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Joys and Risks Adopting An Older Child

By Laurel Anderson, LCSW, former Director of Waiting Child Program

If you’ve ever considered adopting an older child, you may also have worried about possible problems this type of adoption might present. Older children do indeed present unique challenges, but they also offer unique rewards.

In my work with waiting children, I’ve spoken with many families, and recently I received some especially helpful insights from five families who adopted older children.

Families interested in older children often say they want a child closer in age to their other child or that they wish to avoid diapers and the “baby stuff.” Others are moved by the plight of older children without families or have personally seen older children who are unlikely to find homes.

When we asked Pam and Don Buttry from Iowa, who have three biological and nine adopted children, about adopting an older child, they answered emphatically, “Don’t be afraid to adopt an older child. They are lots of fun. It is so great to see where they were and where they are now.”

Even though it can take a long time for an older child to make you his parents, your home her home, the consensus among families is that it is worth it. Love does not come automatically when your child arrives home. It also takes time for you to make her your child. There will be moments when you wonder how you got into all this, and moments when you wonder why you waited so long to begin. Mixed in will be challenges, victories, losses, and a lot of satisfaction.

The Benefits of Older Children

Karen and Dick Pfunder from Oregon have adopted three older children. Karen speaks of the joy of watching a child develop talents through opportunities she and her family provided. In addition, older children’s habits, likes and dislikes are more established and their potential appears more predictable than an infant’s. For example, we may know the child loves soccer, how well she does in school, or that she loves to dance and sing. Simply stated, older children can do more!

Conversely, older children may harbor unknowns. Holt gives adoptive parents all of the information we gather about each child, but genetic makeup and personal history aren’t always knowable.

Renae and Timothy Leahy from West Virginia adopted their son Deepak through Holt’s Waiting Child program from India when he was 8. According to orphanage records, Deepak was the only child of an HIV-positive single mother. She placed him in a facility when she became too ill to care for him and visited him until she died when he was 6. Soon after Deepak arrived in the Leahy family, however, he began to tell them about his dad, mom, two brothers, and three sisters. He says one sister died and insists that his brothers went to live with his dad. He does not seem to know what happened to his sisters.

Situations like this are not unusual. A child reported to be 7 years old may, through dental exams, prove to be younger or older. And as children become comfortable with you, they may share parts of their past that are difficult to hear. Much of their lives is a mystery.

Loss and Grief

All adopted children have to cope with the loss of birth parents. Older children suffer the additional loss of a foster family, orphanage friends, and staff. Left behind when friends were adopted, they may have wondered, “What about me? Is someone going to come for me?” Parents should remember that the transition to a family is not just a new experience. It can overwhelm a child.

Five of the six children in Patrice and Patrick Lapperts’ family in Nebraska are adopted. Patrice says, “I try to put myself in the child’s place and remember where they came from.”

To help cope with their new life, children need to express grief over their losses. Grief takes many forms but most of it is healthy and important.

John Paul Lappert, who joined his family at 6 years old, had four episodes of prolonged crying. Patrice just held him and let him cry. Children express their feelings of grief and loss in many different ways. One child may be in a state of shock for weeks; another may be angry and defiant. Some regress or become emotionally withdrawn, limited in their ability to attach to another person until they receive adequate support.

Attachment and Institutionalization

The issues of attachment and institutionalization are often families’ primary concern when considering adopting an older child. Families hope to hear that the child they plan to adopt has learned to attach well to another person, and they look for evidence of this in the child’s file.

Karen Paul from Nebraska believes that parents should be aware of attachment issues but not be unnecessarily concerned about them. She believes that older children need to learn trust and have a loving adult respond to them on demand, like we do with infants. Parents need to demonstrate reliability, consistency, and stability to strengthen the bonding process.

The process of an older child bonding to a parent appears similar to an infant’s but with a few differences. An infant first depends on an adult to meet her physical needs. She soon also learns that she can influence the adult, make him smile or stop what he is doing to come play with her. This is when the attachment becomes reciprocal.

Parents adopting an older child for the first time often expect their child to form attachment in an manner commensurate with her chronological age. They expect a 5-year-old to behave like one. This is an understandable assumption, but under the stress of international adoption, the child will likely regress and and not act her age.

Many families mention the “honeymoon period” when children first arrive home. “What a smooth adjustment; I can’t believe it’s going so well,” Renae Leahy said to her husband during the first weeks their child was home.

