Adopting an Older Child

Adopting an older child is a different experience from adopting a newborn, and it comes with its own unique challenges and rewards.

Shannon Hicks February 12, 2019
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What is older child adoption?

Older child adoption is welcoming a child into your home who is already waiting for a family. There is no globally accepted age at which a child becomes “older.” Depending on the agency or country you are considering, children from ages 2 to 18 may be considered older children. Some of these children may also have special physical, mental, or emotional needs, and some may be part of a sibling group awaiting adoption together. Adopting an older child is a different experience from adopting a newborn, and it comes with its own unique challenges and rewards.

What types of older child adoption are available?

Typically, parents who adopt older children pursue adoption from foster care or international adoption. Older children may also join a family through kinship adoption or adoption by a step parent.

What should I consider before pursuing older child adoption?

Adopting an older child is different from infant adoption. You will not be matched with an expectant mother, but with a child who already has thoughts, feelings, memories, and experiences. Often, older child adoption is also classified as special needs adoption. The age of the child alone may be considered a special need as children are less likely to find forever homes the longer they stay in foster care, orphanages, or other out-of-home placements. However, the child may also have other needs including medical or mental health diagnoses that require therapies and/or medication to manage. It’s wise to check with your insurance provider to learn what specialists, therapies, and medications will be covered. You will also want to check with your agency to see if there are ways that they can help defray the potential financial and emotional costs that these types of needs involve. It can be argued that because they lose their primary attachment figure, every child who was adopted (even those adopted as infants) experienced traumatic loss. However, older children awaiting adoption may have experienced many more adverse childhood experiences and hopeful adoptive parents should learn as much as they can about ways to help foster connection and build resilience in their child. Additionally, older children awaiting adoption may be part of sibling groups hoping to stay together. Though these sibling relationships can certainly be a comfort and support to children, they can also be a challenge for adoptive parents if unhealthy patterns of interaction have been established leading to maladaptive behavior in the children. It’s important to keep in mind that, although such behavior is often viewed as “negative” by adults, this same behavior may have kept the children alive or safe in dangerous situations they faced earlier in their lives.

What are the steps of older child adoption?

If you think that adopting an older child might be the best choice for your family, a good first step is contacting an adoption agency that helps place children from the region or country that you are considering. Talk to other adoptive families and ask them for feedback on the agencies that they used or considered. Then, make a few phone calls and ask lots of questions. Once you have chosen an agency, your social worker will be able to provide you with all the information you need to move forward with the process of adopting an older child.

Another possible starting point for you in your journey to older child adoption is to search adoption photolistings and request more information about children who you think might be a good match for your family.

In either case, to move forward on the journey toward adoption, you will be required to complete training through your agency, fill out a huge stack of paperwork, and complete a home study. Though the exact requirements for a home study varies by agency, it generally involves inspections of your home to ensure safety, physicals for all members of the family (and vaccine records for the pets), reference and employment checks, and several meetings with a social worker who will ask questions about every possible area of your life.

After completing your licensing requirements, the waiting part of the adoption journey begins. People often ask how long they will have to wait, and while it’s true that older child placements can usually be matched more quickly than infant placements, it’s impossible for anyone to predict how long you will wait for your child to come home. I know adoptive parents who received a placement on the very day that they completed their licensing requirements (in most states, a child must live in your home for six months before his or her adoption can be finalized), and I know parents who have waited several years for their children to come home. Waiting can be unsettling and frustrating for hopeful adoptive parents, but I always encourage folks to make the most of this time by reading lots of books and blogs about adoption, trauma, and attachment.

You may have the opportunity to exchange phone calls or emails with your child or visit with them personally before they move into your home. If possible, let this process unfold at the child’s pace rather than yours. Think about the things that you will do to help make your child’s transition into your home as positive as possible. After your child moves in, there may be a waiting period before the adoption can be finalized. Use this time to get to know your child and begin the bonding process in ways that work for both of you. Then, a judge will bang a gavel, and you will be a permanent family!

What are some of the challenges of older child adoption?

Much has been written about the challenges of adopting older children, and although I believe that it’s important to research and consider the possible effects of trauma that you may see in your child, I think it’s equally important not to prematurely dismiss the possibility of adopting an older child because of scary stories that you read on the Internet. No two children are the same. No two adoption stories are the same. No two families are the same. Educate yourself, ask questions, and take reasonable precautions to protect the physical and emotional safety of your family. But if you find yourself still thinking about whether older child adoption may be right for you, it very well could be.

What are some of the benefits of older child adoption?

I adopted one of my children who was 5 years old at the time, which was considered an older child adoption. I always say that the benefits of bringing a preschooler into my home are that I got to skip the sleep and potty training phases. My child was already very independent as a preschooler, and so I definitely got more sleep and “me time” following that adoption than when I welcomed my other child as an infant. Connection and bonding will likely take time with your child, and that’s okay. I think, actually, that the challenge makes your child’s progress toward connecting (however slowly it proceeds) that much sweeter because you know how hard-fought it has been. Of course, one of the most powerful benefits of adopting an older child is that you have the opportunity to be a permanent positive influence in that child’s life. Children do better in families than in out of home care, and pursuing older child adoption means that you are giving the gifts of home and family to a child who otherwise would still be waiting.

What resources are available for families who adopt older children?

There are many books that give practical advice and encouragement to parents who adopt older children. I highly recommend Adopting the Hurt Child and Parenting the Hurt Child by Gregory Keck and Regina Kupecky. There are also lots of blogs and articles that you may find helpful after you bring your child home. However, the absolute best resource for you as an adoptive parent is relationships with members of the adoption triad (adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents). Seek out these folks. Listen to their stories, even the hard ones. Ask them questions and solicit advice. Adoption support groups can be an invaluable resource. Online is okay, but in person is infinitely better. Ask your agency, your therapist, or your spiritual leader if they can point you in the direction of a group in your area. If not, see if you can join with a few other families and start your own group. I’ve found that the folks in my foster and adoption village have been great at helping brainstorm suggestions for specific issues I’m having as well as providing a wealth of information about community resources (often free or deeply discounted for adoptive families) and being a safe place to vent when needed. Do not despair. Reach out for the help and support that you need.

Have you adopted an older child? What has your experience been like? What resources or information do you wish you had when you were starting out on your journey?

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Shannon Hicks

Shannon is mom to two amazing kids who joined her family through foster care adoption. She is passionate about advocating for children through her writing and her job as a kindergarten teacher. You can read more from her at Adoption, Grace and Life.


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