Monday, June 4, 2012

Older Child Adoption

A large percentage of the orphans worldwide that are available for adoption and waiting for families are older children. I don’t have any fancy global statistics to cite for you (and honestly I am starting to get bugged by misleading and misapplied statistics happening within adoption advocacy - that will be a post for another day), but, Jake just mentioned to me that in a book he was reading (The Poor Will Be Glad by Greer and Smith) the amount of older children within the global estimate of orphans is about 80%.  I can also share the following stats with you from our adoption agency’s Ghana program:

In the last 5 years, our agency’s Ghana program has seen about 120 kids home.

-In those 5 years there have been no children who have come home that were under 1 year old at the time of homecoming.

-66% of the children who have come home were between 5-10 years old.

I recently read an awesome blog post from a family considering adopting an older child (you can read it here), and it spurred a lot of reminiscing from me of when we were in a similar position at the start of Justice’s adoption. Lately, a bunch of articles and blog posts about orphaned older children have crossed my path, and it’s hit me that I quite possibly haven’t done a very good job of advocating for older child adoption. Honestly, because our adoption of Justice and his transition into our family went rather smoothly (at least in our opinion) I didn’t want people to start reading into that and thinking it was ‘the norm’. I’ve heard of many families who have had smooth experiences with older child adoption, and many who haven’t. In fact, there probably isn’t a norm – rather each experience is based on the individual child, their background, history, personality, etc. Justice’s history involved a loving, non-abusive birthmother, and I would attribute that to being the main reason why we did not encounter any major attachment issues with him. Upon his adoption I would say he was emotionally intact, was able to receive love, and did not have unreasonable fears that prevented him from trusting us. There were, however, other non-attachment related behaviors that we had to work through, which I will get to below.

First, in my friend’s blog post above, she listed off several things that some of her wise friends encouraged her and her husband to ponder as they considered adopting an older child (in their case it is a specific child that they are considering). They were spectacular suggestions to think through and although Jake and I unfortunately did not have this sort of counsel during our first adoption of Justice, we arrived at a somewhat similar thought process. I wanted to repeat the considerations here on this post in case you are also thinking about older child adoption. Here are the considerations, cut and pasted in my friend’s words:

1. Find someone who's been there, done that and ask lots of questions.
2. How might displacing Scott's "oldest" status impact him? (Scott is this family’s eldest biological son – the child they are considering adopting is older than Scott)
3. I love that my kids are close in age. And I selfishly desire for any future kids to also be close in age. But close in age and developmentally different are a potential for struggle.
4. If you run a tight ship, are you ready for that boat to be rocked? Are you patient enough and willing to wait for an 8 year old to start acting like an 8 year old?
5. What are your plans if things are really a mess? What if he needs counseling? Are there counselors available nearby to help?
6. It might be helpful to have a trusted amharic speaker who's willing to help communicate here and there (the child they are considering adopting is Ethiopian). 
7. Would your family be supportive of the adoption? In my specific situation, my mom is my daycare provider. Would they be patient enough to deal with a struggling 8 year old?
8. Which brings up the next concern: are you willing to stay home while that child adjusts? What if it takes more than "maternity leave" and you need to stay home 6 months? Or a year?
9. Attachment challenged kids can come off pretty charming. His personality could be very different than the agency or visiting Americans have seen.

These considerations are just so right on! Going into our adoption of Justice, the biggest of these that we weighed was #2 – How would adopting Justice affect our bio kids - namely JJ - since we would be disrupting birth order and Justice would become our eldest child? Let me tell you, this weighed HEAVILY on me. If there was one way that the devil got a hold of my mind during our adoption, it was with this whole topic of displacing birth order (which some agencies won’t even let you do by the way). There were two things that really played into me becoming at peace with adopting out of birth order in our family. The first was a dynamo blog post on the topic that a friend sent to me since she knew I was struggling with this. The post had so many good points that my fears literally fizzled away as I read it - you can read it here. The second was that as Jake and I discussed it, we kept coming back to JJ’s personality. At the time JJ was overly shy, reserved and passive. Both Jake and I felt that JJ having an older brother would actually be beneficial in engaging him to come ‘out of his shell’ a bit. That probably sounds weird, but I don’t know how else to explain it. By nature, JJ’s personality is just not very dominant, and he certainly also does not get stressed out easily – he’s more ‘go with the flow’ type. We knew he wasn’t going to be damaged or angered by no longer being the eldest – in fact, we thought he would probably like it and that it would affect his life positively rather than detrimentally. Adopting out of birth order isn’t right for every family, but for our family it worked.

