A Q&A On Adopting The “Older Child”
I, along with some other adoptive mamas, sat down to answer some really great questions about Adoption – specifically, adopting an “older child.” See below.
Amanda: In the US when adopting an older child from the foster system you often times have to battle a very very hard road with behavior problems. They just aren’t used to it and rebel pretty hard. Its the main reason we decided to opt out of fostering. Anyways, is it the same way with international older child adoption?
Ashley: Amanda, this is a GREAT question. I think it’s one of the ones that scare most of us enough to consider NOT adopting an older child.
The truth is that in order to become an orphan, you have to go through some pretty hard circumstances. Whether it’s Ethiopia or Ukraine or America (or anywhere else), hard backgrounds are still… hard.
We were told that Ethiopia would be EASIER than Europe… and, I really can’t speak much to that as I REALLY think it depends on your child – their personality, how they deal with things, their history, YOUR personalities and family dynamics, your support system, etc. There ARE, however, some different things you will face that vary with each country (some countries have more drug use (FAS or doping kids up), etc.)
Will there be some behavioral issues? Probably. What will they be? How hard will it be? I think that will all depend on the things I listed above. Some kids come home and do AMAZINGLY well. Others? It takes time, therapy, and a whole lot of love and grace.
I’m not one to sugar-coat or totally doom-and-gloom it, so here’s my straight answer:
Adoption was never meant to be EASY. It was meant to get messy. It’s about amazing grace and redeeming love. It’s also beautiful. One of the things we were told in the beginning is that ALL adoptions are special needs adoptions… ALL of them. You may not SEE the hurt, but it’s there in some way. Even in the babies… So, I guess the question is… Why do you want to adopt? If you want to do it because you feel God is leading you here or because you believe that even older kids DESERVE to have a family, then great. If you’re doing it because it seems like a nice thing to do or you thought it’d be fun, you should probably rethink things a little Determination and a lot of love and mercy (and God) can get you through anything.
While I don’t get all glitter-eyed at Karyn Purvis as some do, she does make a great point in her book, The Connected Child. She says our children have:
the trust and bonding needs of an infant
the independence needs of a two-year old
the shame issues of a three year old
the concrete thinking of a four year old
the reasoning skills of a five year old
the street smarts of a sixteen year old
all wrapped up in the body of an eight year old.
And, I think this is a GREAT illustration. (Her book has some other great insights as well, it’s worth the read.) Most of these kids just need a chance. It may be hard, but it’ll be worth it. And, healing often comes.
Shannon: I believe that anytime a child has suffered trauma and heartbreak (like losing their family) there will be behavior problems. It is a battle. Their behavior is often a symptom or expression of their grief. It is so important to remember what you are fighting…..not against the symptom, but for redemption for their broken heart. Hard, hard stuff! I thought I was a patient person until we began dealing with this.
Kelly: Yes, that’s a problem. I would not adopt an older US child unless I knew the child well already. I’m not equipped to deal with the behavior issues. I don’t think you can answer that question for all international children. Different countries deal with kids differently. I read about Ethiopia and saw they don’t have the behavior issues some other countries do.
Meredith: Not necessarily for all kids. A lot of it will depend on the child’s previous life experiences. Our 16 year old daughter who was adopted at age 15 has never even come close to that, nor has she ever rebelled (home 5 months now). She has her own personality with a good head on her shoulders. She has a good work ethic and wants to excel in every way possible. We feel extremely lucky with her.
Brandi: The behavior problems from my older 2 children (adopted from foster care) have been substantial due to neglect and abuse. They both have RAD (inhibited and disinhibited), therefore it is a struggle. With “J” (adopted from Ethiopia), we were TERRIFIED of him being institutionalized (another dimension of behavior issues) because of his tremendous loss and grief. Loss of his family, loss of his orphanage, meeting of us….loss of us for 15 mths…watching his friends come and go with their families and him never leaving. I just prayed and prayed because I didn’t feel like I could do it again. I was blessed to have someone to look after him while we were gone, but she said that she saw him change from tearful and sad to stone cold when kids would leave. The Lord chose to bless us tremendously when we finally met again, after 15 mths. He not only remembered us, but he has had NO issues, at all with behavior. It is completely and utterly different.
