There are many teens waiting in the foster care system to be adopted. Teens are often overlooked, and many age out of the system without ever finding a family to call their own. Have you been considering if you should adopt a teen? Are you unsure if you should do so based on the younger children in your home? Do you have concerns about how adding a teen to your home might affect the younger children? I have heard some strong opinions on teen adoption.
I almost adopted a teen. I had a younger child in the home at the time. The first child I ever fostered was with us for over two years. As the case progressed, we talked about adoption. Our family was open to the idea of making this placement a permanent addition. However, this child had many siblings, older and younger, and he was the only one that was in foster care. When this child realized the full extent of adoption, and that he would legally not be recognized as a sibling in the family anymore, he panicked. He no longer wanted to be adopted. Even though we assured him that he was able to keep relationships with his brothers and sisters, he could not get past the legal ramifications of adoption. As he aged and was able to make his own opinions and choices about his future known, he chose not to be adopted and returned home when it was deemed safe for him to do so.
I have had the placement of many teens while being a foster parent. Many were not legally free for adoption, and their parents were working toward the goal to reunify. There are a few kids I wouldn’t have hesitated in allowing to stay if their case had gone toward adoption. Even though our daughter was younger than these kids, most didn’t present any problems for her or make her feel uneasy.
We had only one instance where a child older than our daughter presented a problem for her. In most cases, the older teens were able to get along well within our family structure and interact appropriately with our daughter. One child was not able to adjust. She was close in age to our daughter, and this was quite difficult. She was a bit socially awkward for her age and had trouble with socializing at an age-appropriate level. My daughter felt uncomfortable with her. The older girl became abusive toward my daughter, and we were unable to maintain the proper environment to keep both kids safe and happy.
This one placement that didn’t work out did not prevent us from taking other older child placements though. Each child and each situation is unique.
We had some younger child placements that were hard on the household too. I can recall one child, just a few years younger than our daughter, who was quite a handful. He acted out and had violent tantrums when he didn’t get the things he wanted. This placement was far more disruptive to our daughter than most of the older child placements we had.
There really is no good “rule” when it comes to adoption of older or younger kids. While I have read several opinion pieces that encourage adopting only children younger than those already in your home, I don’t think there is a basis for making this a standard for adoption.
While some older teens may be challenging, they may also be a wonderful addition and a fantastic sibling to your other children. On the flip side, some older children may not be able to maintain a healthy sibling relationship with your younger children.
So, how do you know if you should adopt a teen?
I truly believe the adoption of older kids is such a unique and individual experience that only you can decide if it is right for your family. You must take into account the relationships the children have and whether they are healthy and appropriate. Considering the reasons the teen is placed with you and what kind of trauma they have endured is important. How they process and heal from their trauma will affect the family. Is this something that all of you will be able to handle? How will the older child’s trauma affect your younger children?
Do you feel like the younger children will learn positive examples of behavior from the older child, or will the older child show examples of negative behavior that you wouldn’t want your younger children to be exposed to?
How will your family benefit if you adopt a teen? What are the potential risks of adding an older child to the family?
These are all really important things to consider. In some cases, the risks to your younger child may be too great, and the adoption of the teen might not be in the best interest of the family. That can be a really hard conclusion to come to. We went through a situation similar to this while fostering. The teen wasn’t legally available for adoption, but she was unable to return to her home. It was very likely she would remain in foster care until she aged out of the system. We had hoped to provide her with a place to stay until she did so.
However, during this time we also received placement of some younger children. This made the situation more complicated.
Prior to the younger children, we were able to deal with the teen’s behaviors and trauma, even with our younger daughter in the home. This teen had some risky behaviors that included suicidal ideation as well as self-harm. She wasn’t a risk to others though, and our daughter was safe. The two girls actually got along well, and we felt that our daughter may be able to help the older girl learn to cope and heal.
With the addition of the younger boys, things became much more difficult. We had a toddler and an infant placement, both of which moved toward adoption. We were very interested in pursuing the adoption of the younger boys placed with us. The teen girl, because of her self-harm and suicidal ideation, was in and out of treatment facilities while with us. At some point, it was brought to our attention that her unstable behavior might affect the placement of our younger children. We had to make a hard decision. Were we willing to risk the adoptions of your younger children in order to continue with the sporadic placement of this teenager?
