Adopting an older child can bring great stress to a family when the child has significant behavioral problems, developmental issues and/or attachment problems. In some cases a child’s behavior is so difficult that a family will need to seek significant professional support and services. Parents confronting serious challenges should first communicate with their mental health professional(s) about the daily challenges and stresses they are confronting. The therapist may recommend family therapy and/or he may recommend a new course of treatment for the child or a referral to a psychiatrist if he isn’t already seeing one. The family should try to get a diagnosis for the child so they can move forward with appropriate treatment. If the situation does not improve with treatment parents may have to consider respite care to allow them to take breaks from the daily stress of raising a behaviorally disturbed child. They might also opt to send their child into residential treatment or to a therapeutic boarding school. Whatever plan they develop, parents should maintain a steadfast commitment to the child. Even if the child cannot live at home they should always consider themselves their child’s permanent family. Transferring custody of their child to a new family without agency involvement or legally dissolving the adoption should never be considered. The vast majority of adopted children will do well in their new homes but about ten percent of older adopted children will have significant behavioral problems. The parents and families of these children deserve the unflagging support and empathy of other parents, teachers, extended family and mental health professionals.
Children react differently to the stress that comes from being adopting into a new family. Some are very fearful and show great anxiety about the change initially. Anxious children may seem nervous or angry, depending on their temperament. Other children act like everything is fine; they may be afraid to show what they feel or they have learned to survive different situations that they seem to adapt easily but this may just be a period of good-behavior (the “honeymoon”) followed by not-so-good behavior (the honeymoon is over). Some children, due to neglect, start gorging food and hoarding food, valuables or nonsense items like old paper/trash. It is important for a parent to understand what is the typical pattern of their child during times of stress—this information can be obtained from a previous foster parent, adoption worker, teacher, therapist, etc.—and you probably want to get all their perspectives so you can understand whether the behavior you see is typical or unusual for your child. You just need to know that there is a period of adjustment that can be challenging and chaotic as children test the commitment of the parents and try to figure out what it means to live in this family.
Adopting an older child has been compared to entering a marriage; both parties come to the relationship with previous experiences, knowledge, values and skills. It takes work to make a marriage successful. Older children are often survivors of terrible situations; they come to their families with behaviors that worked for them in the situation they were in but are often not as functional in a healthy and positive family environment.
Many children who are adopted when older have suffered trauma in their life. Traumatized children may demonstrate an array of emotional difficulties—fear, withdrawal, anger or depression. They may have behavior difficulties—poor interpersonal boundaries, not telling the truth, hoarding or taking things that don’t belong to them. Often, there are value differences between the adoptive parent and adoptee because both had a life and experiences before they joined together as a family.
Consistent love and commitment go a long way to changing these issues for the older adoptee. Parents will be challenged to figure out what they can accept and what they need to work out to help their child change. Sometimes professional help is needed as the adoptive family works on becoming a blended family.