Adopting an older child can be intimidating but there are many older child out there who need a loving and caring home where they can thrive.

Adopting An Older Child

I had a conversation a while back with a friend about maybe possibly someday wanting to foster an older child. At the time, I had two toddlers running and running and running underfoot at home, and like so many new parents, every day was parent boot camp. While my heart broke knowing that there were thousands of older kids in foster care waiting for forever families, I also knew, if I was being completely honest with myself, that I was in no way prepared to handle an older child. I hadn’t even mastered the fine art of potty training and/or figuring out how to keep my youngest in her toddler bed through the night. She had a thing about getting up in the wee hours, collecting all of her favorite stuffed toys and other favorite toys—and even some clothes—from around the room and piling the whole dang thing into bed with her.

“I don’t think I could do it,” I recall her saying. “They’re all damaged.” Her face looked kind of stony and cold, and something about her tone irked me. We had just recently completed our second adoption of a toddler-aged child, and I was already getting unsolicited advice about that.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t wear rose-colored glasses, and I knew a thing or two about adoption-related issues back then that gave me at least some confidence in my parenting abilities, even if I couldn’t yet convince my oldest not to bring random “pet” bees into the house. I’d read the articles, taken the training, and attended meetings and knew that yes, older children have experienced trauma—even in just having initially been removed from their birth family and placed into foster care to begin with. They also may have experienced abuse or neglect.

From many of the profiles I’d researched online, many of the waiting children were on anti-anxiety medications very early in their lives. Many already required counseling and therapy. And then there is that thing called RAD, or reactive attachment disorder, which is most commonly defined as a disorder caused by the lack of attachment to a specific caregiver at an early age, resulting in an inability for the child to form normal and loving relationships with others. The Adoption.com article “How to Help Your Child Through RAD” offers a detailed overview of the disorder as well as things that parents can do to help including concepts like connected parenting, introducing healthy habits, seeking outside help, and finding support when it seems like nothing you’re doing is helping.

Despite the recognition that adopting an older child does come with challenges, my friend’s words really got to me. Annoyed me. Angered me. Who was she to judge?

The truth is, it is now understood and accepted that all adopted children have experienced trauma—even those who are placed into forever homes on day one. All adopted children will change and grow in their understanding of adoption, loss, and identity throughout their lives to some degree if nothing more than the result of basic human curiosity. Regardless of how they wound up in foster care, I don’t believe any child ever asked to be removed from their home—no child has asked to experience abuse or neglect.

But dwelling on one’s faults or insecurities, which we all have, is yet one more unfair turn of events no child deserves to bear the label of.

This article discusses the differences between newborn and older child adoption as well as the challenges and rewards it can bring.

According to the Children’s Bureau Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System report (also known as the AFCARS report), as of 2017, over 123,000 children are waiting and eligible to be adopted in the foster care system. In 2017, over 59,000 kids were adopted in the foster care system. The average age a child waiting to be adopted is 7.6 years old.

Sadly, many older children are passed over and spend their entire youth in foster care until they age out at age 18. Many teens in foster care need families so they can find the love and support they’re missing in their lives.

Let’s Talk About It

Before you do anything you should educate yourself. Parents who are considering adopting an older child should do their homework. Read books on the subject, read articles, and blogs. Reach out to other parents who have adopted older children. Speak with an agency, social workers, and facilitators. Knowing the facts will only help you to make an informed decision.

While your intentions may be pure and your love is commendable
— the truth is that parenthood is hard, adoption is complicated, and adopting an older child comes with additional responsibilities. While some older children transition well into their new family, others may find it difficult to adjust to a new family—even if it’s a better situation for them. Change can be hard. Finding common ground with a new family can be scary and depending on the child’s background, it may take a lot more than good intentions and love.

Who Is Considered to Be an Older Child?

What age determines a child to be older depends on who you talk to and may vary with international adoptions.

Some people consider children ages 3 and up to fall into the category of older child adoption, while others place it at age 7. Still, many people think of teenagers when they think of older children awaiting placement.

Why Consider Older Child Adoption?

The North American Council on Adoptable Children pegs the number of youth who age out of foster care at approximately 20,000 a year. Many of these unparented young adults will face homelessness, work instability, and a lack of stable, loving relationships with adults.

Children have a higher likelihood of a much better future in finding a permanent home when making sure that they do not spend years waiting for placement and being shuffled through a complicated system.

Families willing to open their hearts and homes to older children will have a unique opportunity to experience a child’s firsts with them —perhaps not first teeth and first steps, but instead a first, “I love you” and a first bike ride. A first visit from the tooth fairy. A first birthday party, holiday celebration, or family celebration.

