I have a friend who was adopted at age 15. She is the oldest of five siblings, and her adoptive parents met the kids while on their honeymoon in Ethiopia.
It was love at first sight. The parents couldn’t imagine the rest of their lives without these kids, so they brought all five home and started their family, right then and there.
Since I first heard this story, I’ve wondered about the unique challenges faced by people who adopt older children.
Adoption and parenting are always difficult, of course, but with older kids, it’s just different. Prospective parents may want to consider a number of questions before adopting an older child.
Does the age of the child fit with my current family structure?
You’ll want to think about how an adoptive child’s age will impact any children you already have. I knew parents whose biological daughter was 12 years old, so when they looked into adoption, they determined that they’d like their next child to be close to her age, but not older. They figured it would be disruptive to her if, on top of welcoming an addition to the family, she were to suddenly become The Little Sister.
I met a different family in which all four children were adopted, and they joined the family in a different sequence than their birth order. Doing it this way has worked for the family, and the kids have adjusted to their new roles gracefully.
What’s right for your family is completely subjective. Elements such as age spacing and room sharing will play parts in your decision, as will parenting experience and personal preference.
If you don’t have any children yet, this is also a consideration. A single person with a full-time job may feel that a school-aged child is a better fit—as daycare wouldn’t be needed—but not necessarily.
Can I help a child blend her familiar customs with a new culture?
An older child will already have somewhat of a routine, including food and clothing preferences and cultural identity.
If you adopt from another country, an older child may speak a different language from you. You’ll have to ensure that you have adequate infrastructure in place to help that child adjust. Is the local school equipped to offer extra English as Second Language learning? Are you able to supplement school with practice at home? While the child is still learning, can you find a way to communicate that is clear for both of you?
An older child will already be used to living a certain way. He or she will have to switch over to your typical daily routine, which may come with a learning curve. However, you will also need to be open to making changes that accommodate your child’s needs.
A child from a different country will likely have cultural customs that may be unfamiliar to you. It’s important for a child to stay connected to his native culture throughout his life. Are you willing to learn about the other country and include its customs in your home?
Are you prepared to work for your child’s trust?
In most U.S. states, once foster children reach a certain age (it varies), they have to consent before the adoption is finalized. Even without a legal requirement, though, it’s important for your child to want to be part of your family.
If a kid has grown up in the foster system, she may struggle to trust parental figures. This will grow more difficult as the child ages.
Outside the United States, it is more common for orphaned or abandoned children to grow up in the care of an orphanage or other institution.
In either case, adopting an older child means proving that you can be trusted, that you sincerely love the kid, and that you’re sticking around long-term.
The process of gaining trust may take some time, and it will almost definitely come with some heartache. You’ll need a compassionate heart and a thick skin (and probably a great therapist). Are you willing to work for an older child’s trust, even if it’s difficult?
Do you have the flexibility to focus your time on bonding with an older child?
Any prospective adoptive parent is probably already a busy adult, with responsibilities and chores and maybe formal employment. Any older kid joining a family will be busy too—he’ll have school, homework, chores, and hopefully friends. But bonding time needs to have a dedicated space on the family calendar. Are you able to work that into your schedule?
The U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees most full-time employees 12 weeks of work leave each year for circumstances that include foster care and adoption. During this leave time, an employer does not have to pay the employee but is required to maintain healthcare benefits. If you are able to use FMLA leave, you may choose to do so immediately following your adoption so the child gets your undivided attention and learns to bond with and attach to you.
If you aren’t eligible for FMLA, can’t afford to take unpaid leave, or are otherwise unable to use this benefit, you will need to find another way to set aside time specifically for creating a bond between you and your child. The older a child is, the longer it may take for her to feel attached to you as her parent.
Will you consider an older child who is among the most difficult to place?
Older children have lived their whole lives in limbo, often shuffled from home to home and caretaker to caretaker. The older they get, the more aware they are of feeling rejected by adults.
Some of the hardest children to place in permanent families are those with disabilities. They often fall within the “older child” cohort.
Adoption already comes with a laundry list of challenges. Adding disability care to that list is not for everyone.
First, you’ll need to check with your health insurance company to compile a list of conditions and treatments that you have coverage for, as those outside your insurance plan may create too much of a financial burden on your family.