I think another thought that definitely goes along with adding an older child to a family with children already present in the home is that you start coming up with these sorts of ‘what if’ fears. [I’ve already blogged about this previously, so feel free to skip this paragraph if you don’t want a repeat.] A big fear of mine was ‘what if the child we adopt hurts one of our kids?’. Well, the reality is that it could happen. There is a chance that an adopted child who has experienced past trauma could act out physically in his/her new home. And that’s where I remind myself that I don’t live under probability or by chance. I don’t live under the idea of fate. I don’t live by being lucky or unlucky. I live under the hand of a Sovereign God who is the blessed Controller of all things (1 Timothy 6:15, PH). God does not make mistakes or miscalculations. EVERY circumstance in my life is under His Sovereign control. Because of His Sovereignty I can trust Him with my tiniest doubt, or with my most heart-wrenching fear. I fully believe God has a higher interest in protecting all of my children, biological or not, than even I do. He loves them more than me. I was the “Queen” of these sort of ‘what if’ fears throughout our adoption process of Justice. With adoption, there is so much that you can’t see and that you don’t know….your mind can pretty much go wherever it wants to. Adoption (and life in general) is full of potential problems and pain. And not only are you dealing with this in your own heart and mind, but outsiders observing your adoption may slam you in the face with ‘what ifs’ as well. In my personal experience, this was the way that Satan capitalized on my fears and tried to paralyze me into inaction (I wrote a little about that here.) I finally had to come to a point in which I fully gave this fear over to God by trusting Him in faith. God had brought me to a place in which I needed to trust Him with my most treasured possession….my children….even though I couldn’t see what the outcome would be.

Now, onto our post-homecoming experience. Like I mentioned above, with Justice’s transition into our family we didn’t deal with any major attachment issues, nor did any of my ‘what if’ fears come true. :) However, after Justice’s homecoming, the biggest thing that we did deal with was #4 on the considerations list: ARE YOU PATIENT ENOUGH AND WILLING TO WAIT FOR AN 8 YEAR OLD TO ACT LIKE AN 8 YEAR OLD? I chuckled out loud when I read that one. Although this consideration sounds like a petty/minimal thing compared to other issues that could come up in adoption, let me tell you, when you are dealing with this day in and day out you feel like you might lose your mind. This was our biggest struggle with Justice. He was no where near the social/developmental maturity of his actual age. In fact, as I was thinking back to our first months of him being home, the words that came to my mind to describe his every day behaviors were “wild and unruly!” Him being a big brother figure to JJ flew completely out the window because he was acting like he was the same age as JJ! Justice needed to be taught everything that a child (in America) grows up learning just as part of every day life…for example:

Social manners
-Doing away with loud/fierce yelling/talking and arguing
-Doing away with rude facial expressions
-Understanding that there is a time to be ‘goofy’ and a time not to be
-No running/chasing/wrestling indoors or out in public places

Awareness of others (especially spatial manners)
-Not cutting people off when walking through a doorway
-Not walking backwards in public places while talking loudly as people try to dodge out of your way
-Not flailing limbs wildly in play while in public – I can’t tell you the amount of times he accidently hit or kicked someone walking by!

And a really big one was respect/appreciation for authority – especially women.
-I didn’t realize that this was a common experience across the board in regards to Ghana adoption until our current agency sent us an article about it entitled: Adopting Older Boys: What this can mean for Mom. In our early days, I faced a big challenge in earning Justice’s respect and therefore his obedience to my authority. What I didn’t know at the time was that this was a sort of engrained cultural value that he had grown up with. We came to this realization right away when we took Justice to his first basketball tournament – which just happened to be a girl’s tournament. Justice was flabbergasted that 1) Girls were playing basketball and that 2) Jake was coaching girls. I remember Justice kept trying to physically shove me out onto the courts (literally) and he kept saying to me, “You coach! Daddy no coach girls!” He just could not wrap his mind around the idea that Daddy would take the time to coach girls! He saw it as humiliating to Jake’s worth if I can explain it that way.

-Another way that this was displayed was that if I asked Justice do something, or if I gave him an answer to a question, etc, he would turn around and go and seek a different answer from Jake. I can still remember a situation even a year ago in which one evening Justice asked me if he could sleep on the couch that night. My answer that night was no. About 5 minutes later I was in my room folding laundry and I heard him ask Jake the same question. And you better believe that I flew (or maybe stomped) out of the bedroom and brought it all to the surface. One thing that I’ve always appreciated is that Jake often expresses/highlights our oneness. To Justice he responded “Mommy and I are always on the same page, so my answer is the same as hers.” I know even American kids take part in this sort of playing sides scenario, but honestly, with Justice I firmly believe he was not trying to manipulate in order to get his way. His behavior simply stemmed from him doubting the authority of my answer.  Just a few weeks ago I was talking with a mom who had adopted an older boy from Ghana and was experiecing this as well, although in a different way.  She said that her new son had been doubting her capabilities on everything – telling her how to drive the car, how to cook meals, how to clean, etc.

-Eventually I was able to earn Justice’s respect for my authority by finding something that Justice valued, that I knew more about and could teach him. For us that turned out to be the Bible. Justice had (and still has) this God-given, engrained interest in really understanding scripture at a deep level. He thirsts to understand the Bible, and I mean thirsts! This is where our minds are completely similar. I want to dig and dig and dig and unwrap the treasures hidden within verses – even if that takes me into complex theology. When I started doing regular Bible studies with Justice, that was the point when he realized that I knew more than him (hee hee!). The best part was that since our minds follow the same train of thought, I could guess ahead of time what his questions would be. I always had an answer for him, and when he realized that I could interpret scripture and teach him, he was ALL EARS! This was what paved the way for Justice to start respecting me in other areas. Even now as I write this, I feel like this issue of respect for female authority is completely behind us.

