What not to do in older child adoption

Photo courtesy of Rawich / Freedigitalphotos.net

Our journey to and through trust-based parenting has been one mostly in the trenches. That’s the fancy way of saying we learned what we know the hard way.

Here are my top 10 mistakes:

  1. Do not dis your child’s country of origin…ever. Or at least not until they develop a sense of humor. We adore Ethiopia but the truth is that it’s polluted and smoggy with an unmistakable diesel-mixed-with-raw-sewage smell, and they teach weird, backward things in health class. It will not build trust in your child to look incredulously at them when they tell you their health teacher taught them eating ice will give you tonsillitis or that Michael Jackson turned white because he had his skin turned inside out. Instead, take the higher road. Calmly state, “That’s interesting. What else did you learn in <insert country of origin>?”
  2. Do not minimize felt discomfort. We respected their boundaries pretty well for the first 3 months. Then the honeymoon ended and so did my patience. Instead of honoring the fact that eye contact felt weird or that hearing the words “I love you” (even between two other people) were like nails on a chalkboard, we verbalized how ridiculous they were acting. We probably should have tried “I wonder why ‘I love you’ makes you so uncomfortable?” (and been okay with a non-answer) when we really said, “That’s unhealthy. What are you going to do when you get married?…Nope, you won’t find a husband that’s okay with never saying those words. No really. Not going to happen. Ever. And that’s why you’re still in therapy, since you asked yesterday.”
  3. Do not build expectations based around age. I wish we had established early on that we would make decisions and create expectations around currently exhibited skills. I love the way my friend, Alex, uses language such as, “Your behavior is communicating to me that you don’t feel safe enough or able to <insert something like ‘make your own food decisions’ here>. Let me help you this time and we’ll try again another time.” My tendency has been to frustratingly point out that kids their age should be able to follow a 2 step direction or copy a paragraph with minimal mistakes. We’ve also used words like “catch up” and “act like a big girl/boy” and “you SHOULD know that.” Bad ideas…even when your teenager showers with the shower curtain all.the.way open with no rug on the floor because the rug was hanging on the rod which, of course, made the curtain impossible to close.
  4. Do not minimize fears. As a really pragmatic person, this is so hard for me. It’s hard when my teenage, sleep-walking daughter demands to be on the top bunk. My logical self exasperatingly says, “Too bad! It is NOT SAFE for you to be on the top bunk.” When I find out it’s because she’s more susceptible to monsters on the bottom bunk, I have a hard time keeping a straight face and/or not telling her to GET. OVER. IT!
  5. Do not push their buttons in return. These kids are button-pushing geniuses. Apparently so am I. Take it from an expert…retaliation is counterproductive no matter how good it feels. Withholding those necessary “yesses” also not helpful. Please tell me I’m not the only one who struggles with joyful yesses.
  6. Do not assume anything. The attitude-y body language drives me nuts just like the next mom, but when they totally deny it…ERRRG. I’ve actually come to the conclusion that they are usually completely clueless to how they come across. So all those redos and lectures about such behavior…totally lost and probably caused loads of relational damage since the accused parties honest-to-goodness think they are innocent.
  7. Do not use sarcasm or figurative speech. It’s getting lost in translation. Even worse, it’s being taken literally.
  8. Do not engage with a dysregulated child. It’s all lies and nonsense meant to push buttons. I’ve wasted many words on battling such verbal diarrhea which has escalated us to both the hospital and police station. Don’t be us. Save your breath. Just stay calm and close and grasp for straws.
  9. Do not overshare. At least not to everyone or with specific names. This is probably the only valid reason for adopting multiple older kids at once. My crazy story can apply to any of four kids. Find a few trusted friends and a secret FB group. The fact that my family’s still intact and moving toward emotional health (so our therapist says) despite my constant battle with oversharing is evidence of miracles and God’s unending mercy. Don’t isolate yourself, but protect your kids. It’s the Catch 22 of parenting kids from hard places.
  10. Do not use consequences that are not directly linkable to the actions. Taking away electronics for mouthiness is translated, “They didn’t really want me to have a <insert device here> anyway. <insert self-defeatism> They can have it.” At least that’s how it goes in my house. Kids that have been traumatized and/or grew up with nothing cannot be motivated by lost privileges. They just adapt and it further reinforces that no one will ever love them.

Ten seems like an appropriate stopping point. Anything else I should avoid with my kids adopted as teens?

Posted in Adoption and Orphan Care and tagged , .


  1. wow. um. can i suggest that ALL of these apply (yes, all of them) to a child adopted at 14 months old? And a child adopted at 4 1/2 years old? I see your head nodding in my imagination, so I’m going to go ahead and make that suggestion — um… statement. I hurt and flinched and winced as I read from my own experiences. Our adopted kids’ desperate need to FEEL FELT far surpasses the “labor” of cleaning up a wet floor. I am so guilty of past shame-labor. Where I have them ‘clean up their mess’ because they should have known better. But, we are, connected-ly and nurturing-ly addressing our parenting tendencies (to aim corrected behavior) to become more merciful, more gentle. Less sarcastic. “God help us give ourselves to YOU so we give less of ourSELVES to them… MORE OF YOU!! Amen.”

Comments are closed.