Older Child Adoption | What I Would Have Done Differently

For various reasons, the three older kids are not living at home. One wants to return, the other two are desperately trying to find their wings so that they can fly the nest for good. With more mental margin than I’ve had in years, I’ve been reflecting over our experience of adopting older kids and what I would have done differently.

older child Adoption

I would have reacted less and prayed more. Fear often caused me to take a present conflict and play its worst possible scenario to completion in the future. My imagination made me frantic. In hindsight, the things that threw me off my rocker 3 years ago were not as dramatic as they felt at the time, but we tend to be fixers. When two of the kids weren’t on talking terms, we sat them down and cajoled and explained and lectured and cajoled some more into putting their differences aside. We desperately wanted them to heed our parental words of wisdom. What a waste of time. In their world, parents didn’t have the right to meddle in such things, and we certainly hadn’t earned the right to be heard. They worked it out in God’s and their own time…not ours. If it happened now, I would address it but much more succinctly and without all the expectations.

I would have reacted less and prayed more. #olderchildadoption Click To Tweet

Speaking of which, I would have had lower expectations and more radical acceptance. I would not be so hurt when we went out of our way to love a kid well, and it was either rejected or radically underappreciated. I would expect the restlessness that causes a child who has been excited about an event for months to ask 15 minutes into it to go home. I wouldn’t have ruined so many events for myself trying to get them to engage. I would’ve made my invitation and left it hanging without the coaxing and deal making and threats of consequences. I also would have more acceptance about how drastically trauma affects a person’s ability to learn.

I would have had lower expectations and more radical acceptance. #olderchildadoption Click To Tweet

Lower expectations also would have helped me realize earlier how much time adjustment can take. We’re talking years, people, not weeks or months. Maybe even double digit years. I kind of chuckle when I read posts from families that read, “My child does xyz still! We’ve been home for 6 months!!”

I would have come to terms with the nature of their attachment disorder sooner and taken their rejections of me less personally. It doesn’t matter than I’m capable of teaching students how to read, they are incapable of learning from me because of their hypervigilance around a primary attachment figure. Heck, they may be incapable of being around me for longer than minutes at a time let alone learning. Recognizing their skittishness and the reasons behind it may have caused me to tread a little lighter relationally than expecting them to accept my cultural expectation of how I should be able to interact with them or how I can relate to my neurotypical kids.

It take them years, not weeks or even months to adjust. #olderchildadoption Click To Tweet

I would have dug deeper for more patience to let them learn lessons about their world view the hard way. I would not have expected them to take our word for anything. In their eyes, only doctors have the right to give health advice, only pastors give spiritual advice, only “real” teachers correct grammar, and parents leave you alone unless they are giving you something or doing something for you. Still want to mail $60 in cash after an admonition not to? Sure. Want to ignore rules about capitalization and assume your job application will always be accepted? Sure. Want to try that tone of voice with a boss? Sure. Want to assume someone will always read for you? Sure. Want to waste your money buying fast food because you assume your institutional food is worse than the next college kid? Sure.

I would have pushed for as many diagnoses as possible. #olderchildadoption Click To Tweet

Lastly, on a really pragmatic level, I would have done neuropsych testing earlier and pushed for as many diagnoses as possible. I know this subject can be controversial, so you can take or leave this one. We started starry-eyed and optimistic and a little anti-diagnosis. After all, trauma causes symptoms that look like a dozen alphabet soup diagnoses AND once their trauma was dealt with, the other behavioral and mental symptoms would resolve AND their testing wouldn’t necessarily define their potential AND, AND, AND. I get it. But you know what? Regardless of the fact that a 13-year-old may not be catching up quickly due to anxiety due to attachment issues, or a 15-year-old is socially awkward due to cultural and language barriers, they still need services to address the current state of affairs. And services are only available to kids with diagnoses…and specific diagnoses at that. In our state RAD, PTSD, generalized anxiety, and ELL don’t count, but Autism (anywhere on the spectrum) does. Explaining away a reading level deficit of over a half dozen years because of “lack of exposure” will not get her caught up, but a cognitive learning impairment diagnosis might. Honestly, play the system. Don’t get too wrapped up into your child’s identity and a diagnosis. The diagnosis does not redefine who your child is, but it is the path to help. Until there are services that actually meet our kids from hard places where they are, we need to do the best we can do get help with what is available. You need to baseline test them as soon as possible once they’re home, and then do follow up testing a year or two later to nail down a diagnosis. With older kids, you do not have the luxury of waiting to see what happens, because by the time you wait out the generally accepted 3 to 5 years to adjust and assimilate a new language, they will be 18+, and you will not longer be able to get them the help they need.