The great thing about all of these less-than-desirable behaviors is that with consistent teaching and set expectations, Justice quickly learned what was expected and what was appropriate. It just took time (and patience – which I hopefully will have more of this time around). :)

While I am writing this post I also wanted to include our thought-process/approach regarding school - which was not based on any sort of expert opinion by any means - but I’ll share how we handled it. Since I am not a homeschooling mom, we had to figure out when it would be an appropriate time to transition Justice into the school scene. For the first few months after his homecoming we knew we wanted to focus on bonding/attachment. In addition, we also wanted to wait until Justice had a better handle on English before sending him. His homecoming was in September (2010), and our initial thought was to have him start school at the start of second semester which would be after Christmas time. That would give us a few good months under our belt at home. We also were trying to figure out what grade to start him in. Upon his homecoming, Justice physically fit in well with the 3rd graders on Jake’s Kingdom Hoops team, and we guessed his age to be somewhere in that range (although his Ghana birth certificate had him at 6 years old!). However, emotionally/socially, as I mentioned above he was years behind his peers. We knew it would be way too overwhelming and pressure-filled to just pop him in a class with others his age and expect him to ‘catch up’ educationally. So, we decided that we would start him at square 1, and move him up in grades accordingly as was necessary. This would allow him time to gain confidence, gradually master educational concepts, and also ensure that he didn’t miss any integral concepts – the main one being learning how to read.

We ended up starting Justice in school sooner than we had thought because Jake and I both felt that he ‘was ready’. You can read more on that here. Although by American standards it was out of the ordinary to see a [probably] 8 year old in kindergarten, Justice thought nothing of it. Age doesn’t matter in Ghana (if you go to a village school you will see quite the age range in any given grade), and it didn’t matter to him either. It also helped his cause that he socially/emotionally was so far behind his actual age. He, in fact, got along great with kindergartners! Looking back on it now, I think we could have had Justice skip kindergarten and start right off in 1st grade. However, with Jake and I never having a child in school before, we were overly cautious in that we did not want him to miss out on ANYTHING! From there, our school ‘plan’ actually worked out as we had anticipated. Justice has gradually ‘skipped’ grades since he started in Fall 2010 in order to get him up to a class with his peers. One thing that has helped TREMENDOUSLY is that our school has an amazing ESL (English As A Second Language) teacher. We honestly didn't even know about this program until Justice started at school.  The ESL teacher has worked with Justice about 30 minutes a day on his reading/literacy for the past 1.5 years. She also tutored him last summer, and will be doing so again this summer. Justice finished off this school year completing second grade, but will be starting in 4th grade in the fall – so essentially skipping 3rd grade (which is where the summer tutoring will come in). With that, we guess that he is still probably about one grade behind his actual age classmates, but the goal has been to give him a gradual transition into American education – and it has worked for his individual situation.

Along the way, Justice has also become much more conscious of age. Kids in America are always talking about their birthdays, and how old they are – in fact, just keep track of how many times you are asked your kid’s ages in any given week. It’s a lot. Inevitably, these sorts of conversations came up a lot among Justice and his classmates because up to this point he’s been obviously/noticeably larger physically than them. Interestingly, we were at the park in town the other day and I overheard a kid say to his friend, “That’s Justice – he’s in my class at school, but he's really more like a 5th grader!” When people have asked me Justice’s age in front of him I have always been truthful and explained the adoption process and that in Ghana they don’t keep track of birthdates, and I would give our ‘guess’ of his age. From these sorts of interactions, Justice has learned that in American culture age does matter. In fact I was just going through some of his end of the year school papers and found this:

On his own, he had listed his age as 9 and I loved how he even adjusted the years accordingly on his birthdate (that’s the math perfectionist in him). Just recently Jake and I have started discussing formally changing his age on his birth certificate. (Normally you would do this during the re-adoption process which we’ve already completed.)

All that said, we have learned a ton in our experience of adopting an older child. I am obviously not the one you want to turn to if you are in need of detailed attachment tools and strategies – but there are MANY resources out there to help with that should you need them. I hope though, that in reading about our experience you would prayerfully consider if your family could leave the door open on adopting an older child.


Jenni said...

Janel, thank you for these words of wisdom. I think ALL the things you mentioned with Justice, we are living with our 6 1/2 year old Kofi. He is learning the concept of "personal space" slowly. This was such a good read to me today as I have thought about his progress and what we can do to make things even better.

Emily @ Busy Mommy said...

Your blog is such a great resource! We just had the first meeting of our homestudy today and the topic of age came up. I have been going back and forth, back and forth and still to this day don't know what is the right choice for us. On one hand I think Colton is prepared to be an older brother and that would fit well with his personality. On the other hand, I think of how many children older than 5 there are and the disruption of birth order would be small on the scale of things. But to me, I think 5 is still an "older child." Ahh, what to do!

Karen Ross said...

Great work Janel. your article is very informative about child adoption. Adoption is considered as a noble act among many cultures across the globe.

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