The Ugly, the Bad, & the Good... Adopting an Older Child & the Adjustment Phase

Every prospective adoptive parent of an older child must acknowledge that they might be challenged in ways they cannot fully anticipate. Parents should prepare for the worst, keep in mind their humor and the good sense to wait it out, and hope for the best. The challenges may seem overwhelming at times, however, the rewards that follow will be great!

The ugly (side of older child adoptions)…

  • Verbal attacks from others. Things like, “Mail order kid…ha, ha, ha!” “Adopting?! THAT will never work!” “You’re making a BIG mistake” “A black child…?!” “A kid from China?!”
  • Loss of friends. Some friends may slide out of your life. A few family members may not fully accept your child and/or treat them equally in comparison to other children in the family.
  • Lack of support during tough times. People may say things like, “I told you so.” “I’m too busy.” Or, “I thought you WANTED this kid…?!”
  • The ugliest… disruption. In extreme cases, parents may feel that they simply cannot parent the child they adopted, perhaps stemming from not having been fully prepared to undertake the raising of a child from a compromised background. There are some children who may be so damaged from the early trauma of their lives, possibly mixed with biologically based disorders, that make it impossible for them to learn to live in a family.

Even so, regardless of how one comes to parent a child, whether it be to give birth or adopt, the potential for risk and significant problems needing to be addressed exists for any child.

Every family will not deal with the uglier side of adopting an older child, yet most families will deal with one or more of the bad, challenging aspects of their adoption.

The bad…

The adjustment period—the first one to six months (sometimes longer)—that a child lives with a family, can especially be very challenging. Children often arrive anxious, confused, and grief-filled that is in contrast to the new parents’ being well-prepared and emotionally ready to love and cherish their children. These two polar-opposite emotional states can create stress and chaos.

  • Structure & routine (i.e., chores, rules, and consequences for misbehavior) sets the emotional tone for the family. The leading of structured, simple lives helps keep things on an even keel, yet can be annoying because of the need to attend to repetition and mechanics rather than the spontaneity of going with the flow.
  • Adoptive parents often worry when instant (and/or ongoing) love isn’t there for their new child. The connection isn’t there. Parents need to realize that this is not uncommon. Remind yourself that love is a verb – it’s what you do every day to take care of, protect, and nurture your child, that internalizes into feelings of love.

    * Talk to other parents who have been through this so you don’t feel so alone.

    * Create one-on-one time; in spending more time with your child, you discover
    those wonderful abilities and personality traits that you hadn’t yet picked
    up on.

    * Be open to the possibility of post adoption depression that can impact a
    parent’s ability to bond, and could be helped with counseling.

  • To counter behaviors and attitudes related to attachment issues, re-create parts of your child’s babyhood and toddler years through motion, rocking, and touch via actions and activities that encourage laughter, play, eye contact, and cuddling, and create a reciprocal bond of love and respect between parent and child.
  • Some older child adoptive parents may deal with developmental delays and immaturity. Children may act younger than their chronological age (i.e., they may speak at age level, be two years behind socially, and be physically three years behind). For children coming from orphanages, the rule of thumb is one month of delay for each three months spent in the orphanage.
  • The impact of trauma on most older adopted children can stem from numerous scenarios: physical abuse, sexual abuse, loss of birth parents, multiple moves, long-term neglect. Trauma affects learning, attachment, cause and effect, development, and more. Consider:

    * Talking about traumatic events

    * Providing consistent routines

    * Discussing rules and expectations

    * Protecting the child from uncomfortable events

    * Giving choices so that there is the sense of control

  • Older adopted children are known to test the parenting skills of the most sainted parents with challenging behaviors and the need to discipline effectively. Children from challenging backgrounds need to test you, and your ability to keep them safe, as well as your commitment to them as forever parents. Rather than discipline in terms of punishing, most parenting experts now recommend the use of natural consequences (e.g., If you play in your room instead of going to sleep, you’re tired the next day. If you break the dish, you do extra chores to pay for the repair). The giving of warnings cannot be emphasized enough.
  • Keep a positive attitude, and keep your sense of humor, whether it be through the challenging adjustment period or during short-term tough times. Have fun with your children. Create rituals such as weekly movie/pizza nights, annual holiday events, and gatherings. Find times to bike ride together, create family skits, play board games, and just goof around.
  • Over time, there may need to be an adjustment to goals and expectations for the child. Particular hopes and visions may not match who the child is. The need is to parent the child according to who he is, not who he is imagined to be. It’s not a bad fit, just different in the vision of what it is than originally might have been anticipated.

& the good!

In the end, take stock in how your life and that of your family’s have been enriched and the growth inevitably having occurred in your child(ren) simply because of the consistently safe and loving haven you have provided for them. It’s those baby steps that pay off big in the long-run. The challenges may be beyond comprehension, but it is most certainly character building for all if you keep yourself tuned into the needs of your child. Adoptive parents create a plethora of experiences with warm, joyful days to be remembered, even if there have been difficult times as a family. Looking back on how things are (how things have developed) in comparison to earlier times can be awe-inspiring.

Educate yourself. Be committed. Maintain hope. With these, parents will successfully face down the challenging aspects of older child adoption, fully appreciate the good, and love their children with all of their heart.

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