Adopting the Older Child: Questions Answered

In the past 20 months since bringing home an older child, I have often been asked questions and a compilation of those along with my answers are below. I do answer emails sometimes, but when I don’t it is often lack of time. With this post, I hope to be able to answer some of the most common questions I am asked. This is where we find ourselves today at 20 months home.

Of course 20 months from now, the answers may be different but for now this is where we are. When I refer to our son in this post, unless otherwise specified I am referring to our 12-year-old son, who came home from China in June 2010 at 10 1/2 years old.

How do they learn English? Did he know any? How quickly do they understand?

Our son knew no English except Hello and Good-Bye. He was 10 1/2 so he should have according to even a lower level school’s standards in China, but he didn’t. We do know he missed a lot of school due to his heart disease and being sick during the winter of 2009. For whatever reason, he didn’t have any English really.

We used a BESTA translator in China and we still use it today. His conversational English is very good and on the occasion he doesn’t understand, he will generally ask what does that mean? The reason he most uses his BESTA today is for translating written assignments and/or practicing his Mandarin. He does not have anyone to speak to on a regular basis in Mandarin, and yet we have strongly encouraged [required as part of his schoolwork] him to keep it as much as possible, so he uses the translator for that.

I highly recommend investing in the translator. While some have great success with Goo*gle translate or something similar, this device is small enough to fit in a pocket and well worth its cost if you ask me (and him too). There were times we’d be going somewhere new, and it just comforted our son to have that little device in his pocket. It also translates much more accurately than some of the on-line programs and it has a built-in dictionary, audio and other unique features. There are certainly other models; this just ended up being the one we landed on at ama*zon.

Our son is now reading at a 2nd grade level and seems to comprehend as he reads. His writing has advanced I have noticed in the last few weeks. One thing we do for that is to have him do copywork. This is where he rewrites a passage from a book or the Bible. He does have some struggles with recalling information, and we are working on some strategies to help him. Based on informal assessments we’ve done, it would seem the recall struggles are directly related to language acquisition though we have not done any formal tests.

We homeschool and our son has never been in a public or private school here in the US, so I have nothing to compare to on the ESL front. Here at home, we do a lot of reading aloud, family Bible time in the morning, listening to audio books and early on he was working through some phonics activities on-line and in workbooks. Some things are a continual struggle such as pronouns (very common problem for language learners as Mandarin doesn’t use pronouns), long and short vowels, and the silent E. I also have never taught English as a second language, so all I know is what has worked (and not worked) for us and I do not claim to be a professional (or novice) at this!

We use a combination of “sink or swim” and activities that foster learning the language in a way that is fun and productive. When I say “sink or swim”, we all knew (and still know) very little Mandarin and our home is only English-speaking (simply because we don’t know another language), so our son had no choice but to pick up English quickly. He loves to talk most of the time, so it was paramount that he learn. Thankfully, he has taken on the task with courage and stamina and most people are very impressed with his English language skills and his pronunciations. I am too!

Do you recommend artificial twinning with an older child adoption?

Absolutely not. While we knew that our two oldest sons would be just 15 months apart, we didn’t really think of it as twinning because we expected our son, 10 1/2 at adoption, to be more immature. And he was. What we didn’t see coming is that he and our next younger son, age just-turned 8 when our 10 1/2-year-old came home, to be so close in age maturity wise. This did cause a lot of issues and at times still does.

I’m going to be honest.

They both have strong personalities. They both are competitive. They both like to be in the limelight. You get the idea. It was very hard. They were like virtual twins in many way—personality, maturity, close in size, both boys, fighting for our attention and approval.

So for months, we had what my husband referred to as a male tug-of-war. Except he didn’t put it that nicely. And it really wasn’t pretty. And in the midst of the tugging, guess who felt like the rope? Yes, the Prez or I was the rope most of the time.

Before long, we found ourselves having some real struggles in our family. And it was affecting everyone in the family and our marriage too. Thankfully, we have a strong marriage and we recognized quickly that we had to stay united and we fell back on some principles we learned early on–discuss any disagreements in private and whatever we do, make sure the children see us as one, in agreement and working in sync with one another when discipline was necessary.

