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Parenting the "Older" Adopted Child

By Louise Fleischamn, LCSW-C

There are many joys and challenges in parenting an older adopted child--which I will define here as 2+ years old. In infant adoption, parents' initial tasks are to meet the baby's basic needs: feeding, sleeping, and nurturing. Generally, infants are ready and willing to bond to their parents, and parents are ready to immediately bond with their babies. In older child adoption, the significant disruption and/or trauma that occurred with the first parents, can make children very hesitant to bond with their new parents. However, through the child's journey from hurt to healing, most parents and children come to experience a deep and lasting love toward each other. We know that every kind of adoption involves loss, in that the mother who gave birth will not continue to raise her child. Often there are loss issues for adoptive parents, too, who struggled with infertility before deciding to adopt. However, "older" children in orphanages and foster care have experienced traumatic losses prior to being adopted. First, let's examine the issues impacting the child. At two years old, a child's psyche has been shaped by early experiences with prior caretakers. If the first mother was unable to consistently meet her baby's basic needs, a child may view himself as unworthy of love and the world as unsafe. This negative sense of self and others can cause a child to avoid intimacy and love, to be unable to regulate his emotions, and not understand cause and effect. The range of emotional challenges depends on the severity and age when the trauma occurred, the child's natural personality, and the adoptive parents' skill in handling the child. Let's move on to examine some relevant factors of the adopting/adoptive parents. Why would someone want to adopt a child who has suffered a profound loss early on? Adopting parents might be older (40+ years old); they may already have had parented an infant and in fact prefer a child who is potty-trained and more selfsufficient. They may want an older child as a companion to their other child at home (a big red flag!); or they may want give back to society by rescuing a child in need. My husband and I chose to adopt our children (ages 8 and 9 years old) for a mix of the above reasons. Many adopting parents (ourselves included) may hold on to the belief that their child will simply not be so challenging. It is incredibly important for parents to understand child development and the effect of trauma on behavior. Parents need to be aware of their personal needs to be loved and trusted by their new child. Otherwise, this very scared, out-of-control child can also make the most loving parent feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and unappreciated. Fortunately, there are a number of strategies that can keep a family together and improve its functioning in a relatively short time. Here is a timetable to help put the distress into perspective, especially for parents. The first three months after placement are often the roughest, because both the parents and the child may be completely out of synch with each other. The child may be testing the parents' resolve at every turn, trying desperately to learn the household rules, language, and family system. Within the first six months, parents

have usually seen the range of misbehaviors--although not the range of positive, loving behaviors. In fact, adoptive parents will bare the brunt of all the negative experiences the child suffered before being adopted. The child may have difficulties in other environments, such as in the classroom or on the playground, or the behaviors may be restricted to home. It can be very disconcerting for parents to hear how beautifully their child is behaving at school while their home is a frequent battleground! It can take a full year for the family to "gel" and feel like a real family. When parents provide a consistent, nurturing household, their child will gradually begin to trust his new family and old behaviors will decrease. It is impossible to anticipate how each family's household will function with the addition of a new and "older child." However, there are some steps parents can take immediately to help during the initial transition...and even if the child has been home for a while already.


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Toddler proof your home, no matter how old your "new" child is and put away valuables, just in case. Safety proof your home, placing household chemicals, medications, and knives out of reach. Establish a routine immediately, especially around mornings, meals, homework, and bedtimes. Increase your household structure, as needed. Apply immediate consequences and rewards for positive and negative behaviors. Learn your new child's language, especially feelings words; buy some children's nursery rhymes in that language. Buy toys that are appropriate for a younger child because your child's emotional age will usually be younger than his chronological age. Play games with your child that engage the 5 senses: peek-a-boo, rocking, reading out loud, massages, applying lotions, baking cookies, etc. Limit television and videogames: this entertainment only keeps your child at a distance from you. Remind yourself that your child is an "infant" in your home, regardless of his chronological age. As an "infant," your child will need to pass through all of the usual developmental milestones again. Your child is SCARED! Remember that fear is the root of most of his misbehaviors. Establish relationships with people who truly understand! Seek out community resources with adoption/attachment professionals. Opt for family counseling rather than individual counseling for your child. Love and trust take time to build!

Children are amazingly resilient. Despite their early "hard knocks," most children can learn to love and trust adults again. But it takes persistence, patience, and often professional help. Families who choose the journey of older child adoption inevitably become stronger and wiser. I know that I have. Louise Fleischman, LCSW-C, Director of the Center for Adoptive Families, is a clinical social worker, specializing in older child adjustment and attachment. She provides clinical services and professional training on attachment and adoption nationwide. Louise and her husband adopted their two children at ages 8 and 9 years old.


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