Imagine you are a child who’s been in a few different foster homes, and now you’re going to your adoptive home for the first time. Or imagine what it must be like to be a child from a different country who’s just met your adoptive parents for the first time a few days ago, and now, not only are you in a new home, but you’re in a new country too. Most of us cannot even begin to imagine the host of emotions such a child feels—everything from fear to joy to anxiety to hope.
As an adoptive parent, you want to do everything you can to make your older adopted child’s transition to your home as easy and smooth as it can be. Here are some ideas on how you can help your older adoptee feel at home and part of your family.
Learn as Much as You Can Beforehand
If it’s possible, talk to the adoption agency or your adoption professional to learn as much as you can about your adoptive child before he or she comes home with you. Of course, the ideal situation would be that you meet your adoptive child before he or she is placed with you, but that isn’t always possible. If you do meet your adoptive child, ask him or her about his or her likes, dislikes, hobbies, and favorites such as favorite color, food, and animal. Try to learn what you can about your adoptive child without completely bombarding him or her with questions—this can be overwhelming to some children.
If you learn that your adoptive child likes stuffed animals, you could purchase a couple to give him or her when he or she arrives at your home. If you learn that your child’s favorite food is pizza, you could plan to have his or her favorite kind of pizza for dinner the first night in your home.
If you are adopting a child from another country, you can begin to get to know his or her likes and dislikes right away while you’re traveling back home. If you learn that your child really loves the color blue, you could get a friend or family member to purchase a few accent pieces or a set of sheets in that color for your child’s room. If your loved one has a key to your home, you could give them permission to put the pieces in your child’s room to surprise your child when you get home.
Nurture Interests, Hobbies, and Talents
Sadly, many older children who have been in the foster system may not have been given an opportunity to explore and enjoy their interests, hobbies, or talents. Learn what your child enjoys doing and nurture that.
For instance, if your child likes art, you could encourage him or her to paint, draw, and sketch. Spend time doing arts and crafts with him or her. Go on outings to art galleries or the art museum. Providing your child with opportunities to do what he or she enjoys shows that you care and that you’re interested in what interests and inspires him or her. It’s a wonderful way to bond and build upon your parent-child relationship.
Include your adoptive child in family life from the start. You probably don’t want to give your child a bunch of chores to do right off the bat, but giving him or her a simple chore or two to do can help him or her feel part of the family. It gives the child the opportunity to contribute to the family like all other members. You could have your child set the table for dinner, for instance, or help you prepare lunch.
If you have a family movie night or game night, allow your child to help decide what movie you watch or what games you play. When you go out to eat, allow your child input on where you’ll go. Your child will feel valued when you take his or her preferences and opinions into consideration.
Designate a Space
Designate a space that is truly just for your child. This will likely be your child’s bedroom. Before your child comes home, learn a little about his or her preferences if possible. You could start decorating your child’s room before he or she comes home and finish it together after your child arrives. Shopping for sheets, blankets, and decorative items provides an opportunity to bond. Allow your child to choose a paint color for the walls. Hang photos that your child likes on the walls. As you decorate the room together, you’ll get to learn a lot about the things your child likes and doesn’t like. Allowing your child to have input into what his or her room looks like can help your child feel that you love and care about him or her and what he or she wants.
If you can, you might want to work part-time or work remotely at home for the first several months after your older adoptive child is placed in your home. Of course, this isn’t an option for a lot of parents. If it’s not an option, be as available as you can be to your child when you are home. This might mean stepping away or saying no to other commitments. Your child needs to learn that he or she can trust and depend on you; this often takes longer with older children than it does with younger children.
Display Family Pictures
Take photos of your child often. Have others take photos of you as a family when you’re out. You could even go to a photography studio and have some family photos taken. Print out your favorite photos and display them along with other photos of your loved ones on your mantel or on your walls. Digital photos are great, but there’s nothing quite like displaying photos of your loved ones in your home.
You can also make your child feel loved and appreciated by displaying his or her artwork. Put the pictures he or she colors on your fridge. Display art projects when your child brings them home from school.