I have never shared this on the blog, but we did end up seeking professional help with one of our children and during the few months of therapy, we learned a lot about our parenting skills and how we could improve them. We learned a lot along the way about ourselves too and some of the strategies we learned to help this one child have helped us parent all of our children better. So, my advice there is to not be afraid (or ashamed) to ask for help.

What about disrupting birth order (adopting a child older than other children in the family)?

I am unfortunately again going to say absolutely not. Though I probably don’t say this for the reason most people would expect—the abuse question though it is a fair and responsible one to consider.

Well I can only speak from our experience. I know our 9-year-old one son who was displaced as the 2nd son in the family to the 3rd son (based on age)—he felt displaced and he probably always will. I know for others it is no big deal. But for him, this is how he feels and there is no shame in that. I haven’t been in his shoes, so who am I to judge? It is a lot to place on a child no matter what anyone else says. And in many ways, our son who was adopted came in determined to stake his claim. This didn’t set well with his next younger brother. At all. No wonder they rarely interacted at least in a positive way for months.

They are the ones we are most likely to find throwing the football to one another in the backyard today, but it was a lot of sweat and tears (and maybe some blood too) to get to that point. Nothing about it was natural or easy. For any of us especially the two of them. I wish it wasn’t so hard for them, but as a Mom there was only so much I could do. Ultimately they had to decide to accept one another and to move forward—and today we are at that point. Moving forward. Occasionally though one or the other still steps back and the work of bonding between these brothers continues.

Only you know your children and their personalities and the family dynamics in your home. Speaking of that, our family dynamic has completely changed since adopting an older child. Is that bad? Not necessarily. It was a painful process though to go through—the shifting that took place. Imagine an earthquake and the shifting of these large plates. That at times is how I envisioned it. After the quaking was all over, new things arose and some of it was beautiful and some of it was broken. As with any relationship that develops cracks, time and effort and a lot of prayer and involvement go a long way.

Are we there yet? No, we’re not. Since coming home from China I’ve noticed a distance between some of our children. Our son will always have a part of himself in China I think. This is just how he feels. Right now, a large part of him is still there. It is all fresh again, to the surface, and I imagine it really hurts. He talked to me a little about it today, and this confirmed my thoughts that he is missing China anew.

While he withholds a small piece of his heart and himself, others in our family go on and so the distance at times does break my heart. But there are the moments that thrill it and so we press on. And perhaps withholds isn’t the right word. I don’t know that it is a decision he makes; China is just a part of who he is.

Another component to this question involves bringing in an older CHILD (not just a boy; girls can be victims of abuse and then prey on others too) when younger siblings are present. This is the #1 fear I think of most prospective APs. We of course thought long and hard and talked to experienced parents. We put many fail-safe measures in place that to this day are still rules in our home for the most part. I should add for anyone reading that we brought in a then 10-year-old son into our home with children then aged 11 (son); 8 (son) and 4 (daughter):

1. Boys are absolutely not allowed to enter the girls’ bedroom. This rule is still strictly enforced to this day, because the way the Prez and I see it this can just prove beneficial in the days to come of teenage-hood and chastity (or the lack of in today’s society).

2. Girls are absolutely not allowed to enter the boys’ bedrooms. This rule is still strictly enforced to this day, because the way the Prez and I see it this can just prove beneficial in the days to come of teenage-hood and chastity (or the lack of in today’s society).

*The only exception to this would be if one or both parents are present and we are having a family group time (like a prayer time at night) in one of their bedrooms.*

3. Bathroom doors must always be closed (and preferably locked though there was a time we removed all locks but I’ll get to that) even if you think no one else is upstairs! Period. End of discussion.

4. Only one person allowed in a bathroom at a time. (I know this seems obvious but with 4 boys sharing one bathroom that has 2 rooms–1 with toilet and shower and the other with dual sinks–sometimes it isn’t so cut and dry). However, we feel it is best that when one is in their birthday suit, they have privacy. Period.

5. No doors on the bedrooms (they do now have doors but for about the first 6 months home we had them removed from the kids’ bedrooms). This one is obvious I think, but basically we wanted 24/7 access to the kids’ bedrooms. They knew we could (and often did) walk in at any moment unannounced.

6. Baby monitors in all their bedrooms and in the bonus room. The receiver was in our bedroom (at night) and/or with me as I traveled about the house during the day.

