My adopted son joined our family when he was nine years old. My husband and I had never planned to adopt a child, but his need for a home came about because of a family emergency and it was a bit complicated. My husband and I didn’t hesitate. We knew adding an older child to our family would be challenging, but we believed we could offer him a loving, safe home to grow up in.
But there was no way we could know all that could come along with adopting an older child.
Our adoption story is not the norm. My son is actually my cousin. His birth mother is the youngest of 10 kids; my father is the oldest. His mother was also adopted. And his need for a home came about because she suddenly became very ill due to complications with diabetes. Although our adoption story is a bit complicated, we still experienced much of what typically happens in the adoption process.
I thought that we would be able to quickly gain full custody of my son due to the fact that we had the full support of his birth mom. But the foster care system and family court can be very complicated entities. I was not prepared for how long and arduous this process can be. What I thought would take months turned into an almost two-year process to get full legal custody of my son. Court dates were pushed back several times, or we would make it to court and some random piece of paperwork was not in place and the date would have to be rescheduled. And even after having legal custody for over five years now, the full adoption process is still not complete.
With older kids, the adoption process can also be complicated by birth families. It is not uncommon for members of a child’s birth family to contest the adoption. Usually the goal of the foster system is to reunite kids with their birth parents or other family members, and they will try to exhaust all possibilities before allowing a child to be adopted. That can make for a very complicated process. In our case, my family was the birth family — and although they were supportive of the adoption, we did have to face contention of custody from his birth father. And there is just no getting around how heartbreaking all of that can be.
Separating a child from their birth family is traumatic, whether they come from a neglectful or abusive background or not. The older the child is, the more aware they are of what is happening. My son had to move across the country to live with a family he barely knew and adjust to an entirely different way of life. He was suddenly in a home with other kids, being parented by new people, and had to adjust to a new school all at once. Not to mention, he was fully aware of the fact that his mother was very ill and he may never get to be with her outside of a hospital again.
We knew counseling and family therapy would be a must. Our kiddo had a lot of feelings to process, and his feelings often showed up in angry outbursts and sometimes even shutting down completely. Like many adoptive parents, I wished I could take all of that on for him. I never imagined how hard it would be for him, and all we could do was provide him with the support he needed and lean into the help of professionals.
The older the child, the more history they may come with. That history likely comes with some very big feelings that no child should have to feel. And they will need a great deal of support processing all those feelings. That is something you will definitely need professional support with — and you have to give it the time your child needs.
The other thing that came up for us was helping our birth children adjust to having a new family member. We had two kids prior to gaining custody of my oldest son. We realized that the shift in birth order for our first born child was quite an adjustment that we had not anticipated. Our firstborn went from being the oldest child to the middle child. He was not very happy with that change at first, and was sure to let us know. Thank goodness over the years, the two of them have grown quite close to each other and now like to team up to annoy the crap out of my youngest two.
We also had to come to terms with the fact that the way we practiced parenting was not how our adopted kid was used to being parented. First and foremost, he came from a single-parent home, so having an active dad in the home was a bit of an adjustment for him. We also had very different rules, expectations and ways of communicating in our family. It was a learning curve for all of us and required quite a bit of patience, reiteration and lots and lots of communication.
We probably overkill on the communication, but I have always wanted my son to understand why we are doing things a certain way or asking certain things of him. I know that he sometimes struggles with feeling like an outsider and I want to be sure to do everything in power to circumvent any of those feelings. I never want him to feel like he doesn’t belong. But joining a family as an older kid can definitely make a child feel that whether they want to or not, and it shouldn’t be up to them to create an environment where they feel wanted and loved.
Adopting any child is a rollercoaster ride of unexpected ups and downs. And there is no way you can fully understand the level of patience and understanding until you are deep in it. But you have to be in it for the long haul, because at the very least an adopted kid should have a home where they feel loved, accepted and safe.
Unfortunately, we lost my son’s birth mother a little over three years ago. But I am so happy that we were the ones to be there to love him through that pain. He has grown from a hurt, scared, and unsure kid to a confident, thriving, and yes, annoying teenager. He has all the normal mood swings, everyday eye rolls, and sweet moments of growth all rolled up into an awkwardly tall and skinny body. Every day still presents learning opportunities and chances to grow, but even knowing what I know now, I would adopt my son 1,000 times over.