Bringing an older adopted child home from a foreign orphanage is an exciting and sometimes daunting journey that more and more parents are taking these days. With the increase in older child adoptions, there does not seem to be parallel increase in the amount of preparation adoptive parents are given, though. Adopting an older child is very different from adopting an infant, or even a toddler. The child will have memories which may require special considerations and habits will have been formed, the quantity (on both accounts) of which will most likely depend on the age of the child at the time of adoption.
While living in an institution may make some problems with older children worse, it is not the ultimate cause of the issues. The ultimate cause of difficulty between people is sin, either on the part of one person or both. Early in the life of a biologically born child, parents have an opportunity to teach the consequences of sin. This helps keep them in check when they get older. It does not however, remove sin from their lives. This can only be done by the Living God when He grants them faith in Jesus Christ. Even then they still sin while they are in this life.
Where institutionalization would appear to contribute to the problem, is in the fact that these children are generally not taught the consequences of sin when they are young. In fact, certain sins may be encouraged as a way to achieve their desires. When suddenly, at five, ten or fifteen years of age, a child is first confronted with sin and its consequences he or she may react violently to those who are perceived as imposing the consequences. This is not surprising, since it is how a young child (age one or two) reacts when confronted with sin. If properly disciplined, these infants and toddlers soon learn (in most cases) that certain behaviors get them less of what they want rather than more, though. The difficulty with older post institutionalized children, is that they have been (usually unwittingly) trained for most of their lives that sin is the way to get what they want. Thus they must be taught to put off the old, ingrained behaviors as they are taught to put on the new.
Another difference is that with an older child, the ability to do real harm is greater. What is an easily managed little temper tantrum with a two year old kicking at a parent, can become a dangerous threat with a 12 or 15 year old child. Safety for the family, other children, and the adopted child themselves is of the utmost concern and measures should be in place to protect others if necessary, even before an older adopted child is brought home.
Also, with older children there is not the emotional bond that both gives the child a reason to behave and the parent a reason to persevere. With many biologically born children or those adopted as infants, the affection they have for mom and dad drive them to want to live up to parental expectations. This can be a positive incentive towards teaching them correct behavior when the expectations are reasonable.
Consider, though, that a twelve year old child who has been in the home for only a few months is not going to have the same affections for a parent that a twelve year old biologically born child, or one adopted as an infant, may have. In fact they may, at this stage, have more affection for someone at the institution who would allow them to do whatever they wanted to, rather than this “stranger” who has a list of rules that they must obey. Many children who have lived in institutions for years have no concept of what a parent/child relationship actually looks like, much less one in a culture foreign to the one they were born into.
Likewise the parent may not feel as “loving” toward a newly adopted older child, due to the fact that they have not known them for very long. This is not a child that nursed at the mother’s breast or sat on the father’s knee while he read books to them. This may seem like “someone else’s child” living in the parent’s home. However, these issues only exacerbate the real problem – namely, sin.
What then are some principles which might be helpful to parents who are bringing home older adopted children from other countries? Here are just a few for your consideration:
1) Recognize that we must first confront the sin in our own lives before we can confront sin in theirs. We must “remove the plank in our own lives” (Matt 7:5). While true repentance is a gift from God, and we are most likely dealing with unregenerate children, they will respond better if they see the desired behavior modeled. It is often said that more of what children learn is caught than taught. If our children see us walking around in unrepentant sin in many areas, should we be surprised when they are unwilling to deal with the sin in their own lives? On the other hand, allowing them to see us confessing our own sins towards them and others will go very far in modeling biblical principles for them.
2) We must be willing to change and adapt towards them, not just them towards us. (Phil. 2:4) The tendency for parents can be to bring a child from another culture, changing their language, food, clothing, family situation etc, but yet be unwilling to change the way their own methods and ways of dealing with situations. Certainly, parents should not compromise biblically sound parenting methods, but it will be necessary for them to be willing to learn new ways of dealing with unique situations. “The more you understand about the particular strengths and weaknesses of the person, the better you can creatively teach and apply relevant biblical principles.” Edward Welch, Blame It on the Brain, page 140
3) Recognize that loving this child does not mean we have to like them, especially in the beginning of the relationship. (I Corin. 10:4-7) Liking someone is an emotional response, while loving them is an act of the will whereby we act in such a way as to have their best interest at heart. Like is a transitory emotion that may come and go based on the events of the day, week, or month. Love is an ongoing decision regarding doing what is best for that person, whether our physical body feels like it at the time or not (in other words, whether we like what we are doing and the person we are doing it to/for).
4) Pick our battles. (Eph. 6:4) One of the temptations parents face when adopting older children is expecting them to obey all of the rules the minute they walk in the door. This can be so overwhelming to a child who is going through many changes that they often react negatively to the imposition of any rules. Think for a moment what would happen to us if God confronted us with every sin in our lives at every single moment. We would be like Isaiah, UNDONE! (From our own experience, the key with older adopted children is first establishing the idea of obedience to parents. Once headship of the parents is established, adherence to the rules is easier to obtain.)
5) Recognize that they are now your child just as much as any other children you may have in your home or family. (Psalm 127:3-5) God may have brought them into your family through a different means and according to His perfect timing, but they are no less your child than any other. Older adopted children often struggle with jealousy and feelings of remorse directed towards children who were part of a family before they came to be a part of it, so be aware of potential strife in these relationships and work to head it off at the pass.
6) Make an extra effort to consistently express affection towards your older adopted child. (Col. 3:21) This is often very difficult, as they can be “prickly” and hugging them may be easily compared to hugging a tree. However, we need physically reach out to them just as much as we do others for whom we have a greater affection. Be aware that if there was physical or sexual abuse in their past, though, your affection may need to be expressed in more creative ways, especially in the beginning of the relationship.
7) Be patient. (Col. 1:11) Often the word for patience in the Bible is better translated long suffering. God is long suffering towards us – otherwise the first time we sinned the penalty for sinning (death) would be immediately imposed. How many times has God suffered through our shaking our fists in His face and then going off and going things our own way? Keep your own sinfulness before you at all times when dealing with an older adopted child, as you strive to be patient with their sinful struggles.
8 ) Recognize that the trials we are going through are for our good. We tend to want to skip the “testing of our faith” that produces patience and letting “patience have its perfect work” of James 1:2-4 and skip right to “perfect and complete, lacking nothing”. This is not God’s way and we must proceed through trials knowing that Romans 8:28 always applies.
Let me stress that following these principles will not guarantee what some in our culture would consider “success” in parenting your older adopted children. As wisely stated by Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jim Newheiser in their book, When Good Kids Make Bad Choices:
Parents are responsible to humbly honor the Lord and faithfully obey His Word in training their children.
Children are responsible to humbly honor their parents and the Lord by responding in faithful obedience.
The Lord is ruling sovereignly over the lives of both parents and children, directing them according to His good purposes.
Ecc 12:13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
Although these principles may sound elementary, we recognize that each one of them can be difficult to carry out. Feel free to ask for more details, or practical examples, on any of them or other areas regarding older child adoption. We do not even pretend to have all of the answers, but the purpose of this blog is to minister God’s Truth to parents of internationally adopted children, so we will seek to do our best to answer any and all questions you may have along these lines.