UNICEF estimates that there are about 143 million orphans worldwide. There are 30,000 of these children waiting for forever homes, and they are currently residing in Canadian foster homes. When we talk about adoption, people often immediately envision a newborn baby. Out of the Canadian children awaiting adoption, the vast majority are not infants or even toddlers. According to the Waiting to Belong website, most are between the ages of 6 and 18. So…why are we not talking about adopting older children?
Sometimes older children awaiting adoption have moved through many foster homes, and sometimes they do arrive into adoption with intense behavior issues or remnants of trauma and abuse that are difficult to manage. But as an adoptive parent, I can also attest to the fact that a newborn baby you bring home from the hospital in adoption can suffer the same.
In talking with a specialist for one of our children, my husband and I learned that cellular memory, something relatively new to research and study, can affect children whose mothers were living in adverse conditions during their pregnancy (domestic violence, malnutrition in the birth mother, and extreme stress during the pregnancy are just some examples). Even children adopted as infants can later be diagnosed with conditions such as reactive attachment disorder—a condition that even I felt was not possible when adopting a child as a newborn. While adopting older children can sometimes be seen as difficult or risky, it is time to shift our views and look at the benefits.
Tyler and I have had the opportunity to speak to many, many people who have adopted and who are considering adoption. We have spoken with people from all walks of life. We have spoken to people who have adopted sibling groups, individual children, babies, toddlers, children, teens, and preteens. We have talked to people who have adopted internationally, privately, and through foster care. We have talked with people who have been waiting for a long time, and we have talked with people who are experienced adoptive families. We have talked with stay-at-home moms, professional couples, and retirees who are giving adoption a second look. While Tyler and I have fostered older children, we have never adopted an older child. But I see a common thread through the many conversations we have had and the benefits stick out.
- Older children require a different sort of care than younger children. And this is a benefit for certain people! I have talked to countless potential adoptive families who have felt “past” the baby stage, for example. Perhaps their youngest child is long past infanthood (the number of retirees adopting is on the rise!), and the idea of starting over with baby bottles, diapers, and midnight feedings is just not jiving. To be clear, children of all ages require parental care and adopting an older child does NOT mean you will spend less time parenting, not at all. BUT adopting an older child does mean (unless you are parenting a child with special needs) that you will likely not go back to changing diapers and dealing with spit up. This idea appeals to many people. The orphan community needs people like this, people that are looking past spoon feeding and swaddling. If you are looking to avoid going back to the baby stage, an older child might be the perfect match.
- Older children make a different match. Some people feel they aren’t “baby people.” Even some parents of biological children find that the baby stage is not their favorite. While I have friends who absolutely love the newborn stage with their children, others are great with older children, teens, or pre-teens. It might be the level of activities they can engage in with the parents (hiking, sports, etc). Some people just have a natural gift with certain age groups. Also, it is valuable for people looking for a match to think about adopting at an age group that really works for them because there is such a demand for newborn babies for adoption. Of course, children grow and change, but for people who would rather skip the baby stage, there is a large group of children waiting to be placed.
- Older children are in school during the day (unless you homeschool, like me!). I have talked to some professionals with demanding careers. The desire to adopt is there, but they may be looking at older children due to schedules. This does NOT mean they are emotionally unavailable or unprepared to be there for an adopted child no matter what, but it does mean they recognize, much like the first point, that a newborn baby or toddler does not best suit their lifestyle. There are children waiting for just this type of match!
- Older children know what they want. If you look through photolistings or agency profiles on older children, older children will often talk about knowing they want to be adopted. Their desire to be adopted can almost be heartbreaking; these kids realize that foster care comes to an end, and they realize what they are missing without a forever family. We know that statistically, children who age out of foster care are at a higher risk for drug addiction, homelessness, and incarceration. I have met and talked with older children that feel this clock to aging out ticking down, and they know that they don’t want to be on their own. I remember one girl who desperately wanted out of the group home and back into a real family again. Some of these kids have tasted and seen what living in a family is like. While they may have had some bad experiences, children in foster care in Canada have a say, once they reach the age of 9, in what happens to them. It is no longer a social worker and a judge making all the decisions. Older children are actually consenting to their own adoptions and could actually make the decision to not be adopted if they felt like it. If an older child is asking to be kept on a profile listing that means they know that they want to be adopted.