7. Just one boy and just one girl (or just one boy and younger boy) are not allowed alone together. As I type, Li’l Dude and Li’l Miss are jumping on the trampoline, just the two of them but I’m watching and they are outside. This rule obviously has exceptions, but the point is to protect anyone from being vulnerable in the early days home before you know about any possibly issues.

To this day, our son will often play with Li’l Dude and Li’l Miss. He doesn’t like LEGO play and though he finds common ground in sports and board games with his older brothers, he also at times finds common ground with his younger siblings. He didn’t know how to play imaginatively when he came home, so in many ways developmentally he “fit” better with the younger two. Early on, it was paramount to us that any separating be done in groups of 3 or more.

These are the main ones. You get the idea. The point here is to surround your home (even the interior of it) with a wide net of protection. You would rather prevent any potential issues arising from an abusive past involving an older child and to deal with that child’s needs concerning that than to involve your other children if at all possible. Some or all of these measures may seem over the top, but for us they were (and some still are) necessary to give us a peace that all of our children are safe in their own home. And I will add in all honesty we have never seen any concerns from either of our boys adopted older. Yes, Li’l Dude was only 5, but unfortunately that is not too young to be a victim and then victimize. I know of two families whose 5-year-old children were victimized in an institution and then later victimized a younger sibling.

Is it possible to find out if there has been any abuse of any kind in their life?

I don’t know that this is information you would ever see in a China referral, but I suppose anything is possible. We were fortunate to locate several families who had adopted older children from either our son’s foster home or ones in the same area (and associated with the same Children’s Welfare Institute). Based on information they shared about their own adjustments once home and the foster program of which our son was a part, we did feel a great peace that all would be right in this area. And so far we have seen NO issues or signs of abuse and we thank God for that. It is not something thought that I think as a parent you ever completely put out of your mind. As I mentioned, our son adopted at 5—he was in an orphanage his whole life and one that has very few adoptions—so we are always cognizant of that fact and aware.

Do older children (12 and up) gradually feel good with their new family or do they wish they were in China?

Well our son was 10 1/2 at adoption. I don’t know if the answer would be different if he had been 12, but I suspect not. He does feel good he says. He is happy here, but he was very happy in China. Our son was in a loving foster home and we to this day are in contact with them. While I think the continued contact has made our attachment and bonding be a longer process, I do think this relationship being intact has been necessary for him and we just couldn’t take what little was left of it away.

I admit readily to struggling with the fact that we are the cause of him having to leave China and this good family. I will probably never have all the answers. We do trust in God’s sovereignty, but we don’t believe God “chose” him to be our son before the beginning of time. God is all about redemption and He does use His people to make broken things new, even the lives of orphaned children. And yet, God desires I believe for all children to be born into the arms of loving parents, to be healthy and to never know the loss and pain of abandonment. I just can’t believe that He would choose for a child to be abandoned so we could adopt him.

In His sovereignty though, He led us to our son. And now we have extended family in China. We hope to see them again someday here and to see them in heaven. As for our son, a part of him will always belong in China. This is just who he is and where he finds himself. I would not at all be surprised if he chose to go back someday, and we would wholeheartedly support him in that (and hope he’ll do well enough to house his large family for occasional visits!).

It must be very hard for a child to leave the only place he has known for 10+ years and go to a land far away. In China, our son fit in. Here, at first, he did not and he knew it. This went deeper than the color tone of his skin or his near-black eyes and hair. No, this went to who he is, to the person he is, to the experiences that colored his past and present. Having been adopted—that fact in and of itself separates one from a lot of others. I will never forget the moment our son found out that one of his buddies at church, who was adopted domestically and is the same ethnicity as his parents, was actually adopted. He just kept saying, “He was? Are you sure? But …” and he would never finish the sentence. I knew though what he was thinking: “But he doesn’t LOOK different.”

So that weighs in too—at least for our son. Though our area is quite diverse, he will always stand out. We will always stand out. A family of 8—four of us Caucasian and four of us Asian. We are different. We are larger than most families. We are together by marriage, birth and adoption. We don’t fit the ideal maybe. And sometimes it wears on him. He tires of the questions from complete strangers, and so do I.

