Adopting an Older Child

Adopting an Older Child

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Facts and practicalities of the older-child adoption process

Like many prospective parents, I started my adoption journey with a baby in mind. However, once I learned how many older children were waiting for families, I decided to change course. As a former preschool teacher, I feel especially comfortable with kids who are at the earlier stages of development, which is why I chose to adopt a three-year-old boy and his two-year-old sister from Ethiopia, and a five-year-old girl from India.

Although we might have looked like an instant family, all of us experienced stress and confusion in our early days together. I struggled to give my children the individualized support they needed to feel safe in their new home, and the kids fought hard to understand and accept all the changes life had thrown at them. In hindsight, I see that overcoming those challenges brought us closer, and I can’t imagine building my family any other way.

Are you wondering if adopting an older child might be right for you, too? Here are a few things potential Solo Moms should consider:

Older kids need families. Right now, more than 100,000 foster children are waiting for permanent homes in the United States. Most are elementary school aged or older; more than half are children of color. Waiting children may have physical or emotional issues, just like we adults do, and some may have learning disabilities. Sibling groups also wait, since fewer prospective parents feel able to adopt multiple kids at once. Subsidies are available for ongoing support of adopted children with special needs, but these vary by state, so you’ll want to check with your local child welfare and foster adoption agencies to see what might be available to you.

Older kids and siblings also languish abroad in institutional and foster care, but hopeful Solo Moms who feel drawn to adopt from overseas should know that international adoption has grown more challenging in the past decade. Established country programs sometimes close, and pilot programs in new locales can be unpredictable. Some countries don’t accept unmarried applicants, and those that do can change their application requirements without warning. It’s important to work with a reputable adoption agency that can provide you with the most up-to-date information about your options.

No matter which form of adoption you pursue, choosing a waiting child will help streamline the process, since the child is already legally free for placement.

Older kids have a history—and it’s not all bad. There’s just no way around it: older children don’t become eligible for adoption unless they’ve suffered some sort of loss or trauma. Prospective Solo Moms need to come prepared with an empathetic outlook and a willingness to earn the trust of a child whose life experiences may have wired him to be wary. Keeping meals, nap times, and bedtimes on a predictable schedule and giving your new child advance warning about anticipated changes or new activities will go a long way toward helping her feel confident that she knows what to expect in your home.

It’s also important to recognize that for many kids, the past isn’t all pain. Children may retain some happy memories of biological relatives or miss old friends from the orphanage or group home. Your older child will arrive with a name, preferences about food, unique personal interests, and perhaps even a religious identity that differs from your own. Accepting and honoring your child’s past and respecting whatever positive sense of individuality he’s already established will help build trust between the two of you.

A Solo Mom can be the ideal parent for an older child. Solo Moms don’t get the credit they deserve. Societal biases favoring two-parent families endure, but for many older adoptees, a one-parent home may be a better fit. Children with a history of trauma may have an easier time adapting to one new adult and feel safer emotionally in a quieter, less crowded household.

Keep in mind that the first six months post-adoption will be particularly intense as both mother and child adjust to each other. Enlist emotional and practical support from family and friends to help you make the transition. Loved ones may not realize that the new Solo Mom of an eight-year-old may appreciate having a few meals dropped off, just like a mother with a new baby. Reach out for what you need. Other adoptive families can also be a great resource.

It takes time to make an “instant family”—but it’s worth it. There are no perfect parents, just as there are no perfect kids. However, if you enter the adoption process with an open mind and heart, you’ll find the match that feels right, both for you and for the child. Take time to educate yourself about the needs of older adoptees, and be honest with yourself about your personal strengths and challenges. No mom is ever fully prepared, and new parenting trials will always emerge, but you should feel reasonably confident about your ability to meet the needs of a particular child before committing to the adoption.

Once your child arrives home, expect emotional highs and frightening lows, especially at first. Early in my own adoption journey, I read that with older-child adoption, the adjustment process continues until the child has lived with you longer than he or she lived anywhere else. That sounded daunting when I was a new mom, but now, having passed those milestones with my three, I see the wisdom in that advice. Helping the older adopted child heal is part of the parent’s job description. It’s a demanding and rewarding process that can’t be rushed. Nowadays, our family life feels pretty normal, with the typical emotional highs and frightening lows that come with mothering three teenagers. We’ve come a long way, and whatever comes next, we’ll face it together.

Sharon Van Epps is a writer and an adoptive mother of three children aged 12, 13, and 14. Her work has appeared in Adoptive Families; Brain, Child; the New York Times’s Motherlode blog; the Washington Post’s On Parenting blog, and many more publications. From the age of 12, she was raised by her Solo Grandmother.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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