- Older children have a lot to offer. This is not to say their adoption is in a trade-off for what they can offer you as the adoptive parent. It is to say these are beautiful, worthy children with talents and gifts, with hopes and dreams, who will impact the world in one way or another. If you adopt an older child, you provide a home for a child that has, statistically, less and less of a chance to be adopted every year they get older. You are literally changing the course of a life, and you have no idea how that may impact the world. To raise up any child is to cultivate uniqueness in a human being—no other person on earth will ever be born exactly like that. When you adopt an older child, you really are stepping in at a time when you can watch the child bloom and help them to become the person they were meant to be.
The decision to adopt should never be done lightly. I believe that every prospective adoptive family should do a thorough training program to prepare for the emotional impact of adopting, as well as the potential for attachment disorders and behavioral issues linked to the child being disrupted from his or her first family (every adoption starts with a loss and that should never be forgotten). Such a training program can bring awareness to some of the struggles adoptive families face and may help prevent adoption disruption or dissolution.
I am a huge advocate for adoption, and I love to talk to people about their adoptive journeys. One of my favorite journeys to hear about is the journey of an adoptive child being placed in a loving forever home. While the journey to “home” is different for every adoptee, our older children waiting for matches are worthy, they are valuable, and they are precious. Children of all ages deserve to be adopted, perhaps especially those who have had to wait longer for their forever home.
From waitingtobelong.ca, on children who are waiting to belong to a family, between the ages of 6 and 18:
“Many of these children are considered ‘special needs’ children because of the trauma they have faced, unwanted and uninvited, early in their lives. But they are also:
- “Precious souls, loved by God;
- “Hungry for affection, stability and grace in their lives;
- “Responsive to those who will work with them, patiently teaching and re-teaching the skills these children need to thrive;
- “Sponges who will soak up good nutrition, security, spiritual truth and love;
- “Hearts who need to hear that they are valued, worthy, seen and cared for in ways that matter;
- “Bodies whose physical development can catch up if their emotional, spiritual and mental health needs are adequately addressed;
- “Children in need of what all kids need: a family to call their own, a place to belong!”
Once you have been matched with an older child, transitioning the child to your family will look much different than it would for a newborn baby or young infant. An older child will have friends, school, activities, and perhaps a job they may be leaving behind to meld into your family. It is very important to empathize with these losses. There are so many times when one thing has ended and another has begun, where I have been happy but also a little bit melancholy about the transition. How much more so for a child leaving behind a life in an orphanage or foster care into a forever family. This may be magnified many times for a child that has waited a long time to be adopted or has resided in the same foster home for a long period of time.
Respect their grief at moving on—this does not mean they are regretting being adopted, it only means they are leaving behind good memories and people they made good connections with. Let your child take lead when it comes to how much contact they want to have with people from their past—as long as things are going well and the contact is healthy.
If you feel your newly adopted child is withdrawing from you or is upset enough with the changes that it is affecting their ability to start anew, it is probably time to connect with a therapist trained in helping adoptees. This is a unique circumstance and not every counselor will be knowledgeable in what these kids have gone through in their transitions.
If possible, and if it is good and helpful for your child, arrange Skype sessions with friends from their former community, past caregivers, etc. Allow time for the dust to settle, and don’t plan too much for the first while. How long exactly? Let your child lead. When they start asking about new activities and places to go and things to see, it is time to start branching out. Until then, home days (think pajama pizza parties and family movie nights) are the key to bonding with your newly adopted older time.
Let this be a time of discovery and a time of building up the relationship. Seek to really, really learn about your child: their dislikes and likes, their hopes and dreams, and make a plan for how best you can support them and help them blossom. Encourage them to talk about the hard parts, and how it feels in their experience to be adopted as an older child. Scrapbook together, start a blog, anything you can to make the emotions of the experience tangible.
If you start to butt heads with your older adopted child, don’t panic. There is a honeymoon phase in all adoptions, and it can last a short time or a long time. When the “magic” wears off, you will notice points of contention, irritation with each other, and things that annoy you about each other. And that is okay; that is being human! The key is to remember this is normal and move on in grace and love. Set the example of patience and humility when it comes to mistakes and slip-ups. Ask your child outright how you can help them.
Many people have described their desire to adopt as both scary and thrilling, overwhelming and emotional. The added benefit of adopting an older child is that you are really doing the journey together in a tangible, cognitive way that you cannot with a baby or toddler. The awareness at the magnitude of the situation is not lost on an older child. Make the most of it! THIS will be a journey to remember.
Visit Adoption.com’s photolisting page for children who are ready and waiting to find their forever families. For adoptive parents, please visit our Parent Profiles page where you can create an incredible adoption profile and connect directly with potential birth parents.