Adopting Older Children
By Ellen Singer, LCSW-C
Center for Adoption Support and Education, Inc
There are many reasons why prospective parents choose to adopt children who are older (defined as typically three and up.) For some it is their own age - because they are "older parents" - either first-time parents, or having already raised biological/adopted children, it makes sense to them to parent older children. Marla, 47 mother of two adopted children, ages 8 and 10 says, "I didn't want to have children in college when I'm getting ready to retire!" For others, there's a feeling of wanting to provide a home for a child who really needs one. "Everyone wants babies," says, Rebecca. "We felt that older children are sometimes forgotten. They need good homes, too!" For others, caring for infants and young children is either not that appealing or doesn't feel practical. "Doug, Rebecca's husband says, "My wife and I work full-time and have no family in the area to help out. We felt that an older child would fit more easily into our lives."
Whatever the motivation, the decision to adopt older children must come after careful consideration ( KNOW THYSELF!) and education as to both the many rewards as well as the challenges involved. Older children come with histories - whether having lived in foster care, orphanages, or with birth family. Their pre-adoptive experiences may leave them with unresolved emotional issues. Such issues include significant loss - of birth family, possibly including siblings, previous caregivers, and sometimes - culture, religion, etc. In addition, some children may have experienced trauma - physical, emotional, sexual abuse; neglect, witnessing violence, substance abuse, parental psychiatric disturbance, etc.
Walking in the Child's Shoes
All adopted children need help to grieve the losses they have experienced. Placed in permanent families where they experience their new parents' commitment and loving support, they are often able to address their issues. Empathetic listening, compassion, and patience from their parents can help them further develop the resiliency they already have that enabled them to survive difficult life experiences.
Parenting older children is therefore a very special and important job. Key to the success of older adoptive placements is preparation, according to Madeleine Krebs, Clinical Coordinator at CASE. She notes, "Both the parents' and the child's expectations need to be carefully explored and adjusted for what the realities are likely to be. For example, a child coming from an orphanage may never have lived in a family and therefore may have no idea as to how a family functions. Having experienced multiple caregivers, he may have no model for being able to understand what a "Mom or Dad" is. On a practical level, for example, he may never have ridden in a car with a seatbelt, or been to a grocery store. And of course, he is experiencing these cultural differences in a foreign language."
Ms. Krebs notes that children may be very excited, and/or scared about the new changes, and have difficulty adjusting to parental expectations. They may be confused by how the reality differs from their fantasies of what life would be like after adoption. Ms. Krebs describes how one seven year old girl moving into a family with older siblings was terrified of them because in her orphanage in Russia, the older children were often in charge of the younger ones and were quite hurtful to them. The parents' knowledge of their daughter's orphanage experience enabled them to prepare the older siblings to adjust the ways they interacted with their new sister until she grew comfortable with them. This meant a great deal to the girl and enabled her to learn that the roles of older children - siblings - in her family included that of protection of younger siblings, helping her to feel safe.
An older child coming from foster care may have multiple models of what parents are like and unfortunately, some of their experiences may not have been positive ones. They too, may have a mix of feelings of excitement, fear and confusion. Ms. Krebs says, "One little eight year old boy with a history of physical abuse, adopted by a single mother, would hang his head and become mute whenever he was upset, and then later get into trouble with aggressive behavior toward peers at school. It was likely that his birth parents told him to keep quiet and that his silence kept him from further abuse." With therapeutic support from his therapist and loving encouragement from his mother, he learned how to verbalize his feelings. He eventually became more confident in expressing his feelings in new and positive ways.
Children involved in concurrent planning, where the plan may have been reunification with the birth family are likely to be quite confused about this plan and show signs of anxiety that may be difficult to understand. Again, parents need to take into account the earlier chapters of their older child's life experiences for clues to make sense of present day behavior or emotions.
What Parents Can Do
Ms. Krebs notes that in light of this understanding, parents need to be very patient with themselves and with the children. Older children will go through many changes as they learn how to develop reciprocal relationships with their new family members. "It just takes time," she says. "It helps tremendously if parents have a good understanding of the child's pre-placement history and are prepared to listen to their child's stories from the past. They must be also be prepared to do a lot of teaching about what is expected in their family - Parents must continually state, 'In our family, we don't do___. This is what WE do. One ten year old boy stated that in previous placements, everyone ate dinner in their own rooms. He had to adjust to the fact that in his adoptive family, family members were expected to eat dinner together. Of course, it is equally important that parents be open to incorporating some of the child's wishes (such as traditions and rituals) into family life."
One of the most difficult aspects of parenting older children is the patience required for the time it may take for a mutually satisfying attachment to occur. In her book, Attaching in Adoption, Deborah Gray notes that it can take up to one to two years for the love to come. Many children who have been traumatized may be quite resistant to love for fear of being hurt and rejected. When parents can remember how long their courtship took to lead to a committed relationship, they can have more realistic expectations of themselves and their child.
Parents often report feeling guilty when there are times when they have negative feelings about their children. Others feel lonely when family or friends do not understand how hard it can be sometimes. Support is critical for parents to know that what they are experiencing is normal, and important for helping them to persevere.
Adopting an older child can bring great joy to both parents and the child. The willingness to work with unique challenges is not right for everyone, but for those who choose to bring an older child into their lives, the hard work can bring great happiness.
Adopting the Older Child by Claudia Jewett
Attaching in Adoption by Deborah Gray
Adopting the Hurt Child by Gregory Peck
Parenting the Hurt Child by Gregory Peck
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