Does Older Child Adoption Equal Special Needs?

Like many things, the idea of "special needs" is a spectrum.

Elizabeth Curry July 27, 2016
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All too often, when people new to adoption hear the term ‘special needs,’ they think of a child needing surgeries, therapies, and intensive parental care. It can be a scary term. So if I were to then assert that adopting any older child (and for our purposes here, that will be any child out of infancy), should be considered a “special needs adoption,” most people would likely disagree immediately. It would appear that the facts would not support my statement. Not all children adopted after babyhood are medically complex children. Yet I do believe that all older child adoption should be considered special needs, though we need a definition of special needs that is a bit broader.

“Special needs” should merely be a descriptive term for someone who needs a little more grace and little more time to reach their very best. Like many things, the idea of special needs is a spectrum. On one end, you do have the medically complex children, requiring extensive medical treatment and who will probably always need outside support. On the other end are apparently healthy children who, because of a change in circumstance or past trauma or some combination, need emotional support to flourish. I do not believe there is a case where an older child has been adopted (domestically or internationally) and has fit seamlessly into the new family without at least temporary accommodation made during the transition. The emotional challenges of fitting into and navigating a new family are too great.

What are some ways that older adoptees will be challenged?

  • Love takes time. Any new adoptive parents who say their child, home just a few weeks, has attached well, do not yet understand the complexities of love and attachment. Love, deep and committed love, can only be developed over time. It is a matter of getting to know each other, of learning whether these people can be trusted in all situations, of feeling safe to show the bad stuff we all have lurking inside of us. And all too often, we forget to tell the adoptive parents that their love for their new child will take time as well. It often takes months or even years to experience the emotional feelings of love and to really know your child.
  • Adoption involves loss, and loss means trauma. All children who have been adopted have experienced trauma. Not all will be severely affected by this trauma, but it is there. Others will be so affected that the need for therapy and interventions, if they can be found, may overwhelm a family. Also, a child who does not seem today to be affected at all by past losses, can wake up tomorrow and be overwhelmed with grief and loss. Emotional needs can be just as painful and debilitating as physical ones, except that they cannot be seen. I can tell you that dealing with the wounds from surgery is so much easier than dealing with invisible wounds which cannot be seen but are every bit as painful.
  • Learning a new culture is exhausting. For international adoptees, the changes in culture are obvious . . . foods, smells, language, social expectations . . . the list goes on and on. Obviously the more significant the change, the longer it will take to be comfortable with the new situation. In the meantime, the process of enculturation will feel overwhelming and be a constant companion to the child and family for quite some time. Even in domestic adoptions, older children will need to learn the culture of the new family. If there is a socio-economic change, the differences in cultures could be as great as for an international adoptee, even down to language usage. In many ways, the child is being asked to change who they are. It is not a small task, nor one to take lightly.

Some people don’t like the term “special needs,” because it seems to put a stigma onto adoptees, as if being an adoptee means there is something wrong with you.  Perhaps we do need a different term, one that gives us permission to cut our new (and sometimes not-so-new) children a little slack. A term that reminds us of the enormous task that we have asked our children to undertake. A term that allows us and our children the time and room to adjust to each other and fall in love. I don’t know what that term would be, but if we can find it, I would suggest using it in a broader context. Because, if you go back and read my definition, couldn’t we all qualify as special needs? All of us struggle with one thing or another. Some of those struggles are significant and touch every aspect of our lives, and others are smaller irritations that only bother us occasionally. If raising five special needs children has taught me anything, it is that none of us is perfect. We can all use special consideration every now and then. We can all use a little extra space and time to get where we are going. We can all use a whole lot of grace.

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Elizabeth Curry

Elizabeth Curry is mother to 12 children, five of whom were adopted: two from Vietnam and three from China. She hopes that by sharing the experiences of her family she can encourage others in the trenches. When she is not taking care of children, Elizabeth writes, home schools, sews, teaches piano, and loves reading. You can follow along with her loud and crazy life at her blog, Ordinary Time.


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