Sunday, September 15, 2013

Is Older Child Adoption a Special Need?

The other day, someone mentioned on Facebook that I had adopted a special needs child.

That phrase took me by surprise.

Because sometimes I forget. 

Being an older child is considered a special need in the adoption world.

That used to really bother me.

It used to bother me that China would call my perfectly healthy, incredibly bright son a special needs kid.

It felt like a put-down, like they couldn't see his potential.

It doesn't bother me anymore. . . well, not as much as it used to. 

Because being adopted as an older child is a special need.

I've said it before. No older child is available for adoption because he's had a great life. Older children available for adoption have experienced real trauma. And being a trauma survivor is a special need with long-term implications.

The death of a parent = trauma.

Abandonment = trauma

The loss each time they were moved from foster home to foster home or into an orphanage = trauma

Being adopted internationally and having to adjust to new parents, a new country, a new language, a new culture = trauma

It's easy to forget. 

It's easy to think that a lot of love and plenty of food and having so much more materially than they ever had in their birth country will fix everything.

It doesn't.

So if you're thinking of adopting an older child, it may help you to remember that older child adoption is a special need.

Think about it this way. If you were adopting a child in a wheelchair, you'd be constantly aware of their special need. You'd be prepared to deal with it long term. You might hope that with great medical care your new child would learn to walk one day. You might even be praying for a miracle. But in reality, you would also be preparing to push that wheelchair for years to come. 

Adopting a kid with a background of trauma is no different, even though their special need is hidden. 

You would never tell the kid in the wheelchair, "You've been home for 18 months now. We've taken you to the best doctors. Everyone at our church has faithfully prayed for you. You can't let this thing limit you forever. We're done pushing this wheelchair. It's time for you to quit making excuses and get up and walk."

You would never do that.

But it's done all the time when a kid's special need is hidden. 

Here's what I'm not trying to do in this post. I'm not trying to limit your child or put them in a box. I'm not telling you, as a parent, to excuse all their negative behavior. I'm not encouraging you to set the bar low.

My son, adopted at age 7 1/2 and home three years now, has made amazing progress. His heart has healed in so many ways. I am full of hope when I think about his future. Please don't ever give up hope! But in the same way, please don't ever forget to be compassionate as you parent a child with a real, but hidden, special need. 

I'll give you an example. When we started our new homeschool year back in August, both Mike and I noticed subtle changes in Wenxin. He was needier, clingier, louder . . . he seemed to be on high alert. We remembered that with his background, change is hard for him. Change makes him afraid. 

So we made subtle changes in our behavior in response to what we saw in him. We held him more, snuggled him more, kept him closer to us. Even though he's able to do a lot of his homeschool work independently, I spent a few days doing almost everything with him. That little bit of extra attention from us was all it took -- this time -- to help him feel safer and more confident starting a new school year.

I read a great blog post this week that reminded me to parent with compassion for the long haul. When I read it, I knew I wanted to share it with you. 

Sharing today at Emily's Imperfect Prose and Ni Hao Y'all.


  1. Great one. I actually had a therapist tell me the other day that any foster or international adoption is in her opinion "special needs". We have found that with our girls adopted at 18 and 22 months. Full of hope, but in need of lots of extras - care, tools, compassion, etc etc.

  2. My husband and I are in the process of adopting. When we first stated this process, my husband had a hard time getting past the lable of spencial need until I was able to tell him we are all special need. We each all come with a list of things that makes us unique. Some may have glasses, some may have medical conditions, others it may be emotion, but if you look at each individual there is something that makes them differant from another.

  3. Wonderful post. I have often wondered why older children are considered "special needs" as well. Your post gently explains this and brings light to the fact that older adopted children do have special, unique stories and backgrounds that manifest in special, unique needs. Thank you for the insight!

  4. Beautifully put. My husband and I are looking into foster-adoption and I imagine we'll have a similar journey ahead (well similar in the "special needs" sense). Thank you for your real life posts with an adopted child.

    But while I am here I am curious... I've only been around your blog a handful of times. Have you focused a post (or posts) on how your older children adjusted as well? I know adopting means the whole family dynamic shifts just as bringing home a new baby would change the family dynamic to some degree. I've read a lot of posts from moms who tell their perspective on adjustments and the trials they go through that are oh so hard but oh so worth it, but I do not believe I have read much, if anything, about how the kids handle mom and dad paying a lot of extra time and attention to the new treasure. Thanks!

    1. I have written on the other kids, but not recently. It would be good to look at what they are thinking now - 3 years in. Here's one post from the past. You may have to cut and past that link into your browser. I don't know how to insert a link into a comment : (

  5. I think it takes special people and real courage to adopt an older child but all I see here is love and a happy boy... you should be very proud of yourselves



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