Deanna: I would be interested in experiences parents have had putting their kids in public school. Some put them in immediately, some after 6-12 months and some longer. For kids in each age bracket(4-7, 8-12, and 13 and over), what did people do and what was their experience like?
Brandi: PS or private school has been a nightmare for 12 and 9 yr old. Their behavior problems were difficult to control and their anxiety was tremendous. That and daily threats from bio family. Also, our daughter “played” people really well. She is a severe attention seeker and would do anything to disrupt class, so behavior was the main factor in them not succeeding in PS or private school. Daniel has had severe learning disabilities and he sort of fell through the cracks because he wasn’t severe enough to warrant help and he was placed in main stream classes where he failed at everything he touched. It was a nightmare. We were forced to put them in school immediately upon them living with us. We had a weekend to change schools. It was awful.
For “J”, within the community we live, will not enter into PS because of race. He is about a year behind a “normal” child and he is doing well. We are 99% white and 1% other in our community.
Shannon: We homeschool our children. I believe it has been especially important for our son who came home when he was 4. Spending the time to teach him has given me important insight into his struggles, weaknesses, and strengths. I am able to immediately (well, most of the time:) address issues that arise. Some of these issues are so complicated, it is so important that their teacher understand what he/she is dealing with.
Kelly: Empowered to Connect’s Karen Purvis says one month at home out of school for every year of life. I think that’s a good measure. So for “K,” that would be a full year before putting her in school.
Meredith: All of ours are in public school. ages, 3 (daycare), 7 (1st grade), 16 (9th grade). The younger 2 came home late April. We cocooned them for 30 days, strict. We had family watch them when I returned to work and when school started Aug 1st we sent the 7 year old to school. We picked a small school that we were familiar with. I met with the Principle in May right after my younger 2 came home. He met them and heard my plans for their education. I expressed that my concerns for the 1st year was not for her to excel in the classroom. It was to learn the language, become more socially appropriate and adjust to her new life here. He agreed. Her 1st grade teacher has been AMAZING with her. We tailor her learning. So instead of spelling test, we do letter test, number tests. She works with the teacher one on one a lot or is paired with a partner to assist her. Her homework was slightly changed to meet her level of learning.
Our oldest came home at age 15. She was home for 3 1/2 weeks before she started 9th grade. She told us when she was ready. We planned on after 30 days but she wanted to start just a little sooner. She attends the same school as the 7 year old. It is a k-12 school (it is public!) Same situation, the principle knew us, was aware she was going to be starting. She spoke some english (3 grade level). All her teachers were prepped for her and our expectations for her: To attend class, participate and interact with her peers. We had NO expectations for her to pass her classes right now and if that it was they expected out of her they were asking too much. We struggled with the amount of homework she had. It wasn’t alot, it was time consuming for us. She did homework from 4-10pm every night. Failure is not an option for her. We met with her teachers 6weeks in and discussed our concerns regarding how much we worked with her….and I mean we sat with her for ALL her homework. It took, talking, re wording to help her understand. We audio recorded her at one point for them to hear what exactly we had to do with her. Things were good before, but they got much better after that. They changed her assignments to tailor her learning. Some of her test were given orally. Her verbal language is better than written. We talk to her teachers on a weekly basis and sometimes daily pending what is going on for the week. We also talked to them about what changes our child is going through and in reality, school doesn’t matter THAT much in the grand scheme of things.
As a parent for an international older child you HAVE to be involved in their education. You are their advocate! You may have to be their resource and ideas to help foster your child’s learning. You know your child better than anyone. You have to help the teachers understand your child.
Ashley: We looked at both private and public schools right after our son came home. However, because it is almost mid-year, we were looking at not only starting him behind in grades, but also behind in the year. Also, many of the local schools here are not very familiar with older child adoptions of non-speaking children who have never been in school. After talking to principals and school systems, we only felt comfortable with one school –however, they were full for this year. After a LOT of prayer and deliberation, we decided to homeschool him. (We homeschool our other children, but felt that if we could find a school that would truly work with us and was experienced in helping children who were behind and non-
Deanna: Also, how long to cocoon and does it matter on the age group? For example, do you cocoon more or less for 13 and over than for 4-7 or 8-12 ages?
