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Wisdom Wednesday: Post-Adoption Adjustment for Older Children

For a child who is no longer a baby, the post-adoption journey can look quite different. Today in international adoption, many children who are adopted are considered “older” and are often school-age. These children have a significant history, developed language, friends, and connections to their culture.

Girl Chinese dress Grandma

Upon joining a family abroad through adoption, they lose nearly all of this. Adoption professional and author Regina Kupecky mentions a helpful ratio that may help parents prepare and begin to understand their new child’s perspective on becoming part of their family.

Ms. Kupecky suggests that a parent take the number of months the child was without them and divide it by four, to provide an estimate of how long it (adjustment) might take. For example, a child adopted at ten years of age spent approximately 120 months without you. If you divide 120 by four, you end up with 30 months as an estimate for how long it might take for your child to begin to relax and adjust to their new family.

Girl comforting sister

Families need to be prepared that the transition period for an older child’s adjustment will most likely be lengthy. While each child’s experience will be unique, we should expect that it could take a significant amount of time for a child to get used to being with their new family and living a new and often very different life. The way I often look at it is to expect that it could take as long as the child was without you for them to get comfortable being with you. I always view it as a milestone when the child has been with their family as long as they were without them.

Adoption professionals like Ms, Kupecky have noted that, post-adoption, there are various stages one might see in the way a child processes and adjusts to his or her new life. Adjustment does not always proceed in textbook-fashion, however, and often the stages overlap.

Consider this brief summary of the common stages of post-adoption adjustment:

THE HONEYMOON:  Often the first stage, this period might also be referred to as shock. We often call it the “honeymoon” because the child is getting along well with their new family, and things seem perfect. The child may display little emotion, and occasionally they may seem somber or express false happiness. The child is compliant, doing everything they are asked to do and never mentioning the people they have left behind. Indicators of distress might include sleeping problems (nightmares, tears), an upset stomach, and perhaps an inability or disinterest in eating.

Girl trying to sleep

TESTING:  Several weeks later, we might begin to see stage two emerge. The child becomes less obedient, even making obvious attempts to threaten the relationship you are trying to build with him or her. They are trying to understand what is happening to them and why. They will likely push the boundaries and see what limits you try to set, with the goal of figuring out whether they will be sent back “home”. Anger, crying, arguing and general disobedience are common at this time. This stage can take time to resolve.

Boy looking thoughtful

DESPAIR:  Withdrawal is common at this time. They are giving up trying to control their situation and feel sad and hurt. While the child is pulling away, it is important for the parent(s) to remain close. When your child has a breakdown but won’t let you touch them to comfort them, just stay close by so they know you are there. Your presence is more important than your being able to “fix” what is wrong.

JOINING: Eventually the child will begin to realize that that they are ok. While they may still miss their previous life and those they have left behind, they are able to look forward to the life they are leading now. There is a separation from those they have lost and a new attachment forming with those who are new in their life.

Dad and son

Learning about these potential stages can be useful as preparation for the adventure and wonderful challenge of adopting an older child.  Maybe one day this will come in handy for you!

~Meg Gallson Montgomery is a licensed social worker and LWB’s Adoption Advocacy Director.

(The intention of this blog is in no way to represent Ms. Kupecky; this is just a summary of some of her work in relation to the post-adoption experience that we believe families will find useful).

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