I stepped out of the van and stared at the orphanage building. Like so much of Russia, I found it cold, gray, foreign, and frightening. I glanced up at the second story. From behind the edge of lace curtains, a young girl peered out. Her eyes met mine and I felt it — an unexplainable connection. Within the hour, the dark-haired little girl wrapped her slender 9-year-old arms around my waist and held on tightly. I didn’t travel to Russia to adopt. But, as I stood there with this child whose name I didn’t even know, I loved her and I wasn’t letting go.
Adopting an older child is a unique challenge. We were fortunate to have a large network of supportive families who had adopted older children. With their help and the advice of social workers, teachers, and other professionals, we learned many lessons along the way. Following are three of the most important:
Allow your child to share details at a comfortable pace.
It’s natural to be curious about your child’s life before the adoption. But, those memories are likely to be painful. Trying to force your child to share difficult details can damage your relationship and cause feelings of anger and bitterness.
It took more than seven years before our daughter was able to tell us the full story of how she ended up in the orphanage. Until then, we loved and supported her. We listened intently to the memories she shared. And, we gave her time — time to grieve the life she lost and time to trust this new family she never expected.
Don’t go overboard trying to compensate for the years you missed.
Because our daughter was 11 years old when the adoption was finalized, we felt like we had missed a big part of her childhood. We wanted to shower her with gifts and attention. Thankfully, another family who had adopted two girls of similar age warned us not to give in to this temptation.
They explained that making your new child the center of your universe doesn’t create realistic expectations. Eventually, the gifts and parties will come to an end and your child will wonder why.
Find ways to physically connect with your child.
During a class offered by our adoption agency, a counselor taught us that physical touch creates strong attachments between parents and their children. She also pointed to research showing the link between human touch and brain development.
From the time our biological children were babies, we hugged and kissed and loved on them. But, I never realized how awkward those same gestures would feel with an older child.
My husband and I had to make a conscious effort to find ways to connect with our new daughter. Some of these included: placing a hand on her shoulder while looking at schoolwork, high fives, and quick side hugs on the way out the door in the morning. Over time, we all grew more comfortable with demonstrating affection.
Today, our daughter is almost 20 years old. A typical American college student, she greets us with huge hugs when she comes home. Adopting an older child is a unique challenge, indeed. But, I’m so thankful for the opportunity to embrace the challenge and my beautiful daughter in the process.
Every adoption story is one of a kind and the obstacles you face may be quite different than ours. I strongly encourage adoptive parents to find a support system. If you don’t happen to know other adoptive parents, you can search online to find a support group near you.