Sara: How you cocoon and how long you cocoon often depend on the child, the parents, the family makeup, and your situation. The reason for cocooning is to encourage attachments to form and often we need to clear our schedules to allow this to happen and to encourage it to happen. Being out and about can often be overwhelming and overstimulating for a child coming home regardless of their age. There are so many situations that may be so different/overwhelming/strange that are hard to explain, especially when language is a struggle. By keeping a world small it gives you opportunities to begin to build trust (both ways) so that when you venture out you have some idea of how your child might respond (though it can still be unpredictable). It also gives your child a chance to learn that they can trust you to keep them safe and provide for their needs rather than shop around for someone who will when they venture out. This is important regardless of the age of your child, though there can be unique challenges regardless if your child is 4 or 13. It is important to remember that once your child comes home many experiences will be stressful and overwhelming and cocooning creates a safe place for a child to learn to relax as they learn how to navigate a new world and family.
Shannon: We “cocooned” with our children for 6 weeks, and then gradually worked our way back to to life….small crowds, short amounts of time, etc. We had to be very diligent with our son especially who loved to jump into other peoples’ laps, climb on them, and “perform” for their approval.
Kelly: I don’t know for this. I’m thinking for smaller children and babies, it needs to be longer. The house and family are a big world for them (remember how everything seemed so much smaller when you grew up? They are content with that world). K wanted to ride around and explore, but she obviously did not want much “company.” People coming over seemed like invaders to her.
Meredith: We cocooned for 1 month strict for all of them (ages 3, 7 and 16). Our 16 year was able to verbalize how much that helped her. In her words, everything is different, sights, smells, lights, temperature, food, having parents, a home, a room to herself verses sharing a room with 4+ kids, a bed. When we narrowed her environment she adjusted well, felt safe. She said going out of the house once a week was enough for her. Any more was overwhelming and made her anxious. She would wear ear phones to help her focus in. She did this for almost 2 months. We learned to read her.
The 7 year old had MAJOR MAJOR MAJOR fear of abandonment issues, social anxiety causing her to vomit. EVERY DAY, several times a day for 4 1/2 months! (I promise this was the longest 4 1/2 months of my life) Besides being with family after I went back to work, she went NO WHERE! And if we did go out to church, she stayed with us the whole time.
My 3 year old is a different personality. He never cared. He attached to us quickly and he was fine as long as he had me. He did cry when I would leave for work but was appropriate.
Brandi: Cocooning is vital. With G and D, we didn’t and I regret that because she was not able to distinguish between us and anyone else because they had had so many caregivers. She would go to anyone and because they were “cute” everyone tried to meet their needs. This has aided in her RAD (reactive attachment disorders) behaviors. We truly did her, at a least, a disservice by not hiding out for a while.
With J, we went to church the Sunday after he got home, but we stayed home the rest of the time. When I left, he went with me. I was his soul caregiver and our bond is extremely tight and secure. We are the only ones that he comes too for needs, though he called every woman “mommy” for a long time. That is understandable, so when he would do that, I would have teachers, family, friends, etc tell him who mommy was and who they were. It helped with his confusion.
Ashley: Cocooning has been huge for us as well. We began with staying ONLY at home. We didn’t feel like he truly grasped that not everyone was “mommy” and “daddy.” We asked folks to not visit, and we didn’t go out for the first week or two. After about two weeks home, we tried grocery shopping with him. He had been doing well, and we were kind of curious as to how he’d do. So, with a very tiny list, we went forward. We knew we may have to drop the list and run out of the store and we were okay with that possibility. We went in for maybe 7 items, and then left. He did GREAT. After that, we felt we could try church (we have a very small church). He did pretty well with that as well, however there was a personal boundary issue we noticed as folks were standing around after service. We knew, at that point, that we needed to come FOR church and not before, not after. Other than church and grocery and Thanksgiving with family (2 hours TOPS), we stayed home. Now, over a month later, he does great in less than 2 hour increments BUT still really needs to be right next to us (personal boundaries, curiosity about how things work…microwaves, ovens, etc, and relating to others). We haven’t had any meltdowns from simply being over-stimulated… but, that has a lot to do with his personality and the fact that we watch him really closely for cues so we can get him out of situations quickly and smoothly. For him, the reason we are still mostly “cocooning” is we are trying to teach things like: We don’t hug EVERYONE (he now gets that WE are mom and dad), we don’t TAKE or TOUCH things that aren’t ours (dealing more with other kids or just touching everything), some things are very dangerous (like walking into oncoming traffic, turning on the stove, turning on an empty microwave for 30 minutes. It’s also a great time to really sort through some of the things that need to be worked through when coming home as far as behavior goes.