Introduce Your Child to Family and Friends
It’s best not to have a big party shortly after you bring your child home (as much as you may want to introduce him or her to everyone you love). Start by inviting one or two loved ones over and introducing your child to them. Try to make it a casual and fun experience so it doesn’t overwhelm your child. Progressively introduce more loved ones to your child at a time.
After several months, you might want to have a larger gathering or party to celebrate your child. Ideally, you will have already introduced your child to everyone at the party so that he or she isn’t overwhelmed by a bunch of people he or she doesn’t know.
Talk to your child about having a party beforehand. Ask him or her if he or she is ready for a larger gathering. If your child is ready, allow him or her to have input on the party. What kind of refreshments would he or she like? What theme does he or she prefer? Who would he or she like to invite? Does he or she have any friends from school to be invited to the party?
Encourage your child to be open and honest with his or her thoughts and feelings. Be prepared for a host of emotions—anger, sadness, confusion, hope, and guilt, for instance. Be prepared for hurtful comments. It is natural for an older child to be confused, upset, sad, or angry when he or she initially enters your home. Allowing your child to express himself or herself without reacting to hurtful comments will show your child that he or she can talk with you no matter the emotion and facilitate open communication.
Your child may come into your family with some behaviors you don’t like or that seem unacceptable such as using foul language, chewing with his or her mouth open, or physically lashing out at you when he or she is upset. Don’t try to change all of your child’s undesirable behaviors right away.
Prioritize which behaviors need to be addressed right away such as those that put you, your child, or other family members in harm’s way, and work on those. You can work on one or two behaviors at a time over a long span of time. Be patient and show your child unconditional love and acceptance.
Don’t take your child’s behavior or comments personally. It is common for children to misbehave or lash out after experiencing trauma or being in the foster system. Reassure your child that you love him or her even when you do not like his or her behavior.
Give Alone Time
Allow your child to have some alone time when he or she needs it. Respect his or her privacy by knocking on the door before you enter his or her bedroom and respect privacy by not reading your child’s diary or journal if he or she keeps one. Try to balance family bonding time with alone time.
Include Familiar Food
What your child is used to eating may not be what you typically serve. If it’s possible, try to include familiar food in each meal while your child is adjusting to your home. If your child had limited access to food, he or she might worry that he or she will go hungry. Have snacks readily available for your child to eat any time he or she wants to. Knowing that he or she will have access to food will help your child feel more secure in your home.
Remember that older children have likely experienced childhood trauma. They may have spent time in situations where uncertainty, inconsistency, neglect, or abuse were common. For this reason, your older adoptive child may engage in destructive, self-harming, or disruptive behaviors. It will likely take your child a while before he or she trusts you. It may be a while before he or she shows you affection. Be consistent and be patient.
You don’t need to have a strict schedule to provide your child with consistency. Consistency can be eating meals around the same time every day. It can be having a snack, then doing homework, then eating dinner, then playing until it’s time for bed after your child comes home from school. It could be as simple as a regular family game or movie night. Consistency helps your child feel safe and secure and helps him or her learn that he or she can trust you.
Let Your Child Be a Kid
Your child may not have had opportunities to be a child and enjoy his or her childhood up to this point. Your child may have been expected to take on more responsibilities than a child should have to such as being a caretaker for younger siblings. Unstable and uncertain situations or environments where your child was neglected or abused also wouldn’t have allowed your child to experience the joys of childhood.
Your older child may find enjoyment in doing things younger children like such as playing with dolls or toy cars or soldiers. He or she may like cuddling up with you to look through picture books. Meet your child where he or she is, and don’t try to force him or her to “act their age.” Let your child experience the joys of childhood he or she has missed out on.
Adopting an older child is a wonderful thing to do. You’re giving a child a second chance, a safe and stable home, and a loving family. The adjustment period will most certainly have its challenges for you and your child. Showing your child unconditional love, acceptance, and consistency will go a long way to helping him or her feel safe and secure in your home. With time, a lot of love, patience, and compassion, your child will learn that he or she can trust you and that your home is their home, too.