With the population of children available through international adoption changing, more and more people are bringing home older children. In the past, “older” used to be defined as any child older than two or three; now “older adoptee” may describe school-aged children or teenagers. I am thrilled that children who in the past would have had very little chance at having a permanent family are now finding homes; however, bringing a child this age into your family comes with its own joys and challenges. We have adopted three older children, ages 8, 9, and 10 at time of adoption. It has been both challenging and rewarding and very unlike bringing home a 2- or 3-year-old, which we have also done. Here are my suggestions as to how to make this transition a little bit easier.
1. Support their birth language.
Language is a big concern of most parents who bring home older children, as it should be. Being able to communicate with a child is extremely important. Most adoptees learn their second language by the subtractive method because their new families do not speak their original language. This means that they lose one language as they gain another. Studies have shown that children lose first-language expressive language within two to three months and lose receptive language within six. While this process is slower the older the child, it is also true that acquisition of the new language is slower as well. I read one account by a child adopted at an older age who described this language loss and acquisition process as feeling as though she was losing her mind. All this to say, I think it is very important to find people who can act as interpreter for those first months. Since it is also a good thing to get to know people from your child’s birth country, this serves a double purpose.
2. Understand their development.
Your new child may be a certain age on paper, but that does not mean he is going to be that age in all aspects of life. There is a good chance that compared to a similarly aged child in the US, your new child will seem much younger. It is also true that in many ways, especially emotionally, your new child will be significantly younger. I have watched my different children pass through multiple different developmental stages all in one day. At one moment she could be entirely her age, including the middle school attitude, and the next moment she will seem more like an infant in her emotional neediness. It can feel a bit as though you are living on a roller coaster. Be prepared for it and be ready to meet your child wherever he happens to be at any given time. To help our children grow and heal from their past hurts, we have to parent both the child in front of us and the much younger, more hurt, and needy child who hides inside. I will also warn you that this is far easier said than done. From experience, it is disconcerting to be confronted with a 12-year-old who is acting like and has the needs of a 3-year-old. It takes a while for our brains to catch up with the mismatch before us, and if you are anything like me, irritation is the first emotion that rises to the surface. But our children don’t need our irritation; they need our compassion. Be prepared.
3. Brush up your cooking skills.
One of the things that has been most difficult for my girls to adjust to has been a new diet. I give them all credit for being as adventurous as they can be, but it is hard to have a new diet put in front of you, even if the chef is trying to keep your tastes in mind. Think about anytime you have been out of the country and find yourself craving your favorite foods. Even when someone tried to fix what you want, it doesn’t always meet the mark, and you can’t wait to get home to get some “real” food. This is your child’s reality now, except there is no going back home. Food is perhaps the easiest way to show your child you are trying to meet their needs, both physically and emotionally. Be willing to spring for take-out. Learn to cook favorite dishes, even if they don’t quite measure up. Allow for food dislikes and aversions; remember what it feels like to have a dish put before you that you just cannot eat. (And I hope you have had this experience, because without it, you cannot understand your new child’s day-to-day existence.) Let go of your food expectations and focus on nurture as you and your child go through the process of acclimating to a new diet. Go the extra mile to find things they do like and let them eat them. Our food tastes are set early in life. Your new child may never love cheese or cream. He may always want to add spice. She may always long for rice with every meal.
4. Be a student of your child.
Getting to know your new child is one of your very first priorities. Just as a mother bringing home a new baby from the hospital spends the next few months getting to know her new child and trying to meet his needs as best she can, you will spend the next few months doing the same for this much-older child. Learn what he likes and dislikes; what makes her anxious or stressed; what makes him happy. Your only expectations should be to learn as much as you can and to try to meet your child’s needs as best you can. Chances are, neither of you is going to remember all that much from the first few months home, but use this time to set the stage for your future relationship. Nurture and survival are the order of the day and rules, expectations, and the like can wait for later. Take deep breaths and remember that just because your child needs you to do something, such as help her get dressed, for the first couple of months, this does not mean it will be forever.
Bringing home an older child is exhausting. It is hard work, both physically and emotionally. Whoever suggested that by bringing home an older child, you missed out on lost sleep and diapers had no idea what they were talking about. You will lose sleep. You will deal with bathroom issues. You will be on call 24 hours a day at the beginning, just as you would with an infant. Have a plan in place for how you will give yourself the break that you will need. Be prepared to switch care with your spouse (or another trusted adult if you are single). Know what rejuvenates you and be purposeful in blocking out time to do these things. Have a support system in place. Join Facebook groups dealing with your child’s age and/or special need so you have a place to discuss the worries that keep you up at night. A tired and stressed parent is not in a good place to care for a hurting and scared child. Do this self-care for your child’s sake if not for your own well-being.