Deanna: How long does the honeymoon period last with older kids?
Shannon: No honeymoon for us.
Meredith: Different for every kid. Our 7 year old-1 month. Then she came completely unglued. She is our more difficult personality.
our 16 year old-nothing has changed. She is just different.
the 3 year old- same has the 16 year old. JUST easy!
Brandi: With my 2 foster/adoptive children, the honeymoon lasted a week and then it was COMPLETELY over. With J, I’d say once he lost his language…about 2 mths. Then it was COMPLETELY over LOL
Ashley: No honeymoon for us. Our son chose to use our 18 hour plane flight to test boundaries and be completely defiant. Fun times. I agree that it TOTALLY depends on your environment, the children’s personalities, your personalities, and discipline (which style they respond to + consistency). Things got MUCH better even after we landed in the US. A lot of testing and defiance still, but we were no longer stuck in tiny quarters and were able to show him basic cause and effect (i.e., You throw the crayon, crayon goes away. You refuse to watch the movie we deem appropriate and keep changing it to something we said NO to…. No movie.). At home, things got even better since it’s easier to set and enforce boundaries when you aren’t trying to go through customs and catch planes. Things were/are still tough sometimes… but it’s little tedious things that just exhaust us. Not so much throw-down fits or scary behavior. We set our expectations at MUCH WORSE coming into this so that we wouldn’t be devastated if it went that way but hoped that he’d do well (all things considered, he has done well). For weeks, I went around terrified that this WAS the honeymoon and at any moment, the sky would fall on my head and it’d all just explode. I’ve come to realize that in our situation, we have an “onion” rather than an “explosive bomb.” He has layers. And, we’re dealing with things in layers as they come up.
Kelley: Did you change their name and, if so, how did that go?
Shannon: We did not change his Ethiopian name. It is his first name given by his Ethiopian family and we gave him a middle name. He goes by his initials. This was important to me, don’t really know that it matters to him. He had been through so many hard changes, didn’t want to take that from him. However, I know of many families that have and it has not been an issue.
Kelly: No, not at this age. I think the kids need some say in this. K may want an American name eventually, but we would keep her name as part of it, like a middle name. I would not let her choose just any name. I would have to like it, too. I might give her a list to choose from.
Meredith: Interesting question! Our oldest we never had plans to change her name. We were told she was proud of her name, culture, heritage and most likely wouldn’t like it.
When we traveled to meet her, she asked what her “American name” was going to be. We explained we liked her name, that was who she has been for 15 years and we had no plans on changing that. She stated over and over she wanted a new name. We left it at we would discussed that once she was home and we could really talk about it.
Fast forward, once home and we were able to really talk about it, she said she was glad we kept her name. She never wanted to change it. She only said she did because she thought that was what we wanted. She said she would have resented us if we did change it.
The other 2 didn’t care. The oldest doesn’t care that others change their name, she just didn’t want to change hers.
My advice would be if they say they want to, you might want to wait until you can further talk about it and they understand you.They may feel like they “have too”. They come home with their ET name anyways and it take a while to have it changed pending your state.
Brandi: With our older 2, our daughter came into our bedroom after the first night and said “what are you going to name me.” We told her that her name was Angela and that was what we were going to call her. SHE said she didn’t like that name because it made her think of all the “uglies” about her past. She chose her name (after 4 yrs) of Grayce (Gray-ce) Ruth (after my granny and the story of Ruth). My son always called himself Daniel (his bio name is Edward, after his father and abuser). So, we kept it because it was fitting….Bible story…his middle name we changed to Gage after a little town we passed through to get to my granny’s house. It didn’t really have much of an impression on him because he was young. Jude was the name we had picked out when we began the process of adoption. We like the meaning (he who is praised). It was a good fitting for the IDEA of a new child. When we met him, we LOVED his name “Abinet” and we called him that, exclusively, until one day after about 3 mths, he said “my name no Abinet, my name Jude.” So, we let him take the lead. His name is Israel Jude Abinet. They have never asked for their names to to back…it has been almost 8 yrs home for 2 of my kids. It has never been an issue. They wanted new beginnings.
