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5 Things You Didn’t Know About Adopting Older Kids


More than likely when someone says “adoption,” you picture a family adopting a newborn baby. That’s probably because when adoption is portrayed in movies and on television, it is generally portrayed as parents adopting an infant. More often than not, those parents are adopting because they are unable to have a baby of their own. Although tens of thousands of infants are adopted domestically and internationally each year, more children are adopted from the U.S. foster care system. According to the most recent Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System Report, in 2016, the average age of kids entering foster care was 7 years old. Since children typically wait three years in foster care before being adopted, that means they are far from infancy at the time of adoption.

Adopting Older Kids

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With that being said, kids as old as 5 years old are considered “older children” in the world of adoption. Each year a child spends in foster care, growing up and getting older, their chances of being adopted are less and less. Teenagers have a harder time being adopted than any other age group and often age out of the system without an adoptive family. These older kids waiting to be adopted are an amazing, complex, and resilient group of people. Here are 5 things you didn’t know about adopting older kids.

1All Older Adopted Kids Have Experienced Some Level of Trauma

At the most basic level, they’ve all been separated from their birth families and that’s traumatic. It is likely that they have also experienced worse trauma like neglect or abuse. Whatever traumas they have faced, it has affected them. Trauma actually changes your brain chemistry and can lead to bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, learning disabilities, depression, and a whole host of trust and attachment issues.

As a result of this trauma, no matter how old the child was when it happened, it takes longer for older adopted kids to form attachments with people. That does not mean they won’t become part of your family, love you, or even call you mom and dad. They may never do some of those things, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love you in their own way or that they aren’t deserving of love.

2It is Amazing to See Them Blossom Once They Feel Safe

A child who does not feel safe has a hard time functioning. That is because safety is one of the basic needs we all have as human beings. Anyone who has taken an introduction to psychology class learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It boils down to a pyramid where the needs at the bottom of the pyramid must be met before the needs higher up on the pyramid can be addressed. At the base of the pyramid is our physiological needs, such as food, water, and sleep which we need for survival. The next level on the pyramid is safety. We need to feel safe and secure before we can move up through any of the additional levels in the pyramid (incidentally, the next level is love and belonging).

There is no timeline for when these kids will realize this need is met. It doesn’t happen overnight. For some kids it may only take a few weeks. For others, it could take months. As an adoptive parent, you just have to keep assuring them, both through words and actions, that they are safe and that you are there for them. As they realize that their basic physiological and safety needs are met, they will start to become different people. They will begin doing better in school, they will have an easier time with peer (and other) relationships and they will start to open up to you and/or other members of your household, even if  it is just a little bit. One day you will catch yourself smiling because your older adopted child will bring home a school assignment that they absolutely aced, hug you unsolicited and out of the blue, or tell you a story about something that happened to them before they came to your house all because they feel safe, and know they can trust you.

3It’s Scary

Suddenly you have a nine-year-old in your house that you are committing to parent for the rest of their life. You know only the information about their history that can fit on five or six pages. You will come to realize that at least a quarter of that information isn’t true. A slew of social workers will tell you a million things you are supposed to remember about what you can and can’t do, and what you should and shouldn’t do. Then you’re basically left on your own to figure it out.

No matter how committed you are to this child, or how ready you are to conquer the challenges that come with adopting a child, there are a hundred moments where you will doubt whether you can handle it. There will be more than one moment where you question whether you’ve made a mistake. But parenting is scary in any situation. Bringing home a biological child from the hospital is terrifying. At the core of these fears is the worry that you aren’t going to do the right things and you aren’t going to able to handle it. Know that your fear is normal. Don’t let those doubts or fears scare you into running away. Being scared of something doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

4For Better or Worse, You Have a Whole Team of People Helping You

When adopting older kids from the foster care system, you have a team made up of a case manager, an adoption worker, the child’s social worker, a guardian ad litem (someone the court appoints to look out for the best interests of the child), and therapists and/or psychiatrists, among others. The good news is that all of these people are there to help you navigate the process. The bad news is that they will parade in and out of your life and house until the adoption is finalized.

You have to open up your life for all of these people. As helpful as it is to have them around, sometimes the process seems intrusive. It can be exhausting to have to say the same things over and over to all of these people. It can also be intimidating that any one of these people could delay an adoption being recommended and finalized. In the end, it’s important to remember that each person on your adoption team is looking out for your best interest and the best interest of the child.

5You’ll be Surprised How Fast You Love Them

With everything else – the fear, the people coming in and out of your house, overcoming the trauma they’ve faced, all the responsibility you feel – you’ll be surprised how fast you absolutely love an adopted child. It doesn’t take long. And whether or not they say it back to you, it is important to put yourself out there and tell them every single day.

Adopting older kids has a lot in common with traditional parenting – it thrusts you into something you think you are prepared for only to realize that no amount of training could ever get you ready for everything you will encounter. These five, and eight, and thirteen-year old kids want a family, just like anyone else. Being older shouldn’t deny them the chance to be part of a family, but the sad reality is that over 20,000 children age out of foster care in the US every year. That means those 20,000 children become too old to remain in the foster care system and will be on their own without a permanent family. If just 1 in every 500 people who’ve considered adoption went through with the process and adopted a child in foster care, every waiting child in the foster care system would have a permanent family.

If you’ve ever considered adoption, or you’re interested in learning more about adopting older kids, or about becoming an adoptive parent in general, visit the Dave Thomas Foundation website where you can find a step-by-step guide to adoption in the U.S. and a list of resources by state.

You might also like: A Letter to my (Older) Adopted Child.


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Photo Credit:  Unsplash

Sources: Adoption in the US 2018: How Many? How Much? How Long Do They Take?, Adoption & Foster Care Statistics, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, AGING OUT, Surprising Facts You May Not Know About Adoption, Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption

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I am a father of three and my wife is a registered nurse specialized in children.

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