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Monday, March 26, 2007

Adopting Children of Different Ages (Part I of a foster/adopt series)

I want to fist state that nothing is ever one-size-fits-all. Children develop differently even within the same home. Children handle situations differently because of personality, experience, and environment. What I have done is written a loose interpretation of what I see as the most common stages from which children are adopted. All of this is leading up to something else I want to write, but for now I wanted to lay out what I believe is the general division.

Babies are born with a natural allegiance to their parents, particularly the mother. An infant knows his mother by smell long before he can recognize her face. Little children long for their parents when they are separated during surgeries, emergencies, or really any time that starts to feel too long. We are more relaxed at home because we feel safe, we know where things are and what is expected, and we are with the people we belong to. Sometimes, things happen to alter that desire. Perhaps a parent leaves a child with someone else during the day all during the week. The baby begins to feel loyalty to this new person because that is where the food, comfort, and care are being received. This child goes 'home' for dinner, a bath, and bed. So the precious hours of the day are given to someone else. That is why adopting an infant is the preferred route for so many. This baby will remember the new parents as the ones who supply the needs. It is easy to 're-program' an infant's loyalties.

With children three or older, there is a sense of independence beginning to develop, though the child still needs the parent. The bonds have been established and would be much harder to change at this point. Children this age generally enjoy branching out and trying things with the safety net of mom or dad in close proximity. A child of this age can also become engrossed in play enough to not notice the absence of a parent for a short time. Sometimes parents play a horrible game with the child of three, when he does not want to come home after playing at a friend's house because he is still very much interested in the game, mom or dad will say "OK. Bye Jonny. I'm leaving" The child runs to the door so as not to be left behind, because as much as he enjoys his toy, he still needs the safety of mom and dad. Adopting a child at this age will have some more baggage than just the health and genetic considerations of a newborn. This child must slowly come to see the new parents as his safety net, and loyalty to them must be cultivated. It is not automatic like the baby who has been smelling, feeling, and associating himself with the same parents from the very start.

A child of five or six is ready for ever greater exploration. This child can begin to comprehend things such as time and the needs of people outside himself. This child may still not want to be separated from his parents, but if he is told that he is staying at grandma's while mommy has a new baby and that he will go home on church day (or whatever is common in his routine to associate with) he will not suffer lasting trauma because he is able to understand that, whatever today is and whatever Sunday means, I will be in this situation temporarily and then go home. The child can also think outside himself enough to know that he is here because someone else is in need, and a well-loved child will reciprocate the love in patience and understanding. Adopting a child of this age will yield a variety of results. Whatever the situation, the child is old enough to know that he is not with the parents who gave him life, and though he may come to love and desire the home he now belongs to, he will never forget that he was transplanted.

A child of ten or eleven may think he is fully capable of caring for himself as long as he is given the proper supplies. Though he must still be under the care of adults, this child can get himself washed and dressed unaided, find safe food to eat (even if it simply fruit or something that does not need to be cooked), figure out simple problems alone, and generate ideas and projects without prompting. Adoption at this stage can be tricky. This child may feel resentful that he is being told he needs adults to guide him when he believes he is self-sufficient (he does not understand that he could not obtain the needed supplies by himself or that moral and emotional guidance is still very important). There are stories of early America and boys who were orphaned and survived by themselves at such an age, but they generally became jaded, lawless, and selfish because of the missing character cultivation. A child of pre-teen years often needs a reason to do something for others. And his loyalty at this age is generally to himself, though his parents will share part of that because they facilitate his self-care.

Adopting a teenager must be approached as completely different than any other situation. These children are really only children in the legal sense. By this point, most of the adult they will be has developed in the sense of morals, general character traits, and even physically. Trying to 'control' a child of adult stature is a waste of effort. Most likely, he could take out both parents in a physical showdown. The goal must be instead to sway them or reason with them. Many of the teens awaiting adoption are completely capably of caring for themselves in every way. They are in the situation simply because of chronological age. The best attempt at influencing a teenage-adopted child is looking to the future. This child will not want to hear about the dreams you had for your baby or your plan to raise him 'right'. This child is biding time. The goal is to establish rapport so that he will come to you for guidance and desire to be associated with you even as an adult. As backward as it may seem, the adults need to show reciprocal respect to the teenager because he sees himself as an adult, and to treat him different will give him the idea that you find him inferior.

Within these very general categories are a host of unique indicators. The children will have experienced different things, be available for adoption for different reasons, and have different emotional wounds. A child whose single parent died in a car accident is going to approach adoption differently than a child whose parents voluntarily surrendered their rights in order to not be bothered. Children who have faced trauma may be ahead of or behind their peers in emotional development. It is not uncommon to find a six year old girl who has been the mother to her younger sibling who believes she does not need an adoptive family. She sees this requirement as an attack on her own parenting skills, and she has done what she knew to do and what she could do. We have experienced a three year old who had no attachments to ANYONE because she was shifted around so frequently that everyone she saw was a caregiver. No one can say what will happen in any given circumstance and this is not a guidebook to adopting by any means.

Go to Part II

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