This post is especially typed (with love in every word) for my bloggy friends who are adopting or have adopted older children.
First, let me share with you my definition of an "older child". . . a child who comes home after the age of two. I know many authors define an "older child" in adoption as any child who is no longer a newborn. I resist that definition, especially for orphanage-raised treasures.
Here's why: a child raised in an orphanage - even a WONDERFUL orphanage - tends to have notable delays in meeting his milestones.
It is not at all unusual for an 18-month old orphanage-raised child to be unable to walk. A 9-month old may not be sitting yet. A 6-month old may still have trouble lifting and controlling his head. None of these little factoids means your child is relegated to a lifetime of battling special needs. It simply means he wasn't someone's "one and only baby" and that tends to cause delays in development. It usually means he was not breast fed nor did he spend copious hours listening to his caregiver's heartbeat while she sat marveling at him on the couch contemplating putting him down but deciding not to. That's just the nature of "group care".
For all intents and purposes, your two-year-old adopted child may still be very much a baby when he comes home - diapered, bottle fed, mouthing anything he can get his hands on, few or no spoken words. In most cases, he will catch up given plenty of time and stimulation. Sometimes he won't. The only way to know is to raise him.
Our boys were 4 years old, 8 years old, 2.5 years old and 15 years old when they came home to us. Without calling any child's name or sharing too much, let me list for you some textbook behaviors I have seen in my older children. No ONE child of mine has exhibited all of these behaviors but each child has exhibited at least one:
1. Hypochondria - I have a son for whom even the slightest tickle in his throat or cramp in his stomach is a 4-alarm event. When I pick him up from a sporting event, the FIRST thing he does is list for me each and every injury and pain he has suffered as a result of playing said sport. I have read countless articles that describe a child such as mine and just as many solutions to this issue. My own personal approach involves listening sympathetically and trusting my "gut" to tell me when medication or a doctor's visit is merited and when he is just fishing for an arm around the shoulders and a let-me-have-a-look.
2. Food Issues- for an older child in adoption, food is a very touchy subject. ALL of my boys over ate tremendously upon arrival home. None of them came from an environment of starvation - NOT ONE! Each of my boys was lovingly provided for in his orphanage. The reason I believe my boys over ate (one to the point of vomiting on a regular basis) is the lack of CHOICE in food selection and portion sizes in an orphanage environment. My boys were fed three nutritious meals a day before they were mine. But they did not get to choose their food, neither did they get to snack very often. When brought into a family setting, they were literal "kids in a candy shop". Some of my boys had no "shut off" valve and would out eat their father (and that man can EAT)! Others would get right up from dinner and ask for a snack. Still others would take food to their rooms and keep it in a drawer so they never had to feel far from it. For three of my boys, I found the best approach to be "just go with it". I let them eat as much and as often as they liked within reason. I DID NOT make a big deal about the amount or selection of food they ate. The same result was yielded in each case. My boys spent about a month or two pigging out and then returned to a normal, controlled, less-than-obsessed type of eating.
There are no more food issues in this house (unless you count me buying myself jars of cake frosting and hiding them in my nightstand for my own private "get away").
3. Clamming Up - this is, by far, THE MOST FRUSTRATING aspect of older child adoption for me. There were times when I could clearly see one of my sons copping an attitude about something but he refused to discuss it with us. Even when asked in his native language, he insisted all was well - with pursed lips and a distant gaze. If ever a mother had to resist "reaching out and touching someone" . . . it was me when a son of mine chose to throw the silent treatment at us. For this particular behavior, I am far less gracious than for those discussed above. Refusing to answer and adult who is talking to you is RUDE and DISRESPECTFUL and, frankly, you don't get the luxury of being rude or disrespectful in our home. I generally send the child to his room until he decides to respond when spoken to. . and trust me, it's in HIS best interest to be far away from me when he's clamming up (ha ha). In time, an apology and explanation are usually forthcoming. Sometimes I have to apologize, too. I never handle this one very well.
4. Grief- my boys all missed their "old lives" to one degree or another. Sometimes their way of coping is to talk about life in the orphanage with great grandeur. Other times, it is to refuse to talk about it at all. I thought it would be a very loving act to make a bulletin board for one of our sons before he came home. I printed pictures of his house parents, friends and other caregivers and covered the board with them. Within two days of coming home, he promptly removed every photo and replaced it with sports pictures he printed from the internet. Okay, point taken. Either I was not close enough to him to choose the fodder for his bulletin board or he did not want a reminder of all the loved-ones he left behind. No matter what the reason, I let him steer the ship on this one. The same goes for talking about the "old life" or sharing birth history. I let my boys pick the tempo on that. If they want to talk, I'll listen. If they have questions, I will answer them. One of my boys even asked to read his paperwork. I let him. He seemed relieved afterward.
Their lives are a puzzle, even to them, and they deserve to have the pieces when they ask for them. It's their story. They have the right.
5. The desire to be "White" - one of my boys asked to die his hair blond within the first week home. When I asked why on Earth he would want to do that, he plainly said "I wish I was white". This same child refused to speak his native language with my husband, much to the chagrin of Daddy. This is a behavior that I might have expected if my boys came into an all-white family and just wanted to blend but my husband is full-on Filipino, speaks the language, we cook the food, etc. I am the oddball in this home and that's just fine with me. You may find your older child rejecting his birth heritage for a time after coming home and all the dance classes, play groups and Brown-is-Beautiful books may not reach him . . . YET. There is no "quick, slap on a bandaid" approach to handling this one. Reality therapy was our best bet. We simply told our son that God made him Filipino, he is handsome, smart and strong and God never makes mistakes so you'll have to learn to say "thank you, Jesus, for making me who I am". This child has been home for years and now seems quite proud of his race - but he still insists his wife will be white! Sorry, son, I have no answer for that one except "more power to ya" . . . ha ha . . .
Now, take a look back over my list and tell me. If you happen to have older, biological children in the home, is it possible you've seen some of these issues in THOSE children, too? I have. And sometimes my heart breaks for the adopted child because he lives in a fishbowl. If he likes to draw pictures of machine guns, he's headed for prison. If my biological son does the same thing he's just interested in the military. If an adopted child takes a candy bar from a store, he MUST have a full-blown attachment disorder. If a biological child does the same thing, he is committing a sin and must apologize - and then he's learned his lesson.
Yes, often times older child adoption brings with it a specific set of behaviors. Children learn to cope and survive in some unpredictable ways. But I BEG you to give it time. . . some of these issues will extinguish on their own and others may require a little more directed intervention. Whatever the case may be, give thanks. Remember when that child was just a photo in your hands and a file on your desk? Remember when you longed to just touch him in person? To be the one to tuck him in at night? To be the person to walk him through his fears and adjustment? Well, here we are . . . GIVE THANKS. When our Father could have chosen anyone for the job, He chose YOU. And equipped you to guide and love your older child through every phase and every stage.
JUST AS HE LOVES US!