Adopting an Older Child
I know that writing this will be a catharsis. I’m an adoptive mother struggling to reach into the recesses of a broken heart—that of my precious 16-year-old daughter Autumn. She is in her bedroom writing too. She is having a bad day. Having been adopted at the age of 13, she misses China today. I encourage her to write her emotions in the pages of a journal that I bought her. Some of her thoughts are too private. She writes those in Chinese so I cannot read them. I feel as if those Chinese characters represent an ancient code within her that I have to crack to find her healing. I’m fairly certain it is going to take me a lifetime to read.
In 2004, God opened our family to the idea of adoption. We were on a mission trip to Zambia (Africa) and fell in love with more than one orphaned child. We prayed: God, if you want us to adopt, we are willing. Drop a child into our lap and make it clear. By the time He did, our hearts had been marinating in the call for two years.
In 2006, my husband’s best friend called him. He’d just come from China where he and his wife (my best friend) had adopted two girls a few years earlier. He forwarded a photo to my husband’s laptop. It was love at first site and Bob committed his heart to her the moment he saw her. She was 13.
Adopting an older child is a drastically unique experience. There aren’t any how-to books or online chat groups available when you hit a snag. The school systems don’t really know how to advise you academically. Even the very experienced child psychologist who works with us doesn’t have any similar case studies, and so she doesn’t always know how to advise me.
For example, Autumn once shut down emotionally to Lexi, her teenage sister, and we couldn’t figure out why. After three months, we finally learned that it stemmed from a moment of sibling rivalry in which I intervened. After giving the girls time to figure it out, I had quipped: “That’s enough. This isn’t working!” Lexi correctly interpreted it to mean: “If we don’t negotiate a plan here, Mom will!” Autumn thought it meant I was taking her back to China, and so she chose not to interface with Lexi in an attempt to stay.
Adopting an older child is complicated and if you aren’t willing to roll up your sleeves and stay in the game, don’t consider it. On difficult days, you’ll have to believe without a doubt that this was a calling for you and your family.
How can you know if it is?
- First, know that you love the stage of development you’re adopting, whether that is a teen or tween or kindergartner. We have loved parenting teens more than any other stage of development. We work with teens and have experience in addressing at-risk behaviors, healing emotional trauma, and hanging out with them. (Hanging out is very important!) To us, adopting Autumn—even with her attachment issues, mother-traumas, and learning challenges—seemed like a better plan than baby bottles and diapers. We realized that we wanted a teenager.
- Second, get the advice of several families who have adopted children your child’s age.We dug hard and found a handful of families who had adopted teens, and even after their worst-case scenarios we still wanted to adopt a teenager. In fact, we loved the stories of success they shared and couldn’t wait to live a similar story out in our lives. One of those families adopted Rachael when she was 14. She was a broken, insecure, untrusting teen who aspired for nothing more than the next boyfriend. As I write this, she’s a strong, healing, trusting 19-year-old young woman who is on a three-month mission trip to Swaziland. It was so good to watch my friends cry tears of pride in May when Rachael was presented with the “Student of The Year” award at graduation. They made a huge difference in just five years.
- Third, make sure you have a support network around you. The first year is world-changing. You are changing the structure of your family, teaching a child English (if from another country), learning to cook food he likes, helping her make friends, figuring out emotional wounds, and adding costs and time for special needs. Before we made our final decision, we went to our children, our parents, and our staff. We got their feedback. They were willing to support us in this. And, they have.
I’ve written on this topic previously about the miracles we encountered in our adoption process, including a $13,060 refund from the IRS to make up the $13,000 difference in what we had and what we needed to adopt Autumn. On tough days, I remember those miracles. On days like today when Autumn hurts, I’m certain of one thing. God has given me Autumn.
As I finish writing this, Autumn has finished her journaling. She came into my office a few moments ago and showed it to me. It is in Chinese and is for her heart only. But, she’s brought it to me to gaze upon, as if inviting me to figure it out. Leaving it on my desk, she’s now curled up on the little sofa in my office. She just wants to be close. That’s all I know today. And, I’m pretty sure, it’s all I need to know.
November is National Adoption Month in the US. This post was previously published as an article in a Holt International magazine. Dannah Gresh is a spokesperson for Holt.