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Wisdom Wednesday: Adopting an Older Child

Back in July of 2009, I fell in love with a photo.

6½-year-old Wenxin, living in an orphanage in Beijing, needed a family.

After months of looking at adoption photo listings of waiting children, I was smitten by this little boy with a serious look on his face. I shared his photo with my husband, Mike, and was surprised when he found himself drawn to the photo as well.

Thus began our journey to make Wenxin our son. In the days to come we’d contact the adoption agency and review his file. We’d be granted pre-approval to adopt him. We’d share the news with our three biological kids and our extended family. We’d hire a social worker. We’d fundraise. We’d be fingerprinted by the FBI. And finally, we’d travel half way around the world and spend three weeks in China adopting Wenxin, making him our son forever.

But it all started with a photo.

Chances are, if you are considering adopting an older child, the day will come when you fall in love with a photo too. Here are three things that photo won’t tell you.

1) The child in the photo comes with a history of loss.
No older child is available for adoption because he’s had a good life.

Stop for a moment. You need to let that truth sink deep down in your heart.

He’s not a blank slate. There’s a whole history that’s already been written, and that history includes a lot of loss.

The child in the photo lost his birth family. If he has foster parents in China, he will lose them as well.

Even the blessing of being adopted internationally will pile on more loss. He’ll lose the country of his birth with all its familiar sights, sounds, and smells. He’ll be faced with adjusting to a new family, learning a new language, and coping with the shock of sudden immersion in a totally new culture.

Don’t get me wrong. The child in the photo needs an adoptive family. But just as important, he needs to be adopted by the right kind of parents. Older children need compassionate parents who patiently face the losses in their new child’s life

Are you willing to parent a child with a history of loss?

2) The child in the photo is probably emotionally younger than his chronological age.
Wenxin was 7½ when he came home, but emotionally he was more like a three or four year old. As Wenxin processed the losses in his life, his grief often came out in tantrums. No one enjoys it when a three year old child melts down and dissolves on the floor in a kicking, flailing tantrum. But when an almost eight year old child does this, it can be downright scary.

We lived with tantrums for months. His response to not getting his way was equally childish. I quickly saw this on my first trip to the grocery store with Wenxin.

At checkout, Wenxin wanted a pack of gum. I grabbed one pack and motioned that he would be sharing it with his younger sister.

“No,” he motioned, putting two packs of gum on the counter – one for each of them.

“No,” I said. Standing my ground, I purchased the single pack of gum.

Wenxin began to whine. When that didn’t work he staged a sit-down strike on the floor in the front of the store. He wouldn’t budge. Walking over to the customer service desk, I requested help pushing my grocery cart to the car. Normally, I take my own cart, but on that particular day, I had my hands full. You should’ve seen the stares from strangers as I wrestled Wenxin into my arms and carried him kicking and screaming from the store.

So what’s up with that? Why would an older waiting child be emotionally immature?

Think about it. Children in a loving two parent family have the advantage of consistent training from birth, and in this safe environment, children mature emotionally. By contrast, the orphanage child may have learned survival skills, but still be very underdeveloped emotionally. When you add trauma and loss to the equation, you get an older child who may be very street smart on the outside, but emotionally very young on the inside.

Are you willing to parent a big kid who’s still a little kid inside? Are you willing to learn new parenting techniques to help your child mature emotionally? Can you cope with stares and comments from people who just don’t understand?

3) The child in the photo could blossom in the right family.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned along our adoption journey, it’s that the unexpected tough times — the meltdowns, the tantrums, the defiance, the whining, the over the top emotional responses that take us by surprise — are really opportunities in disguise. They are opportunities to understand our child. They are opportunities to show love. They are opportunities to build trust. When our child is hurting and doing everything in his power to push us away, we have a chance to show him once again, that we’re not going anywhere. This mom and dad are here to stay.

Older child adoption is not a journey for the faint-hearted. However, the child in the photo is most likely brave and resilient. And you can learn to be the type of parent he needs.

Parenting Wenxin hasn’t been just like parenting our biological kids. We’ve had to add a few tricks to our bag and learn new ways of thinking. It hasn’t always been easy.

But Wenxin has blossomed. He’s matured. He’s smart and resourceful and athletic and kind. Don’t get me started because I could go on and on.

Tonight, I snuggle up with a sweet boy who seems like he’s been in our family forever.

Because one day back in 2009, I fell in love with a photo.

~Dana Ball blogs about the unexpected joys and challenges of her journey at Death by Great Wall: stories of older child adoption and family life.

We know that many of our readers have also experienced older child adoption, and we welcome your comments and thoughts!

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  • Barbara Deatherage says:

    I loved reading your post! And yes, one must go into the adoption journey with an older child with different expectations than with their biological children whom they have had since birth. We adopted a 15 year old boy from Russia in 2004. Your description of the grief and loss and adjustment to a whole new culture with foods, smells, language,customs that were totally foreign to him is very accurate. Meltdowns from a 15 year old boy are scary! He is now 23 years old and we are very proud of him, and very grateful to our God for carrying us through his transformation. He now is back in his beloved Russia and is married to a beautiful Russian lady whom he met on a return trip to his hometown. He said that he believes that God brought him to us so he could become a better person and then return to his home country. He now has dreams and hopes which he did not have as a child growing up in an orphanage only expecting to die in the streets upon graduation from the institution. We have been privileged to be a part of his life and a part of his journey. Bless you for your part in helping others through their mercy journey with their children. It is so worth all the tears, prayers, struggles, disappointments, adjusted expectations, research for answers, counsel, and did I say prayers (!) to invest in the life of your child.

  • Laura says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. We have 4 kids adopted at older ages from Asia and I can COMPLETELY relate, especially to your advise about needing to withstand the looks from people who have the pleasure of witnessing a tantrum first-hand! 😉 I once put my (then) newly adopted 7 and 10 year olds into “time-out” on a bench in Target after they refused to stop running through racks of clothes. I shopped nearby, had them within eyesight at all times, but the looks I got would have made people think I had abandoned them in a train station. I’ve also walked out of stores after handing off a full cart to store personnel and apologizing to them for having to restock because one of the kids was having a meltdown in the middle of aisle 6, had a woman “explain” to her son that my 10 year was “mentally retarded” because he was galloping around like Psy in a parking lot, and been “corrected” by another mother for forcing my 8 year old to ride in a cart because she kept running off. The kids are now all older teens so somehow, some way, we made it through their early years with us and would do it again in a heartbeat!

  • Cathy says:

    I absolutely love the post, however, I want to point out that children raised by one parent can also provide “consistent training and a safe environment” for their children.

  • Violet says:

    Wonderful and important post. My son was only 2 1/2 when he joined our family. It has been a struggle for all of us. His loss and grief are great but slowly, every day he opens up a little more. We are on the right path but even after 4 years, we work hard on earning his trust and helping him gain self-worth. He deserves it!
    -Violet

  • Tracy says:

    We are 52 and 51 years old with four sons 27-16 years of age. Today we just got our TA to go to China and adopt our 12 year old daughter. Thank you for your blog. I am in hopes that I can continue to use you as a resource. Please be praying for us as we step out in faith to get our beautiful God Sent daughter.

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