Adopting older children is not for the faint of heart; it can be a grueling journey, but the ultimate rewards surpass any struggles endured. You genuinely get to watch a life being transformed in front of your eyes. They begin to flourish as love grows and blooms within them. The fear abates, and trust develops; the bonds are cultivated as this new family becomes their family and they become your child.
1. Abstract Love vs. True Love
Understand the abstract love you feel for the child before he or she moves in is not true love. The ideas and dreams in your mind are not reality. This child has already developed a personality, a belief system, and a sense of self. Love at first sight is a beautiful ideology, but you will have to fall in love with who that child actually is, which takes time. This does not make you unfit or a bad parent; this makes you human. The love will come, and when it does, it is worth the wait.
Prepare for a regression. While adoption may be fulfilling your hopes and dreams, for them this is traumatic. Even if they have been waiting to be adopted, it is a huge adjustment. There is often a “honeymoon” phase where children will be as perfect as possible to make you happy because they are terrified of rejection. As they begin to care about you and tentatively start to trust, the behaviors will escalate, and they will test your boundaries and limits. The 12-year-old will act 6 and your 7-year-old may well wet the bed and refuse to go to sleep. The “parentified” child will challenge you for control, questioning every single thing. Love is scary for them; what if you don’t love them back? Kids tend to blame themselves and deep down fear they are unlovable. Then, they will set out to verify it. It’s your job to prove them wrong, and it won’t be an easy task.
3. Their Past
Accept their past. These kiddos didn’t come out of nowhere and need to know you love them for who they are. This means you accept the onslaught of stories about their “real” mom and dad, their grandparents, siblings, cousins, etc. They had a life before you that should not be diminished or buried. Creating a family with older children means embracing all of them, not just the parts that fit into your present picture. Every time I open a soda, I am regaled with the tale of how their “real mom” opened a soda once, and it sprayed everywhere. Don’t personalize this. They love and miss their biological family which is normal; it does not mean they don’t love you. Have faith there is enough love for everyone. Consider including some of their traditions into your family. I wouldn’t recommend spilling your soda every day, but a little macaroni and cheese at Thanksgiving won’t kill you.
Most children have some form of PTSD, or at least triggers, which will bring up memories. I call these landmines because one has no idea it’s going to happen until they step right in it. Some children shut down, some break down, and some completely dysregulate and rage. They can’t think or process, so just hold them, help them breathe, and get through the event. This can take a while. Once they are calm, try and talk to them, but don’t be surprised if they have no idea what set them off. Avoiding landmines is impossible, but with time, consistency, and love they can learn to control their reactions and work through their emotions.
5. Security and Stability
It’s important to create a sense of security and stability for older children, which unfortunately means schedules and rules. They will of course hate this, but it is essential, especially in the beginning. Make sure the rules and consequences are clear and don’t assume they know the basics. They may need to learn how to bathe correctly, hang up clothes, clear the table, or even make a bed. Manners are a subjective thing and will need to be made clear; mine didn’t know you couldn’t spit in the house. Don’t hesitate to have lots of boundaries. It may seem overwhelming at first, but they will adapt and appreciate the safety they feel, even if they don’t verbalize it.
The benefits of adopting an older child are vast. The gratification and pride felt as they acclimate to their new world and begin to see life’s possibilities, overshadows any doubts once fostered. The bond with your child is made stronger from the tribulations, the love fiercer because of the battle that was waged. I know there is fear, but the rewards are so great. Fight for that child, believe in that child, and ultimately you will both win.