfeffer, associate professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University Hospital and parent of two sons, one natural and one adopted, who, he says proudly, "have survived adolescence."

"The adoptive parent starts to wonder if all differences in their children have to do with adoption. But we know that there can be differences in families with no adopted children." He gives the example of how a parent may allow one child to drive a car at 16 and keep later curfews, and make another child wait for their wheels and freedom until they are 18, the deciding factor being their maturation.

"Adoptive parents wanting to do it right allow themselves to feel too much guilt," says Pfeffer. "I suspect that talking about such things as unplanned pregnancy is a bigger problem for the parents than it is for young teens. The biggest piece is the adoptive parent's anxieties and perceptions."

"Adoption and Adolescence," a conference for adoptive parents and professionals, with Mary Wiley and Bruce Pfeffer, March 13, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale. Information, call Barker-American Adoption Services at 301-229-8300.