If you’ve adopted older kids, what would you have done differently?

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17 Comments

  1. So glad that I stumbled upon this post. My hubby and I are adopting siblings, but have been houseparents and had long term relationships with some of the kids that we have had in care. We have had such varying experience over the years, that when we talk about our very real fears of struggling through the first couple years of a new adoption, our friends look at us like we are crazy. All of our friends just feel like we are going to bring these kiddos in our life and it will take a few months and then all of sudden we will have perfect, appreciative, respectful children. When you were writing about the amount of years that it takes to see real change in the life of a child, it was so on point with the experience that we have had. We are so excited about growing our family, but it was very refreshing to hear a balanced viewpoint.

    • Jennifer,
      I’m glad you found us! We had a lot of experience with teens before adopting…although not as houseparents. It’s just so different when YOU’RE the parent. Many prayers as you walk this journey with your kiddos. Stop back if you ever need to connect or feel like you need a dose of sanity!

  2. Honestly, I would not have adopted. My experience was horrible. If I ever chose to do this again, I will try to adopt a four or five year old.

    • Maurice,

      I’m so sorry it’s been such a horrible experience for you. Having also adopted a younger child and networking with folks who have adopted all ages, it’s not necessarily easier or “better” with younger children.

  3. Powerful read… I agree with you on most points. I would started parenting based on all of the rules and regulations which she was accustomed to at the group home. I gave her too much freedom too soon and she was 16 in years, but was not mature enough to handle the freedom and privileges I afforded her.

    I would have reacted more because I took all of her actions as “trying me” and didn’t react at all and I think she interpreted my lack of reaction as a lack of care for her.

    I would have. even clearer about her emotional age earlier in order to prepare to parent her based on same vs her physical age.

    I would have given her fewer options and managed her in a way that met my needs as well as hers. I would have used the same language I use at work, “No, that’s not going to work for me”, “That is not required” “That is not the best use of my time”, etc.; so that she was aware that I also mattered and was clear that it was not ALL about her. This would have preserved my sanity and control.

    She was removed from my home after a month, based on her behavior. Behavior that I didn’t react to, so it escalated and resulted in a failed attempt. And I stood by and let tgat happen. I expected her to self manage/regulate after seeing that I would not judge her or send her bavk as a reult of acting out. And often warned her that her actions have consequences beyond my control. She kept playing with me until she eventually played herself. I was equally saddened and releived when she left. Maybe a bit more saddened than relieved, but not much more.

    I am now a CASA/GAL and trying to help kids in care from a different angle and reassessing if adoption of a teenage girl as a single professional woman is right for me. We’ll see…

    • Elle,
      I was just having a conversation with someone about how I wish we had structured our home more like an institution when our kids first came home. It’s what they were used to and I think going from institution to family plus the language and country switch was a complete shock to their system which had serious backlash. Not sure if starting like an institution and then slowly moving more toward healthy family life would have worked, but we had going wasn’t a great option either.

  4. And not just older child, but transracial/international adoption issues are at play here as well. That’s a piece that is often overlooked in adoption and adds another layer of complexity.

  5. Every single point in your post, except the diagnosis part, I am living. I wish I had seen this before we ever brought our son home over three years ago. I am the person to whom all rejection is aimed, and it has been a hard, hard road. What would I have done differently? Do you have all day?? In truth, however, knowing what we know now, being completely blunt, we would not have adopted a teenager or out of birth order.

    • Monique, I’ll have to think on that! My gut is that it would be summed up as, “I was willing to see what I was doing wrong and do my best to fix it!”

      • oh, dearheart! DO share what you feel you did right, and also ask what others CLOSE to you feel you’ve done well! I bet you’ll be floored…. we are our own worst critics! But, oh, how I love you share the raw truth. Thank you for that! <3

        • Debbie,
          Prayers for your family and your heart. You are not alone. We also adopted teens out of birth order. We never dreamed how hard this road would be or how hard it would be to watch the rest of our friends and family walk it with us.

  6. Thanks for posting. I would have sought sacred time for self care and reflection. Caregiver fatigue has definitely played a part in my outlook, patience, and resilience.

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