If you’re an abled adult, you may not understand what life is like for a child with special needs. Are you prepared to listen carefully to what the kid needs from you, both medically and emotionally? Disability can be frustrating for both child and parent. Can you be patient as you navigate a new world of doctors and therapists and lifestyle changes?
If you do your research and self-evaluate your individual personality and circumstances, you may find that adopting an older child with disabilities is a good fit for you. If so, great! If not, that’s okay too. Don’t feel guilty if you can’t meet that need.
What method of adoption is the best fit for you?
You may adopt an older child through a number of channels, the most common being foster-to-adopt and international adoption. Each has pros and cons, and you’ll need to think about what works best for your family.
Some folks prefer foster-to-adopt because it allows you to know a child well before permanently adopting him or her. Parents and children can get used to each other during foster care and transition smoothly into adoption. This method is also usually much more cost-effective for adoptive parents. However, sometimes older children who have grown up in the foster system struggle with behavioral conformity, which can be a significant challenge to adoptive families.
International adoption may allow you to select a specific country you’re interested in, if that is a factor for your family. A child from another country may have a unique set of traditions that allow you to welcome a new culture into your family. On the other hand, international adoption is often costly, and adjusting to a new country can be difficult for an adopted child.
Nobody can tell you which way is best for you, except for you.
Are you willing to adopt multiple siblings?
Sometimes, older children have biological siblings who are also eligible for adoption. It’s in kids’ best interest to be adopted into the same family rather than breaking them up, so you’ll want to consider whether adopting multiple children together is right for you.
If you already have children, this possibility will likely affect your family differently than if you don’t have children yet. It will also affect dynamics between the siblings as they will bond with you at different rates, and each will have their own set of needs.
Bringing multiple children into your family at once comes with a unique set of challenges that you might be suited to meet. If you are, then maybe adopting a pair or a group of siblings is ideal for your family. If you aren’t, there are still many opportunities to adopt a single child, infant, or older.
Will you change the child’s name?
As a child ages, his sense of identity develops. Part of a person’s identity is in his or her name. Parents who adopt an infant typically have the luxury of choosing a new name for that child because the child isn’t old enough to understand what a name means, anyway.
With an older child, you might consult with her about this possibility, depending on age. My parents fostered a 13-month-old awhile back, and his adoptive mother changed his name. He’ll answer to his birth name or his new legal name and is aware of the difference, even at such a young age.
You’ll want to think about name changes for both the first and last names of the kid. Maybe you’ll change the child’s last name to yours, as a symbol of unity. Maybe you won’t change it to honor the child’s history or bond with her biological family. Depending on the child’s age, he may request to either keep his name or change it.
You can also consider hyphenating both last names or adding middle names. There are many ways to make a name match a child’s identity.
If you’re particularly attached to giving your child a certain name, adopting an older child might not be right for you.
Is open adoption right for you?
An older child might have a relationship with her biological parents. Being removed from her home is a significant loss, for which a child will probably grieve. Depending on the situation, it might be best for the child to continue to have a connection with her biological parents throughout her life, if possible.
Open adoption is typically preferred by most agencies and adoption professionals, although in some cases is either impossible or not advised.
You’ll need to consider whether adopting a child who has concrete memories of his previous family is a good path for you.
What resources do you have to support you as you adopt an older child?
As an adoptive parent, you’ll focus much of your mental and emotional energy on meeting the needs of your new child. This is good and natural, but you also need to remember to take care of yourself.
Because older children have a different set of challenges than infants, you will need different resources to help you adjust to the change and stay mentally hopeful, encouraged, and energetic.
You may want to find a therapist who specializes in adoption transition. Outside of professional help, it’s good to have a supportive social group and a robust spiritual life, as well. If your cup is empty, you can’t pour anything out for your child. Make sure that you can take care of yourself in order to take care of your child.
This list of questions is not meant to be comprehensive, but hopefully, it generates discussion among your family as you consider adopting an older child. There is no perfect right answer; each family must do what makes the most sense for them.
If you’ve adopted an older child, were adopted as an older child, or have worked adoption cases for older children, please feel free to contribute to my list. What other questions do you think a prospective adoptive parent should ask before adopting an older child?
Leah Ward is a reporter at southwest Minnesota’s regional newspaper. With her academic background in professional writing, she has found a journalism niche in local crime, education, and politics. Outside the newsroom, Leah enjoys embracing community events like lutefisk suppers and donkey basketball, as well as exploring state parks with her camera. She often spends weekends at her parents’ home helping foster infants.