While there is no getting around the hurt that will always be a part of an older child, there is room for healing and love and the normal and natural joys found between parent and child making their way through life together.

Issues with Adopting an Older Child

There is a saying that “with little children come little problems and with big children come big problems.” While every child is unique, the product of different experiences and they each respond differently to their experiences, it’s entirely understandable that the more independent and out from under a parent’s thumb a child strays, the more opportunity for issues and obstacles.

That’s not to say that parenting an infant or a toddler is a piece of cake! Every age comes with its challenges; however, anyone who has ever parented a tween will tell you that some of the outbursts put the “Terrible 2s” to shame!

While many older adoptions go smoothly, prospective parents must be realistic in understanding that the older a child is before coming into their home, the more they have been through and the more outside influence they have received. Depending on their circumstances, they may never have had the fortune of having stability, structure, or a caring heart. This lack of foundation can result in negative behaviors. The Adoption.com article “Adopting an Older Child: Prepare Yourself for Difficulties and Rewards” discusses some of the issues that parents may experience with older children including lack of gratitude, sense of entitlement, lack of love, bad habits, rejection and rebellion, OCD or perfection obsession, and an attitude of no longer wanting to be parented.

Understanding that these are potential characteristics is the first step to finding an “in” with an older child from figuring out communication strategies to seeking outside help if necessary. Many parents of older adopted children wouldn’t have it any other way. The joy and satisfaction found in helping a child to transition into and adapt to a family can be very rewarding.

Bonding with an Older Child

Creating a bond, attachment, and trust are imperative to any healthy relationship. When parenting begins at the infancy stage, it’s easy for parents to take charge and start a child on a loving, caring, yet disciplined path in the hopes of providing stability and creating a strong and connected relationship.

The Adoption.com article “10 Tips After Your Older Child is Home” offers solid suggestions on ways to assist in helping older children to adjust to a new family, new environment, new start, and reducing sensory overload. It also discusses creating structure and routine; assuming the child is younger than they are; re-parenting, i.e. going back to the basics associated with bonding with babies and toddlers; assuming the child has attachment issues. Other points it goes over are giving the child chores, enforcing consequences of their actions, having fun, making time for yourself, and understanding that a healthy transition will take time.

How to Adopt an Older Child

Just like infant and toddler adoption, prospective parents may pursue older child adoption through the same channels, including adoption from foster careinternational adoptionkinship adoption, and adoption by a stepparent.

Families will still need to do their research, seek out the appropriate agency or legal help, participate in a home study and post-visits, and complete training.

The Adoption.com photolisting provides a snapshot of children waiting for adoption. Prospective parents should study available resources, including the Child Welfare Information Gateway for information regarding financial assistance here and look into requirements and laws that may vary from state to state here.

Make sure to ask lots of questions and rely on existing resources while reaching out for additional assistance as needed.

For those looking into adopting an older child internationally, the process remains quite similar, with the obvious addition of travel and in-country stay. As with any adoption at any age, it is particularly important that you speak with the child’s caregivers to receive comprehensive information concerning medical history and social history to help prepare you so that you can best help your child.

Additionally, ask about your child’s daily routine—what is a typical day like? What foods is the child most used to? What sort of peer interaction have they had? Are they enrolled in a school? Are they receiving treatment for any sort of special needs conditions? If possible, spend time with their direct caregiver to get a better feel for what life has been like before you. While you may not wish to continue raising them in the same manner, appreciating what they’ve been through and keeping what you know in mind as you introduce them to their new home, environment, and family can make all the difference in an easier transition.

We’re HomeNow What?

Adapting to life as a new family is going to take time. Even under the very best of circumstances, raising an older child is not a walk in the park. It comes with its amazing moments and the never-ending drama (the good, the bad, and the ugly) that comes with childhood and teens—and young adults for that matter.

Keep the communication open. Be prepared to stumble. Be prepared for breakthrough moments. Be prepared to stop and listen. Be prepared to just sit and be quiet together. Be prepared for disappointment. Be prepared for unexpected wonderful moments.

Getting Started

Since speaking with my friend about foster and older child adoption, I’ve realized that it’s not my place to judge her opinion on the subject. Older child adoption is not for everyone and an older child deserves nothing less than the bravest and the strongest to work through the difficult times. Someone who is committed to creating a healthy and stable home life and who has the capacity to notice and appreciate the joyful moments as they happen.

If you’re ready to take the first steps, check out the “How to Adopt a Child Guide” today!

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Susan Kuligowski

Susan Kuligowski

Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she's not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.