Older Child Adoption: The Overlooked Special Need

June 17, 2012 Kelley, older child adoption, siblings 5 Comments

The last twelve days have been filled with joy, awe, gratitude, and love as our family welcomed its sixth member, baby Maryn. We haven’t even reached a year since Caroline’s “Gotcha Day” and another little one has joined our family! Four kids in four years. A friend recently joked that it isn’t a requirement to add a child each year in order to send out Christmas cards.

We had only been home from China three months last fall when I discovered with surprise, delight, and a little panic that I was pregnant. I worried how all my kids would react, particularly my adopted daughters. I was overjoyed to learn that all three of our kids were super excited and eager for a baby sibling.

Grace (my 3-year-old) and I had some interesting conversations throughout my pregnancy. She would often say, “Carter comes from the hospital, and I was born in China! Right, Mommy?” And one time she asked, “Did you and Daddy come to China to get me in your belly?” I had to explain she grew in her China mommy’s belly and that we went to China to pick her up later. The conversations haven’t gone much deeper yet, but I know hard questions will eventually come as she digests and fully comprehends her background and her story.

Caroline, my 13-year-old, loves to help and be hands-on with the baby. I had anticipated this. What I hadn’t expected was her lack of knowledge about newborn care and precautions. I had forgotten that she had been the only child in a foster family for seven years prior to her adoption, so she hadn’t really been around any newborns. In one of several scary and disconcerting incidents, my helper took off running to hide from the two little ones coming down the hallway… while carrying the baby! I think this was the first time I ever yelled at Caroline, but I panicked when I saw Maryn’s fragile little body flopping at high speed across the room.

After a few incidents, I found myself very irritated, wondering how and why my teenager was making such poor decisions. And then I remembered…. a sense of consequences, perception of cause and effect, linear thinking, are concepts many adopted kids lack and have not yet developed. Hence why Caroline hopped on a bike last summer for the first time and thought she could ride it down a hill. As you’ve probably concluded, the situation didn’t end well. She crashed into a fence and got pretty scraped up. Adopted kids typically don’t have a sense of danger, and this mixed with impulsiveness can be a recipe for disaster.

The key to handling this “special need” that often goes unmentioned? Patience.

While my first thought was, “How does she not know better than to jerk a newborn around?” my eventual response was to extend Caroline grace and gently instruct her on some basics of newborn care. I had to remind myself that she wasn’t trying to be annoying by clapping loudly in the (sleeping) baby’s face… she was trying to find a way to engage. And she wasn’t purposely being careless when she swiftly swung her baby sister back and forth in one arm… she was trying to be a fun big sister. (After all, Grace and Carter love to be tossed and swung about.)

I had to review my expectations through a filter of adoption knowledge in order to have the right perspective and the right approach to my daughter’s behavior.

If you’re adopting an older child, be prepared for the unexpected in regards to behavior. It’s easy to think your child will have age-appropriate knowledge of manners, or social cues, or safety precautions. It’s also easy to become frustrated, perturbed, and even disappointed when your child falls short in one of these areas.

Just remember that adopted kids have such limited life experience, particularly if the orphanage was their only home, that they never learned the lessons that are second nature to others. Lessons we tend to assume have already been learned. I believe this delay can be as much a special need as a medical issue, and it’s often overlooked when preparing parents for post-adoption challenges.

My eldest child may not know all the ins and outs of newborn safety and care. But part of my role is to teach her these things. I’m learning to anticipate situations in which Caroline may be unfamiliar.

What I do know is that she truly loves her baby sister and desires to help her momma. And loving kindness and service are two traits that are much tougher to cultivate.

As our family has grown, I believe Caroline has as well.

5 responses to “Older Child Adoption: The Overlooked Special Need”

  1. Very well put! We brought home two boys from Detroit while I was pregnant (surprise!) that were 4 and 6….our littlest man really had much to overcome and doesn’t remember much about those first 6 months. He still lacks stranger danger or any sense of danger at 7.5! We are now in the process of bringing home 2 children from China in the next 6 weeks (we HOPE!) and we still have much learning of patience on our parts…its a lifelong process to help our kiddos heal…fully!

  2. Amy Murphy says:

    I wish I had read this a year and a half ago! Very insightful, and humbling…

  3. Mary Beth says:

    We have been home with our 4.5 year old for a year. We also have a three year old, who was two when we adopted her sister. I am often amazed at how much our bio daughter learned in her first two years. She didn’t have a large vocabulary to communicate the knowledge she was gaining, but she instinctively knows what acceptable behavior is. Our adopted daughter has learned so much in the last year, but she has to learn it. There is no instinct. I recently explained a behavior to her that was unacceptable, and she said, “Oh. That’s not ok? I’m sorry.” You are so right about needing patience!

    Maryn is beautiful. Congratulations to your family!

  4. Judy says:

    Oh my! THis is spot on:) They truly have no social grace……which is TOTALLY learned behaviors! But thanks for the reminder that, those things are more easily learned than being helpful and kind! And for the reminder to be PATIENT…….I needed that as well:) Congratulations too by the way:) Maryn’s a beauty!

  5. Thank you for this post. We are about to bring home our 6yo son. I have heard these thing mentioned before; experienced them with our 2 yo we brought home. But…I don’t know…I like the way you put it. Clear and concise. I am going to bookmark this and use it as a reference when he comes home. I have been thinking, as I prepare for my son’s arrival, that it will be much more pronounced in him than in her because he is older. And, like you pointed out, can be even more consequential the older they are. I don’t want to put over-the-top expectations on him, or anyone else for that matter. That was difficult enough with my 2 yo. Again, thanks for this. Well put!

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