Ashley: We gave our son an American first name and kept his middle and last name as his 2 middle names. For us, God gave us a name when he called us to adopt…before we even knew WHO we were adopting. In Hebrew, his name means: The Lord is generous. Salvation of the Lord (or, The Lord is my salvation). God’s helper. We didn’t know this when we felt this was THE name, we just know God kept putting it in our lives. Needless to say, this name and the story of this little boy and all God has done so far is pretty amazing. We did want to keep a part of his heritage and history, though, so we kept his first and last names as his 2 middle names. Our children all have 2 middle names, so it was perfect. I love that name God chose for him and it’s a perfect symbolism of adoption and the new names you get when entering into a new family (think Paul/Saul and many others) – ours and God’s family. He likes his name and is proud to tell others of it. Occasionally, someone will read his other name on his paperwork, and he will tell them that’s not his name. In Africa, he told us that he was (insert name here), but now he will be (insert name here). We know enough of his past to know he wants a new start, a fresh beginning. It’s very fitting for him.
Deanna: With the older kids in the 8 and over group or 12 and over, how did they adjust to American food? I assume most parents are not experienced cooks in the native foods, and small kids are often picky no matter what, but what about the pre-teen and teens?
Kelly: K did great here. I can’t speak for all kids, but we had some native foods on hand for her at first: injera, peanut butter, bananas, rice, milk. She seemed happy just to be eating. She was willing to try new things, but I never forced it. She could always have a pb sandwich or bowl of cereal instead of what we were having. Sometimes she created her own meal out of what was on the table, like mixing rice with pico de gallo. I let her choose stuff at the grocery store. I think we have so much variety. They are not used to that. They are fine with a few basic things. Just try to keep those things on hand for the first few months. They really want to try American food, usually, so they will get adventurous in time. Don’t push it.
Meredith: Depends on the child and what foods they were exposed to in ET. If they are older, even 7-8, I’m sure they know how to cook some. Culturally they don’t drink milk. Most are lactose intolerant and if the aren’t, they drink warm goats milk with sugar in it (learned that from our 16 year old). Most will not like cheese. (I swear it’s like brain washing) they are taught to not like cheese. From my understanding the way cheese is made there is….gross so…. my kids LOVED things with cheese on it, until they learned it was cheese.
If they don’t have an option on things to eat, they will eat eventually. Our oldest can fix all the food so we eat Ethiopian a lot. That has made it harder for ours to eat more american. And also having more than 1 makes the switch harder. If our oldest doesn’t like what we are having, she does fix her own. After 5 months home, her palate is changing finally. She told us that this week.
Brandi: D would eat anything from the beginning of time.
G, who came at 6, was HORRIBLE with eating ANYTHING. It was a nightmare. She was used to hamburger helper and cereal. I would chose one night a week where I would cook her favorite and the rest of the time, she ate what I fixed or she didn’t eat. She had to get used to food and relearn how to eat properly and healthy. I would give her a tablespoon at a time (always making sure I had something she like)….she gradually started eating more and liking everything. It was a huge struggle. More of “I can’t control what my bio family did or how I was abused, but so help me, I can dig my feet in and control food.” She later learned that wasn’t such a good idea.
With J, I did the same thing that i did with her. I knew some American food he liked and made sure I had that and bananas. Bananas are considered a delicacy in ET…and bread….I made a lot of bread. I made him try everything because he can’t tell me he doesn’t like it if he has never had it. 1 Tablespoon at a time. Now, he eats everything but fish….”fish no smell yummy yummy mommy, no smell yummy yummy.”
Ashley: Our kiddo LOVES American food. I think this is one of those “depends on the kid” answers. We keep bananas around here and peanut butter, honey, bread, pasta, etc. When he first got home, he asked for “American Ice Cream” – so, we did that when we got here. Then, Subway at the airport and he loved it. We’ve found MAYBE 3-4 things he’s not a fan of… a tart chicken dish, slaw, dressing (Thanksgiving)…There are certain things he likes more than others, of course. Our main food issue has been overeating. I like the idea of having some “basics” ready just in case at home (bananas, pb, bread, etc). I WOULD recommend buying probiotics and having those on hand. New food can wreak havoc on their bellies.