I hope that someday he’ll know without a doubt that his move here—to our family—was for a purpose. I’m not sure he believes that right now, but he has certainly embraced his new life with courage, perseverance and a stubbornness at times that has undoubtedly seen him through many losses in his life.

Do they warm up to affection? Do they adopt you as a mom?

Hmm. This is a question I was recently asked via email. I figured it is one others have, so I will answer as best I can.

Our son is very affectionate by nature. He is very loving and wants to be hugged and shown love. However, I was not his Mom for 10 1/2 years. Someone else was his Mama. And in many ways she still is. I think he will always hold a place for his “China Mama” in his heart. His “China Mama” was his foster Mom for many years. He was old enough when he went to live with her and his foster father that he remembers it vividly. He has many memories (and photographs; God bless her for taking those with him and sharing them with him and us) of that day when he went to live there. He knew from the beginning (he confirmed this and so did she) that she was his foster Mom, but in time she just became his Mama. She is just that type of person. She is a natural Mother. You know people like that.

I saw it the day we met her in China in 2010. She had Li’l Dude in her lap within 5 minutes of being in our hotel room. It wasn’t that she pushed for it or that he jumped on her immediately. It was more like he gravitated toward her. She hugged him tight and he looked up at her sweetly, and she told us through the translator that she wished she could have taken him in too because “he had been missing a Mama.” She knew he had lived in the orphanage and it was obvious he was very needy. I wished he had been with her too. Even in that moment.

There were other subtle hints to her natural (and perhaps God-ordained) gift for children. And to this day we see it in our son, the one she loved unconditionally (boy has that word taken on new meaning since seeing them again) for so many years. She loved him well and taught him well and then she let him go. I can’t imagine. And yet he has never let her go, and I don’t think he ever will.

Some of you noticed the questions I had written on our whiteboard for our older children to answer in essay form. Our son’s favorite part of visiting China was the day we spent with his foster family—Mom, Dad and older sister. I knew this would be his answer, but what surprised me was the deep feelings he expressed in his essay. I could never share them here or with anyone. They are his alone, and he shared them with me on his own and in total confidence. I felt honored and humbled he chose to share them and that he knew if he did, my love for him would still be the same—unconditional—and they confirmed for me a lot of what I assumed he still feels.

Our agency coordinator expressed that it was almost like a hybrid open adoption, this connection we’ve continued with our son’s foster parents. I guess that is a good way to put it. I imagine if they lived here, we’d certainly invite them over for holidays and to share a meal and to be a part of important moments in his life. We can’t do that obviously and it does break my heart at times. They are older than us and we don’t know how long they will be on this earth. I hope we can meet again in China (or maybe here?!) someday. The invitation has been extended and left open in both directions. Until then, we do what we can to remember and cherish. And I think ultimately it has helped our son to know that he can have a place in his heart for all of his Mommas—the one who bore him, the one who taught him the unconditional love of a Momma, and me, the one who has the privilege and joy of walking alongside him as he continues to grow into the man God created him to be.

**I have not named this part one as I don’t know if there will ever be another part, but by all means if you have questions related to older child adoption … please leave it in a comment or email me here. I may use your question to share here on the blog my answer as best as I can, but I won’t share who asked the question. I have also cross-posted this at my personal blog, Room for at Least One More.**


Comments

  1. Missy, I can tell you that our daughter who gained an *older* brother (well two but really one of them is more like a twin since they are 4 months apart on paper) by adoption took to it like a fish to water! She loves her 2nd oldest brother and never seemed displaced by him coming home. I do think it is different for bio children especially ones who are more natural leaders in personality.

    I can’t say it would be “no big deal” but I think your thoughts are reasonable that it would not be the same as displacing a bio child who has always been in the family to bring in an older child than one who was adopted. Hope this helps.

  2. I am wondering about your thoughts on another adopted child feeling displaced?

    I have 4 bio kiddos ages 5, 6, 7 & 8. We are adopting a baby from Ethiopia. The process has taken much longer than was originally anticipated and the result is that there will be a much greater gap between our new baby and current baby. So I have been thinking that the next time we adopt, we would probably get a toddler, older than our soon-to-be daughter, to bridge that gap.

    Since the baby will already have 4 older sibs, I would think that one more would not phase her birth order much – she will still be the baby, no matter what. ?

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