Adopting the Older Child

Leigh Anne Harrington, LCSW, PIP
Fax: 205-975-6503

Adopting older children with difficult beginnings

Making the decision to bring an older child or children into your home from an orphanage abroad is complex. It is often a decision made with the heart with little preparation. Many parents note that if they had stopped to think very much about adopting an older child and read anything prior to getting their children that they would never have done it. It sounds easy enough: combine a child in need with loving parents and that should equal a grateful child who thrives with new found nurturance. They will no longer live without the care of a parent, they will have adequate food, shelter and clothing, they will have parents who see their emotional and physical needs, and they will not have to fear physical assault or harsh treatment. The truth is that it is most often not easy and it is usually the most difficult event in parents' lives. Most parents will also tell you that learning about the unique personalities, struggles and strengths of these amazing children present unexpected opportunities for reward and joy.

  • Don't expect to love or be loved by your new child or children. Honestly, you may not even like each other. Don't be hard on yourself. Second thoughts are very common.
  • Your new child or children will take time to get to know. They are like onions with many layers that are unknown to you. They will begin to tell you of their previous lives and the trauma they have experienced as they settle in and acquire language. Explore your own histories and prepare to cope with your child's emotional wounds. Parents often find that they are impacted by secondary traumatic stress when they begin to hear their children's histories.
  • Re-evaluate your expectations for your family, your new child or children and how you thought life would go. Educational plans may be very different than expected due to cumulative cognitive deficits, inadequate educational opportunities, prenatal exposure to toxins and early trauma and neglect. Finding a good fit for school will be difficult.
  • You may realize that your child has more emotional wounds than you expected pre-adoption. You may not become a parent figure for some children (particularly those over the age of twelve or thirteen). You may be a mentor and supporter more than a parent.
  • Go through the motions of being parents - fake it until you feel love or even like for your new child.
  • Keep calm and don't let things ruffle you. Your ability to remain calm in the face of difficult situations will help your child.
  • Love is not enough - for some children who have experienced long-term neglect, abuse and trauma, there is not enough love to make things okay. They often need much, much more. Some need high structure and high nurture. Some need repeated reassurance. All need a great deal of support. Many will need professional help and guidance to adjust and cope with previous life events.
  • Don't get scared - read, read, read. Talk to other families who have made this journey. The more educated you are the better things will go. Trust professionals who have worked with post institutionalized children. Ignore the advice of well intentioned individuals who apply their personal experiences of parenting non-traumatized birth children. This advice can make you feel like a failure when in fact they have no idea what your family is going through.
  • Adjustment is not a steady, linear path. You can expect lots of ups and downs. Many children go through what is commonly referred to as a "honeymoon" period and then they begin to display behaviors and feelings that you had not seen previously. Some kids never have a honeymoon period. Others wait months until they feel they can trust you enough to give you their most challenging behaviors.
  • Maintain as much structure as possible and be consistent. Avoid letting others gift your child for the first months home. Mom and dad need to be the providers.
  • Start chores in the home as soon as you arrive. To be in a family, you must contribute.
  • Limit television and computer games - they can serve to distance you.
  • Try to de-emphasize material possessions - older kids can become fixated upon acquiring all the new stuff and lack authentic affection. They can seem very superficially charming and offer affection easily to get what they want.
  • A newly adoptive parent of a teenager expressed his child's response well - he comes to me when he has wants, but he does not need me and won't seek me when he has needs.
  • Your child does not have the same value system as you do and has had to do a lot of things to survive. They may not embrace your way of seeing things.
  • Don't let food become an issue - they need access to food to begin to feel security. Preparing dishes that are more familiar will often support settling in for many kids.
  • Sleep can be hard for many children. Offer support and understand their fears.
  • You must not leave adopted older children alone with younger children. Re-enactment of previous abuse is so common that I can't say this strongly enough. Sexual abuse of younger siblings is an all too common issue for families adopting older children with unknown abuse histories. Protect children in the family and visiting children.
  • Expect grief and loss from your child. They have lost all they have ever known. It may only surface after they have had time to adjust a bit.
  • Expect oppositional behaviors and let your child have some choice (all pleasing to you).
  • Your child may lie to you, hoard items and have difficulty accepting limitations.
  • Watch for signs of severe psychological disturbance - suicidal thoughts, talk of harming others, extreme mood swings, physically assaulting other sibs, parents or pets, running away, harming themselves by cutting or risky behaviors. Don't hesitate to call if you have concerns.

Adopting a sibling group

  • Take all the earlier information and multiply these needs times the number of children you have adopted.
  • Adopting a sibling group creates other issues - as one child seems to come closer, another will get off balance. They can reinitiate old fears and traumas between each other.
  • Many times, siblings have not truly been together for years - often in different groups or in different care situations.
  • Know that adopting a sibling group or multiple children at one time is harder. There is no question that meeting their distinct needs will tax you.
  • Pure exhaustion of parents is common. Respite is very helpful and can benefit everyone. Take care of yourselves to take care of them.
  • In a sibling group, educational issues often vary. One child may be impacted by prenatal exposure to alcohol while another seems unaffected.
  • One child (usually one of the older) may feel responsible for the others and feel they have lost the role of being a parent - take it slowly.
  • The positives of adopting a sibling group include the fact that the children have a shared history, that they may eventually establish close relationships with each other and that they can communicate in their primary language.

Copyright 2008. UAB / International Adoption Clinic. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form without the prior written permission of the UAB / International Adoption Clinic.