Adopting an Older Child-What’s It Really Like?
We can talk all we want about the need for families to adopt older kids, but the reality is that most people are afraid of adopting an older child. What will this child be like? How disruptive will she be to the way our family is right now? All good questions! What is it really like to adopt an older child???
In preparing for a recent Creating a Family Radio Show/Podcast on Adopting Older Kids I found out that one of our guests, Celeste Snodgrass, Director of Clinical Services at Holt International, had adopted an almost 10-year-old from Thailand a year and a half ago. Talk about first-hand knowledge! We asked her to share with us both her professional and personal experience in adopting an older child.
In my 14 years of working in adoption, there’s one group of children that has always stood out to me: the older kids.
I celebrate when any child finds a family, but I’m especially excited for these children. In international adoption, most older kids have waited for years and years, watching their friends go home to families while they stay behind. And the longer they wait, the less hope they have. So when a 6-year-old or a 10-year-old or a 15-year-old hears that it’s finally their turn? What a joy!
But this is just the very beginning of a huge transition — for them, and their adoptive family.
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As the director of clinical services at Holt International, I regularly help children and families navigate this transition — providing specialized adoption-competent support and resources for whatever challenges arise along the way. Over the years, I’ve worked with lots of older adopted children and their families. But just in the past year and a half, I’ve gained a deeper and more personal understanding of older child adoption since my family began a new adventure — welcoming home 9-year-old Max from Thailand.
Both my professional and personal experience have taught me that older child adoption is a huge transition for everyone. But it’s the perfect option for many families — like mine! — and for children who have waited so long for a permanent, loving family.
If you’re considering adopting an older child, or are parenting an older adopted child, here are some tips to keep in mind!
Your Child Will Experience Culture Shock
Culture shock is real in international adoption! And it can be significant.
When adoptees come home to a new country and culture, they will inevitably miss their birth country. But they don’t typically trust their adoptive family enough yet to talk about their feelings. And often, the only way they know how to work through those feelings is through behavior — typically by acting out and not engaging with their family.
That can be super hard on their adoptive family.
But families need to keep in mind that their child is going through a huge transition and a tremendous amount of grief — without a trusted person. Think how brave these kids have to be to leave literally everything they know and move across the world with people who still feel like strangers to a place where they don’t know anything about the values, the culture, the norms.
It’s scary. It’s very scary.
Some children are going to be quiet and hole-up in a shell. Some children are going to act out their frustration and anger. Some children are up for an adventure and will just go with it. But nobody knows how a child is going to respond until they’re in it. Families need to be ready for any and all behaviors. And we need to come at it with compassion and understanding.
That’s the big picture impact of culture shock. But everyday experiences can be just as significant. These activities of daily living were huge adjustments for my son, Max, who had spent his whole life in Thailand. For him, the bathrooms were especially tough. He was used to no plumbing, no indoor shower, no flushing. He was accustomed to using squatty potties. And to him, a “shower” meant standing partially-clothed in the street in front of his foster home to bathe with a bucket of collected rainwater. He adjusted after a couple of weeks, but it was a learning process! Be on the lookout for these “normal” everyday activities that will be completely foreign to your child, and find creative ways to help them adjust.
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Help to Heal Trauma
Most children adopted at older ages have some kind of trauma in their history. Adoption itself is a traumatic event. While it will vary depending on the child, the adjustment process can be hard. But even though they’ve gone through trauma, every child can work through their hurts with the support of a loving, attentive family that understands trauma, triggers, and helping techniques.
During this adjustment phase, have patience and grace with yourself, your adopted child and your entire family — especially in the first weeks, months, and year. Be open to resources and help, if needed. Know that the transition is a season, and if it’s hard now, that doesn’t mean it will be hard six months from now or even tomorrow. Remember, they’re just kids. And trauma can be healed.
Prepare Your Child, Before and After They Come Home
Before Max came home, we sent him multiple photobooks that we had put together as a family. Initially, we sent a basic photo book of our house, immediate family and pets. Then, as the time came closer for him to travel home, we sent more detailed books with photos of our whole house, our immediate and extended family and even our lake house. We made sure to include information about the weather — because snow is so different from the tropical heat he was used to! — and the basic day-to-day schedule of school and work, including when school would start and finish and how he would get there.
