Does Older-Child Adoption Equal Special Needs?

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It's an issue that most adoptive parents must think about in their family-building process -- the older a child is at adoption, the more development has naturally occurred and with that development, potentially more problems.

To quote Adam Pertman, "It's important to realize that for any child who is being adopted at, say, two years old, there's some reason he or she is not with his/her original family. Most often in those circumstances, especially if it's a domestic adoption, the reason is abuse or neglect."

Pertman, a well-known and vocal advocate of bringing adoption out of the shadows and an adoptive parent, is author of "Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming America" and Executive Director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. He says, "Not only do parents need to understand [typical] developmental issues, they also need to understand that the child has been hurt in some way. Anybody who's been hurt experiences repercussions of that pain, whether they're physical, emotional, or mental."

Carol Demuth, social worker with Buckner Adoption & Maternity Services, agrees that older children bring more issues to a family. "Parents adopting a child beyond infancy will need to realize that the child will come, not only with his own personality, but with habits and behaviors learned in his previous living situation."

"We met with a family yesterday," Demuth adds, "and were talking about these very issues -- trying to explain that some children of a particular chronological age have just not had the opportunity to develop socially to what one would normally expect at that age. So, there is a lot of 'catch-up' to do."

Both Pertman and Demuth join other adoption professionals in the strong belief that the needs of children and their families can be met through pre-adoption preparation and remaining open to assistance and education throughout the child's life.

Parents can prepare through education and counseling. Pertman asserts that pre-adoption education of parents is crucial to the successful parenting of adopted children, and he feels that not enough adopting parents take that need to heart. Whether through the Internet, books, support groups, or meetings with professionals, parents who are adopting a child beyond earliest infancy should ready themselves with knowledge of
  • "normal" or average child development,
  • their specific child's personal history and
  • related needs that may arise in the future.
According to Demuth, "Adoptive parents will need to be prepared to work with the [older] child, to help him replace inappropriate or maladaptive behaviors with more productive ones." Demuth says that of the many factors predictive of successful adoptive placement, two very significant keys to success are
  • the parents' expectations going into the adoption, and
  • the match between the older child's and the parents' expectations.
In addition to special needs that may have been fostered by the child's previous life circumstances, the fact of being adopted itself brings particular issues.

Specific Issues

The most basic of these specific issues is that, as Pertman states, "Every [adopted] child will at some point understand that somebody gave them up." Adopting parents need a keen awareness of this fact in order to help their child cope whenever the issue arises.

Many adoptive parents come to the family-building solution through years of infertility and, therefore, may feel that their longing is so great that this very strong desire to parent circumvents any special educational needs they have as future parents. Pertman cautions, "Every particular kind of family, whether it's headed by a single parent or gay parents or bi-racial parents -- they all have specific issues, not bad or good, just specific. And we as adoptive families have specific issues, making our education as parents all the more important."

Counseling assistance from adoption-experienced professionals can help parents-to-be get a handle on their innermost caregiving drives. Notably, Demuth points out, they must explore the gratification expected from parenthood. She describes the ability to delay this "expected gratification" as more important than the oft-cited parental quality of patience.

"The initial adjustment required by children after placement may make it difficult for them to supply the gratification most parents want and have looked forward to for years," she explains.

So should all children placed in adoptive homes beyond the immediacy of birth be considered "special needs?"

Pertman expresses concern about society's tendency toward stigmatizing the institution of adoption and all individuals involved, especially when encountering an adopted child who obviously has special behavioral or emotional needs. He describes a common public response to such children as, "Oh, I wonder if his or her needs are because of adoption?" and counters with a scenario in which the same child is being raised by biological parents:

"You don't hear people looking at that child say 'Oh, I wonder if giving birth to a child is the problem?'" quips Pertman.

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