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Challenges of Adopting an Older Child

There are definitely advantages to adopting an older child over a younger child. However, there are also challenges you’re more likely to face when adopting an older child.

* The Adoption Decision

Adopting a child is a multi-stage process. First you decide to adopt, then you decide what type of child to adopt, and then you decide which specific child to adopt.

That middle stage is when you settle on your preferences as to such matters as gender, race, domestic versus international, and whether you are open to a child with certain physical or mental disabilities.

One of the points you need to consider in this middle stage is the age of the child you wish to adopt. A large majority of prospective adoptive parents have a strong preference for 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.

* Challenges That May Be Present When Adopting an Older Child

An older child seeking an adoptive home 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 whatever damaging home life 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 threw 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 a younger 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.

As far as this factor is concerned, though, it isn’t just age that’s relevant. 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.

For one thing, when a child is passed around like this, there are more likely to be disruptions in their schooling. The child likely has changed schools multiple times, and perhaps missed school for one or more extended periods.

Similarly, such a child could have gaps in their medical care. The child may have had different doctors in different cities, been put on certain medications and not followed through when moved to yet another household, etc.

So an older child is more likely than a younger child to have been bounced around from place to place, but it’s the being bounced around and not the being older that’s the red flag.

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 does 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 is often 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.”

Keep in mind that all of these points are probabilities, risks, etc., not certainties. Every child is an individual, and it’s not impossible that you could adopt a 5, 8. or 14 year old who turns out to be an unmitigated joy from Day One.

Also note that there can be 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.