What is it like adopting an older child? Rough. Rewarding. Here’s my experience on adopting a 12 year old boy with uncontrollable anger, socialization issues, and heartbreak most people will never know.
Remember where he is coming from
The idea of being 12 and living with an adult who would always love him and be there was a foreign concept. When he and his 1 year old brother moved in, it was just another place in a long line. And every adult he had been with up to that point had either physically or emotionally abused him. Even the adults in the group home he was placed in broke his arm when he was 10.
My son’s first 12 years were unstable, to say the least. He had been in 28 different schools from kindergarten to 6th grade. He had no concept of permanence, only upheaval. When he came home, he needed consistency, my love, and a space of his own. Just the other day, for the first time after 6 years, he said, “Our house.”
Define your relationship
My son knows his biological mother and has a relationship with her. He had seen her off and on for 12 years before being adopted. He took care of her when they were homeless and when she was ill from drug addiction and withdrawals. She provided for him when she could, loved him, and he loved her.
I explained to him that I knew who she was and didn’t want to replace her. I was his adopted mom and he could call me anything he wanted to. He calls me by my first name but introduces me to his friends as his mom.
Choose your battles
My son is addicted to sports. He loves football, basketball, and track but hates school. From day one, if I mentioned anything to do with academics, he became violent. The numerous holes in the walls of our home, the broken appliances, and trails of broken glass over the years are a testament to his complete refusal to discuss school. This was not a productive battle.
If he wanted to play sports in high school, the school required certain grades from him to participate. I focused on helping him learn what it meant to be a human being and what qualities he would need to be a man of integrity and succeed. He has kept his grades up because he wants to play football in college and is now applying to universities across the state.
Find ways to communicate
I’m a hugger. I like to tell my family that I love them. My teen did not want any of that. When he came home, he didn’t want to be touched, still doesn’t. I wait for him to hug me. When he does, it is uniquely special and I usually cry.
We have those rare times when I pretty much attack him with a hug just so he knows how proud I am of him, but he needs me to say it in words. He needs consistent verbal praise and if I don’t, I fail him.
One of the problems of adopting older children is communication. Communicating with a teen who has grown up in foster care can be challenging. For my son, I use plenty of sports analogies like: “I’m raising the bar higher now,” “Don’t wait till the 2 minute warning to do your best,” and my favorite, “You have to read the game a whole lot better than where you’re at right now to succeed in life.”
Find ways to celebrate
Many children who are adopted celebrate Gotcha Day. This is the day your child came home. For my youngest son and older daughter, these are significant celebrations, and we go all out. Gotcha Day was a day of grief and despair for my teen because he remembered why he was adopted.
One day amid a breakdown, yelling, and pleading through his tears, he tried to make me understand that all the cake and presents and my love can’t fix the past. He is so insightful for a young man; I finally listened to him and stopped making him join us. Last year he asked to come along. Yeah, I cried.
So I have to be there, ready for when he wants to celebrate something. I have to make an effort to find out what is important to him even though he doesn’t communicate. I celebrate with a special sushi dinner when he gets on the varsity team or help him figure out what color tie goes with his pants to match the color of the girl’s dress for the Homecoming dance. I iron his shirt and tell him he looks good—regular mom things taken on a deeper meaning for him and me.
You may never get a thank you
When we first started working on communicating, I explained to him that there were 2 different worlds he was a part of. The worlds were different. It was not that one was better than the other, just different. I try to help my boy understand that the skills he learned in World A would not help him in World B. World A was one kind of survival; World B is another.
Now that he is in World B as an adopted teenager, he is learning new life skills. After 6 years, the arguments continue. I still get an occasional hole in the wall, but I have never received an emotional hug of gratitude for the life he has now. I may never get one and that’s okay.
This year for my birthday, he got a tattoo with my name on it and the day he got adopted. Gotcha.