The decision to adopt a child contains many decisions within it. One of the points you need to consider is the age of the child you wish to adopt.
By far the majority of adoptive parents prefer an infant, but there are also people who opt for a toddler or an older child (usually defined as 3 years of age or older, but could even be a teenager from the foster care system). Older people looking to adopt may in fact be limited to only older children, as many agencies have policies in place that adoptive parents beyond a certain age may only adopt school age children.
It’s important to be aware, however, that there can be special challenges when adopting an older child.
One way to put it is that an older child is much more likely to already have been damaged, perhaps severely. If an adopted child is turned over to the adoptive parents right after birth, the family is starting from scratch. The child knows no other parents, no other family. The child doesn’t carry with it an awareness of being rejected, of having lost its family. There are no bad habits to overcome.
It’s different with an older child. Think about how an older child comes to be available to be adopted. It might well have been forcibly taken away from the birth parents due to severe issues of abuse or neglect, often including sexual abuse. Its single mother might be incarcerated and no longer able to care for it (to the extent she cared for it even before then). It may have been orphaned by some tragic accident or crime.
It’s extraordinarily unlikely that the child has spent its life in a healthy, stable, loving, trauma-free environment.
But then you can flip the cause and effect as well. Not only is the child likely carrying the scars from having the parents it did, but it may be that the parents were willing to make the agonizing decision to give up their child precisely because it was an unusually difficulty child. Perhaps they tossed in the towel because they no longer could cope with the child’s severe behavioral problems, or constant medical needs, or physical or mental disabilities.
In any case, whether what would have been a great and easy-to-raise kid was stuck in a damaging environment, or this was a child that was a major handful all along and the parents finally gave up, you have to anticipate an older child you adopt will be more likely than another child to be unusually difficult to raise.
Then the child could have easily had additional negative and damaging experiences after being separated from its parents. Life in an orphanage, a group home, or with one or more foster families isn’t always going to be Oliver Twist, but by the same token, all too often it is not a healthy situation for a child. About the best that can be said for it is that it is at times the least of the available evils for the child.
Studies have shown that it is the number of times a child has been moved from guardian to guardian that can be most damaging. That is, a five year old that goes more or less straight from its birth parents to the adoptive parents is usually better off than a child the same age or even younger who started with the birth parents, then got shuffled around to different relatives, and then was with three different foster families before ending up with the adoptive parents.
One of the main things you have to be prepared for as the adoptive parents of an older child is that it requires even more patience than child raising in general, and often comes with less positive feedback. A child with the kind of past that so many older children available for adoption experienced often is a child who takes much longer to feel safe, to drop hostile defenses, to love, to accept love. You might find that for months, years, or even permanently, the six year old you’ve adopted reacts to any attempted hug like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.
Without a doubt there are also advantages to choosing an older child to adopt. The surprise factor is less for one thing-any behavioral issues, disabilities, etc, are likely to already be manifest with an older child, so you can have a better sense going in of what you’re up against. But unless you are people of great patience and sympathy, who could take joy in adding a “troubled” child to your family, who could love without needing to be immediately loved back, you’ll need to think long and hard about whether the older child adoption is the right path for you.
Ellen Singer, “Adopting Older Children.” Adoption Issues.
“Adopting an Older Child Pros and Cons.” The Labor of Love.
“Are You Ready to Adopt an Older Child?” Our Own Kids.
“Advantages of Older Child Adoption.” Adoption.com.
“Older Child Domestic Adoption.” Adoption.com.