But as attachment develops, the “testing” period begins. During this period your child’s behavior can threaten your relationship with her. She may feel that she is betraying her past if she changes to fit into your family. She may not want to use your name nor offer physical affection, subtly setting herself apart from the family. Always respect your child’s need to maintain some separateness, demonstrating acceptance and responding to her with unconditional love.

The Pfunders say, “Relax about behaviors that appear coarse or rude. They may not be the greatest, but you can teach new behaviors. Look for little gains. Grow your sense of humor. Be able to express your feelings of hope and despair to your partner.”

Expectations

As in any relationship, expectations are dangerous. Do not expect too much too soon, either from yourself or your child. Be realistic; acknowledge that you may not initially feel the same about the new child as you do about your other children. The parent-child commitment may not develop the first week, month, or even the first year. Let it grow gradually, if sometimes painfully, in its own way and on its own time.

Strong bonds rarely develop quickly; remember that this is normal and try not to be disappointed in yourself or the child. Delayed bonding is not your fault. Love does indeed grow and flower in almost every home where older children are adopted even if you have days, weeks, months when you actually dislike the new child. Every experienced and successful family we speak with has had moments when they would have liked to walk out and leave everyone behind! But almost always this feeling goes away. Recognize it, tell yourself it is normal, and do not worry too much about it, no matter how disquieting it may be.

“ They are just kids,” say the Buttrys. “Put yourself in the child’s place. Imagine how you might feel. Relax and enjoy them. Demonstrate unconditional love. They may be smarter than expected; they may be more delayed; they may lie; they may steal. We try to not have expectations of who they are going to be.”

Consider, too, what it might be like if a child does not bond to you at first. Some children initially bond with only one spouse, rejecting the other. Suppose you had ideas of all the things you two could do together but your child is rude and obnoxious. What if the other siblings reject, asking, “When are you going to take him back?” Your other children may need much support to understand why this child behaves the way he does.

A child’s rudeness, teasing, and constant need for attention can be exhausting. Even successful adoptive parents with broad parenting experience find themselves thinking; when our child finally comes home, we will all live happily ever after. We will bond easily.

Renae Leahy talks about the value of time in this process. “Time is the only thing that helps a family blend,” she said. “It takes time for everyone in the family to find their new place.”

And from the Lapperts: “Don’t panic if the problem isn’t gone right away. It might take several years. Remember, all children have some kinds of challenges and problems. Stealing, lying, manipulating, these are all behaviors that helped the child survive. Don’t take it personally.”

Resources

The ability to rely on outside resources is a strength. If you are struggling with parenting an older child, ask for help and use it. We ask families to identify supportive resources even before the child comes home. Maybe they will never need them, but if they do, the resources are there and do not need to be found under stress.

Resources may be a therapist recommended by your social worker or other families, family and friends, adoptive family groups, or your social worker. Multiracial playgroups benefit the entire family. Consider joining—or starting—one in your area. Never hesitate to ask for help!

Family Selection

During the last few years, the Waiting Child Program has helped many older children be assigned to U.S. families. We consider how best to match child and family and have refined our selection process by asking prospective families their motivation to adopt older children. We continually work to improve the child reports we get from sending countries and are considering collaborating with our state child welfare agency and school of social work to do research. We want to know what makes placements a success.

In a future issue of Hi Families we will explore in detail how we select families for older children. But for now, consider the following characteristics, which we have found to be common among successful adoptive families. In most cases families:

1. Have realistic expectations for the placement.

2. Are fully aware of the child’s needs.

3. Have a proven ability to handle problems.

4. Are flexible, optimistic, and have a sense of humor.

5. Have the ability to maintain a commitment to the child in spite of challenges.

6. Can appreciate the small gains the child makes.

7. Are comfortable using resources and treatment services when needed.

8. Can attach and bond to others.

9. Have strong marital relationships.

10. Maintain an open communication style.

Renae Leahy says, “Adopting an older child is not for everyone. God has blessed us in that he has given us children in several different ways. We have three biological children and two adopted children, one from India and one through the [U.S.] foster care system. In some people God puts the desire to have infants, in some the desire to have toddlers, in some the desire for older children. It is not by chance, but by divine purpose as there are children of all ages who need homes.”

Of course, you could always do what the Lapperts did to promote family bonding: Pack your family of eight into an RV and go on a 1,400-mile road trip! (They said it was a wonderful adventure.)

If you are interested in adopting an older child, visit the Waiting Child Program on Holt’s website. www.holtinternational.org/waitingchild.


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