We also started a Lifebook and sent that to him so he could start filling in information about his friends and family and other experiences from his life — and share it with us before he came home to the U.S.
There are also lots of great resources available to help adoptees navigate their transition home. In fact, I recently wrote a book, My New Family in the United States, to help older children begin to understand the cultural differences between their birth country and the U.S. Be sure to talk with your social worker for more resource recommendations like this one!
Find the Familiar
One of the most significant ways we tried to ease Max’s transition was by providing familiar food. I know that when I am overseas for a bit, after a couple of days, I just want a hamburger — something familiar and comfortable. That is what kids adopted internationally want, too–something familiar, something that isn’t so foreign. Once we got home, we immediately took him to the grocery store and let him pick out the food he wanted. Then we went to the Asian market and he visibly relaxed — and purchased nearly all the food in the store!
We’ve also tried really hard to help him maintain his language. We have tons of books in Thai, and we watch a lot of YouTube and various movies and cartoons in Thai. Unfortunately, the Thai population here in Sioux Falls where we live is not large, but we do everything we can to help him keep up his language. He is very, very interested in that, but some kids aren’t. Figure out what aspects, if any, of your child’s birth country and culture, are important to them and make them as available as possible.
Consider Their Emotional Age
Emotionally, many older adopted children tend to be younger than their stated age. In an orphanage, they get food, they get sleep — but they do not experience the same love and nurturing care that children in families receive. Their birth certificate might say 11, but it’s likely they’re closer to 8 or 9 emotionally. It will take considerable work to help your child grow emotionally, to catch up.
Growing up in an orphanage, most children also don’t have access to many toys and games. So, when they come home, they tend to be attracted to toys and games for younger children, because they’ve not had that experience. I was just talking to a family whose son is 17 or 18, and he still loves playing with Legos. He came home when he was 10. That means for ten years, he didn’t get to play with Legos!
Every child needs and deserves the chance to play — whether it’s with dolls or Legos. We all do it! We’re all interested in toys or games for a while because developmentally, that’s what we need. If you don’t get those things when you’re younger, you’re going to want that experience when you’re older.
Families might worry that their child has regressed or is regressing too much. But no, they’re probably just playing with toys because they never have. And if families let them play, it helps them catch up! So buy all those Nerf guns and Legos and dolls and Candy Land games, because they need to play with you. That’s how children connect — through play. And don’t worry if your older child gets along better with younger children. The age of the child they gravitate toward is probably a good indicator of where they are developmentally.
When adopting an older child, some parents also worry that they won’t have much time with them. If they adopt a 12-year-old, that means they only have six years until they’ll leave the house. But the reality is that most of these children are going to be late to launch. They likely won’t be emotionally ready to leave home and live independently at 18. Of course, every child is different, but keep this in mind as you consider adopting an older child.
Respect Your Child’s Past, It Will Always Be a Part of Them
A huge part of adopting an older child is respecting their past experiences and the important people in their life — whether it’s friends from their orphanage, foster parents, or birth parents. Max talks about having three moms. “Mom Number One” is his birth mom, “Mom Number Two” is his foster mom, and I’m “Mom Number Three.” We talk about all of his moms, and we’re just really very open about all of it. He is our son. But he is also his birth mom’s son. He is also his foster mom’s son. We get to share him.
I don’t get him 100 percent, and that’s totally OK.
An older adopted child may want to integrate into their new culture fully, or they may identify primarily with their birth culture. For Max, he absolutely does not see himself as American. He sees himself as Thai, which is great. He sees himself as a Thai living in America. Some children are like that, and some are the opposite. Some children say, “I am not any part of my birth culture anymore; I am 100 percent American.”
It’s different from child to child, and you don’t know how your child will react until they’re home. Families need to be open to either response. If you’re not OK with your child being Chinese or Thai or Filipino living in the U.S., then it’s probably not OK to adopt an older child. They are their own person. Our job is to honor who they are and help them grow into fully functioning members of society. It’s our job to honor their whole person.
Thank you, Celeste, for sharing your personal and professional experiences with Older Child Adoption. We so appreciate the information and support!
Image credit: Marc Davis; Mark Grapengater; Jason Pettus