How did we decide? It took many tearful discussions to finally come to the conclusion that we would not be able to continue providing the teen girl with the proper attention she needed while pursuing the adoption of our younger children. Even though we loved her tremendously, with the change in our family dynamic, we could no longer adequately help her and provide what she needed.
I admit, I felt guilty and like I was failing. I have beaten myself up over the decision for a long time. I knew it was the right choice but that did not make it easy.
In the end, everything worked out for all of us. We were able to adopt our younger boys. Our daughter was able to remain friends with the teen girl. This girl was able to understand how her inability to cope in a healthy manner had become risky to our family. She spent some time in a treatment center before being placed in another home where there would more attention to her needs with no infants and toddlers. Her awareness of how her actions affected others increased, and she began to really work toward healing. We maintain contact with her even years later. She could understand why we were forced to make the decision we made. She could admit that her behaviors and trauma would have interfered with our family life in a negative way. As she grew and learned to process her trauma, she was able to learn to deal with things in a healthier way that she hadn’t been able to before.
She is able to visit and stay in touch. We have a wonderful relationship with her and still consider her a part of the family, even if she couldn’t continue living with us full time. Honestly, if she approached our family now, as an adult, and wanted to become a legal part of our family, I would not hesitate to adopt her as an adult. The timing just wasn’t right for us when she needed intense treatment, and we were caring for small children too.
Not all teens need extensive treatment. Not all teens will be disruptive in joining your family. The same is true for younger children. Some younger children are more disruptive and hard to manage than some older children are. There is no one-size-fits-all rule. Each situation must be evaluated individually.
Many teens just need to find stability in their lives in order to thrive. Would your family be able to provide that stability? Many teen placements, or placements of children older than our own, worked well. If you are thinking that you want to adopt a teen, if you think your family may have what it takes to help, try it! Take the leap! And remember that all teens are not the same, just as all younger kids are not the same. Each comes with their unique story and unique personality.
When you have younger children in the home, involve them in conversations about the addition of older kids. Involving them does not mean they get to make the choice. Instead, it means they can share their own feelings, and you will have their opinions to include while making decisions for your family. Open communication with all family members is essential for any situation to progress smoothly.
I truly believe that helping children of all ages impacted the choices our daughter made as she transitioned to adulthood. I believe she learned a great deal about empathy, as well as being grateful and kind. She doesn’t take things for granted as easily as others her age might.
I know that some of the situations we encountered while fostering as a family were hard for our daughter though. But, in the end, I think the lessons she took from some of the harder moments, and our abilities to provide care for a child in need during a hard time were worth the challenges we faced. In the end, we all learned about boundaries, empathy, and love.
Some worry about the financial implications of adopting an older child. How will you pay for another child’s college education? You don’t have as much time to prepare a savings account. How can you take on this financial responsibility?
Most children who are adopted over the age of 12 will qualify for free education in your state. There are some qualifiers to receive this help, but the help is available.
Do not let the financial burden of college scare you away from considering adopting an older child. The fear of being unable to bond properly with a teen is another reason families hesitate to bring in older children.
I can attest to the fact that, once again, each situation is unique. I have bonded fully with some teens who have entered my home. We have been able to have a wonderful relationship that has been positive for all of us. Many older kids who have been with us maintain contact and are still a part of our family. At the same time, my older son, who joined our family as a toddler, has an attachment disorder. Bonding with him has been incredibly challenging. Some of the teens were easier to bond with than my son. I still have a healthier bond with some of our former teen placements than I do with him. His early childhood trauma was so great that he is unable to bond properly and may never bond with us like our other children. We have been his family for eight years now, and we still face many struggles. Many believe that teens are going to be harder to bond with than younger children. This isn’t always the case. It is so important to remember that there are no one-size-fits-all rules to adoption. Each adoption journey is unique and individual with its own set of ups and downs.
Teens can be wonderful additions to your family. If you choose to adopt a teen, you will without a doubt, change their life for the better. You will change your life too. A teen can add some much-needed perspective to situations that come up sometimes. No child is without some challenges, and a teen deserves the same opportunities for permanency that younger children often find. If you are considering adopting an older child, take the leap.
Jennifer is a mother to 3 children (one biological, two adopted). She is also a mom to numerous pets. She enjoys volunteering in her children’s classroom, reading, and crafting in her spare time. She has been married for almost 15 years.