On Big Kid Adoption
The other day I was talking with a fellow adoptive mom and we were discussing some of the misconceptions surrounding big kid adoption. Who invented these ideas that older kids are always troubled, angry and aggressive? In many of my interactions with adoptive parents they say things like, “Well, we know an older child would just be too much for us….” Now, no one should adopt a child of any age ever unless that’s what they really want to do, so the point here isn’t to guilt people into being open to older kids. Yet, there are so many people opening their hearts to adoption and older kids do often get overlooked. At the end of our chat, my friend and I came to the conclusion that parents of older adopted kids need to be more open about the good, bad and ugly of big kid adoption.
Since we brought home our first older child 13 months ago and our second older child 3 weeks ago, I’m obviously an expert on this topic and should share my wisdom. And if you believe that, I’ve got some lovely oceanfront property in Arizona to sell you…. But really, I would like to address some of the concerns people commonly have about adopting older children and share our experience. Like all experiences, it is unique and no one else’s will be exactly like it.
Let me start by sharing some details about our first month or so with Amby. It started off all rainbows and unicorns because he was so excited to have a family. Then, the day we took full custody of him in his country, a switch flipped the first time he heard me utter the word, “no.” The poor kid thought he was getting a candy-giving orphanage volunteer for a mom and he was ticked when he learned otherwise. He would wail, at the top of his lungs, for an hour at a time whenever he was told no. I am not exaggerating. Ask the security guards at the mall in Uganda who witnessed one of these displays. Ask the guesthouse staff who would stare, wide-eyed in disbelief.
I responded to these episodes by sitting close to him and letting him know as soon as he was done, I would be there for him and ready to talk. I made a point not to involve any of my own emotions (believe you me, he had enough going on for both of us.) Whenever he did calm down, I made a big stinkin’ deal out of it and congratulated him for regaining control. Then I moved on and didn’t bring it up again. I did my best to show him that no tantrum was going to scare me away or make me cave in and give him the thing I had said “no” about. I did try to structure those first days to avoid power struggles, but there are times when no is necessary and I think it helped us to get that out of the way in the beginning.
For whatever reason, after a little over a month he was done having fits and has never had another one. He is now my most happy-go-lucky, compliant, cheerful kid. I think a lot of this is his God-given temperment (as his older brother is a little more stubborn by nature.)
I share this story to illustrate what I believe is a very important truth about all adoption: the child you first meet is not necessarily indicative of who your child really is. Today we visited that mall where he once had a massive tantrum. I asked if he remembered it and he didn’t, but we had a good long laugh about it. The scared, confused kid he was that first month is not at all the little boy I have now.
Three weeks ago, when we first took Mary into our care, I was incredibly overwhelmed. I was jetlagged. My kids were jetlagged. Add to that a new child who is sick and speaks no English and it was a rough start. We had longed for and dreamed about telling her we were her family forever and she was just flat out terrified the first few days. She cried a lot and didn’t have the language to express how she was feeling. Each day, she came out of her shell a little bit more. She interacted with us and opened up to us. Thankfully, there have been no wailing tantrums, but she has had quiet little pouty fits when she doesn’t get her way (for the record, this might be just an 8 year old girl thing.)
The beginning was hard with both of my big kids, but I don’t think it was hard just because they weren’t babies. My friends who adopt babies have their own struggles. Adoption is hard. It is borne out of loss, so “hard” is inherent. I really think parents need to know this and embrace it going into any adoption.
Earlier I mentioned these myths that seem to surround big-kid adoption. I’d like to share my take on some of these:
1. Older kids are angry. Every child processes trauma in different ways. Neither of my big kids are angry or aggressive. Both have dealt with trauma and both are on the road to restoration. I do sometimes see grief processed as sadness. During these difficult times, both of my older kids are open to letting us help them process their emotions and we consider that a huge blessing.
2. Older kids have difficulty attaching. Since the term RAD came out, somehow it has become synonymous with “big kid” and “beyond hope.” I don’t believe either of these things are true. My Amby has a very strong, healthy developing attachment. I say developing because he has only been ours’ for one year and I feel like this is a years long process. Mary is in the very early stages of attachment, but she is doing really well with it. She lets us be physically close to her, she comes to us to meet her needs, she prefers us over strangers and we see the first buds of healthy trust forming. Each day at exactly 11:30 AM, no matter where we are, she climbs into my lap and takes a long nap. Now, what about children who have dealt with so much trauma that they truly do struggle to attach? There is hope! I refuse to accept that a child with RAD is doomed. First of all because God is just as faithful to them as He is to anyone else. Secondly, we now have so many resources available to help these kids that, with some professional help, I believe no child is a lost cause.
3. Older kids are a threat to younger kids in the home. This delves into disrupting birth order, which I understand is a controversial topic. We do not bury our heads in the sand about issues surrounding birth order, but we also don’t live in fear. I’d like to start by saying that much of this depends on the personal history of the newly adopted child and all parents must do their due diligence to find out as much as they can about that. I also think if one is going to disrupt birth order, it is beneficial to meet the child ahead of time and observe how that child interacts with other kids. I am grateful to say that this has not been an issue for us. Neither of my big kids have ever tried to hurt one of the other kids in any way. There are boundaries in our home that help keep everyone safe. One is the open-door policy. No child is ever in a room with another child with the door shut. Another is that our kids don’t play naked. Another choice we’ve made is to talk very openly with all of our children about behaviors that are safe and appropriate and those that are not. With these boundaries in place, we also observe our kids closely when they play together.
I want to close by saying that this is not for everyone, but it is for some of us. In our family, big kid adoption has been an amazing experience and we are so blessed God called us to these precious kids.
Lara is a Jesus-loving, book-reading, coffee-drinking, kid-chasing farmer’s wife of 5 years. She and her beloved farmer, Jon, have 4 kids: Mary, Cade, Ambrose, and Ellie. They just brought their most recent addition, Mary, home from Uganda. Follow along on their journey at The Farmer’s Wife Tells All.
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