Think of a child you know and love. What would happen if that child was pulled into a new environment? How would that change impact the child? What ties or connections are important to this child? How would you want those connections to be honored and maintained? Here a few ideas on how to respect the unique challenges and opportunities presented within an older child adoption.
The older child brings his past into the adoption. It's important to realize that children of an older child adoption, whether in foster care or an international adoption, come with a past. It's important as an adoptive parent to balance that past with the child's new present and future. The past can not be erased, but it can be overcome and the child needs tools to help them do just that. This past may include abuse and neglect, so learn all you can about the child and what he has already endured and survived.
What is normal? Forget your normal. You as a family will create together a new normal. The child has already spent many years living a certain way. Remember that a child's birth family is important to them, even if the past with birth family was primarily negative. Most children in an older child adoption remember their birth family. Remember that what is negative to us, may be considered normal to the child. This normal is also deeply engrained. Stealing and lying may be a normal way to handle every day life to some children. Abuse may also be considered normal. You as the adoptive parent will help the child replace those old survival skills with a new, healthy, way of surviving.
Be a healthy role model. Remember that we can not change a child overnight. Live your life and model behavior and healthy habits on a daily basis that you want the children to have in their own lives. Know that you can not force a new lifestyle upon a child. Try not to forcefully mold a child into something he is not. Allow the child space to be himself, positive changes will occur, but it does take time.
Birth family is still important. Try to maintain a healthy relationship with birth family, even if it's just a psychological connection. What does a psychological connection mean? It means acknowledging that the child does have a past before entering your family. That they do have birth family – parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, and other extended family members. Allow the child not only space to speak about their birth family, but take a genuine interest in what they have to say about their family members and any memories they may still cherish. It also means providing your child a lifebook and allowing the child time to share their lifebook pictures and pages with you. This is a psychological connection to birth family.
Name changes in an older child adoption. Changing the name of an older child is a touchy subject and should be handled with great care. Consider following the advice and counsel of the child's therapist before making any changes. Ask the child how they feel about their name. A child may be happy to make a name change – first, middle, or last. Other children may struggle with the idea. Here are other ways to handle a name change in an older child adoption:
- Consider hyphenating the child's last name with yours.
- Consider making the child's birth last name their new middle name.
- Consider adding a second middle name.
- Remember that a child's first name is a big part of their identity.
Changing religions. An older child may also have an established religion. Respect that it may also be a part of their connections, culture and heritage. If your religion is different, don't expect the child to make a change immediately, if at all. Give the child time to really consider their choices and then choose for themselves. Think about how you will feel and handle things if the child does not make the choice to convert. Can you give the child this space? Can you support the child in their own religion? What if the child attends church with you every Sunday, even if they never join or convert? Will that work in your home?
Creating a healthy older child adoption will take time. Allow the children time to integrate into your family at their own pace. Don't take it personal if the child remains distant. Some children may be resentful because so much has been taken from them over the years. It will take time for you to build a healthy connection within an older child adoption.