Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Our Own: Adopting and Parenting the Older Child--a book response

There are so many books out there about adoption, and while not every book I have read is one I plan to purchase, each book has had something useful to teach me.  The book Our Own: Adopting and Parenting the Older Child by Trish Maskew is one such book.  It was on the list our agency gave us five years ago, but we didn't plan on adopting an older child, so we didn't read it.  Now as we look deeper into the Waiting Child programs and possibly adopting a second child some day, the possibility that it will be an older child is more likely.  We don't know what God wants us to do and who will eventually fit into our family.  We do know that if we want to adopt from the Waiting Child program or Special Needs track (both names are used depending on agency for the same track) that we need to research, research, and research, while praying, praying, and praying.  Since I already had this book from the library it made sense to start my research with "can we adopt an older child?"

I would like to tell you the book answered this question for us, and now we know yeah or nay.  That isn't so.  First, my husband hasn't read it yet, so he isn't sure what he thinks yet--though I will say my husband is not the limiting factor on what our family can handle, I am.  Secondly, after reading this book I am no more or less afraid of adopting an older child than I was before.  "How can this be?" you may ask.  The book did discuss a lot of different issues that older children are likely to have and how one would need to handle these issues.  It had lots of stories, happy and sad, about the transitions families need to make and the learning the child needs to do to learn how to live in a family.  However, none of it surprised me.  I have not studied in depth all the issues the books discusses, but I have heard about each issue, because they are the same issues all general adoption books cover for adopting any child of any age.

Surprise, surprise!  All children who lose their first families need help in dealing with the core issues they experience no matter when they find their forever family.  The core issues this book defines are: loss, rejection, shame, grief, identity, intimacy, and control.  How a child's behavior manifests these issues will be different at different stages and depend on their personality, but a child who comes into our home at 6 and grieves for her lost mother is no more or less likely to be comforted by me as a 6 year old with the same grief who came home at age 1.  Eventually they will both, prayerfully, be able to move past their grief, but my need to be flexible, listen, and patient will be the same.  An older child will have more capacity to express their grief and act out in anger than a child of one, but the issues are the same.  A child who comes home with less history might experience these issues less intensely, either for having less bad history to overcome or for being able to spread the "dealing with it" out over more time, but there is no guarantee that this is so.

So assuming we believe we can deal with the usual adoption issues that all children face, and we do believe we can with the help of the adoption community and with the strength of God, then there are only a few more questions about adopting an older child we need to face and answer.  This book brought up two of the questions we had not yet faced.

First, can we handle culture shock?  The older the child, the more extreme culture shock the child will experience coming to America.  I was in China for only two weeks, but coming home gave me a taste of culture shock.  I cannot imagine the experience for a child.  This book gave several good examples of things parents wouldn't necessarily think about and how to help ease the child's culture shock.  All of them made sense and seemed doable.  I imagine there are more books on culture shock and easing a child into American culture that could benefit us if we choose to adopt an older child.  I know I can get lots of advice from the forums I belong to and other adoptive moms.  Included in culture shock is the radical change from living in an orphanage to living in a family.  It will be work to identify all the invisible family rules in our house, but I believe our family is up to that challenge.

The second issue that will be very different for an older child versus a younger child is communication.  A one year old will be delayed in verbal communication because she/he has not heard English on a daily basis until coming home.  However, one does not expect a baby to be able to communicate or understand everything and certainly not understand complicated issues.  Amazingly an older child will be able to start understanding simple English very quickly and communicate their basic needs.  Within a year most children have learned most all of what they need in English, unfortunately usually at the expense of their birth language.  It is expected that the interim year is difficult.  One is trying to teach a child how to behave in a new culture and in a family without being able to communicate complex ideas.  This book gives some advice on how to help with the transition such as finding a friend who speaks the child's language, on-line translators, ESL at school help, and again being patient and know that someday it will be different.  It does not sound impossible, but it is hard to say how well I will deal with it without being in it.  Two of my children have been delayed in speech, but their comprehension has always been above average.

The book does discuss the possibility that some children will not be able to overcome the affects of institutional care on their psyche and will not ever be able to function safely in a family with other children.  The longer a child has been in care, the more difficult it will be to overcome the damage.  However, this risk exists with even a very small child, and there are now many books and new methods to help a child learn to function and heal.  If we were not willing to take this risk we would not be planning to adopt.  We are praying this does not occur, but we believe we are as prepared as we can be.

So this just leaves the last issue (that I know of) in regards to older child adoption that the book does not try to answer and cannot answer for me.  Can I attach to a child who is older?  I feel pretty confident I can attach to an infant or toddler.  Really I only have to babysit a friend's baby a few times (and have it go well) before I think, "I could adopt this child."  Granted a one year old who only wants Daddy the first few months might take a little longer, but I feel it is a given I will love this child.  The question is, when they stop having the cuteness factor going for them (which for me appears to be around age 7) and start to have the snarky attitude going against them will I be able to "fake it until I make it?"  I'd like to think so, but really this is the factor that I am most concerned about and since this book didn't answer it, I am no more, nor less comfortable with adopting an older child.

So do I recommend this book?  Definitely.  It did not have the definite answer that says a person of my height, age, and personality type will take 3.8 months to attach to a 4 year old and 6.7 months to attach to a 6 year old.  However, it had lots of information on many important topics.  More importantly it had stories to illustrate its clinical points that helped me understand what things such as culture shock and undeveloped language skills in an older child could look like making it easier to feel like it might actually be manageable--again only with the help of God, family, friends, and the adoption community.

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