So, you’ve decided to adopt an older child? Great! Depending on the age of your child, you may have dodged the sleep and potty training stages (or maybe not!). Your child may not feel physically dependent on you, but they still need a lot from you. Here are seven gifts that you can give to your older adopted child:
For kids from hard places, safety is paramount. Not only do they need to be kept physically safe, they need to feel safe. Trauma rewires the brain, and kids who experienced early trauma sometimes exhibit signs of being on constant high-alert. For older children, creating felt safety might include things like putting a night light in their room (even if society says they are “too old” for this), ensuring that they have privacy in the bathroom (even if this means that your hygiene standards are not met for a while) and repeated reminders that you are the adult and it is your job to keep them safe.
2. Permission to be a kid
Often children who were adopted at an older age have had to assume a “caretaker” role in their previous placements—watching out for siblings and sometimes even adults. While this creates practical self-sufficiency skills (they may be able to do laundry, prepare bottles, and cook simple meals), it also means that they did not have the opportunity to experience the carefree nature of childhood. Let your kids be kids. Give them time to splash in the pool and climb trees, to play board games and dress up. Playing may feel like a skill that needs to be learned. That’s okay. It’s one that will serve them well for their whole lives.
Connection and bonding don’t always happen overnight. For kids who have experienced multiple placements, trust doesn’t come easily. Give them time. Say what you mean. Keep your promises. Always be there. Consider that your child’s chronological age may not match her developmental age and that’s okay. Make accommodations as needed and encourage your child’s development at her own pace. If you are concerned that certain developmental milestones are not being met, talk with an adoption-competent pediatrician or therapist.
For older adopted children, life has usually not been kind. They don’t need you to excuse their behavior, but they do need you to try to understand it. Read everything you can get your hands on about the effects of early trauma on the brain. Talk to other parents who have adopted older children. Find a good therapist. Children may display a variety of challenging behaviors as they adjust to the idea of a permanent family. It’s helpful to remember that most of those behaviors have nothing to do with you as the parent. Don’t patronize, but empathize when you can.
Story is the thread that connects us with our past and gives us hope for the future. As soon as they come home, try to go on some “adventures” with your kids. They don’t have to be big or extravagant. A stomp through the creek or a trip to the ice cream shop totally work. Take pictures if you can. And then tell those stories. Anything that starts with “Remember when we…” is the beginning of a family narrative. Observe or create a few simple family traditions (if it’s appropriate, ask what made Christmas or birthdays fun in previous placements and try to incorporate some of those ideas too). It’s certainly important to acknowledge that your child’s story didn’t start with you, but it’s also appropriate to start building a shared family story right away.
No matter their age, size, or temperament, all kids need affirmation. Find something that they do well (or an area where they have made progress) and make a point to let them see you notice. Spoken words, written notes and text messages all count. Even when life is hectic, even when behaviors are challenging, even when they don’t seem to notice or care, keep speaking kindly to (and about) your children.
7. Safe touch
Older adopted children may have experienced physical or sexual abuse in previous placements. Or, as a result of insecure attachments, they may be indiscriminately affectionate or very resistant to any type of physical affection. One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is the gift of safe touches within appropriate boundaries. Talk to them about what feels comfortable. Tell them that they can always politely refuse physical affection—even from relatives. And do what you can to help them experience safe touches in your home.
Parenting older adopted children can be challenging and exhausting. It can also be incredibly rewarding. Have you adopted an older child? What would you add to this list?