Adopting Older Children – What I Wish I Had Known

With Mark’s trip to Ethiopia creeping up, I have been doing a lot of thinking about our time in Ethiopia just over a year ago when we went to pick up our adopted son Elijah, who was 7 at the time, and our adopted daughter Sedaya, who was 4 at the time.  In a lot of ways, things did not go very well.  Our adoption agency had gone bankrupt, so we were traveling four months sooner than we had planned and were not prepared emotionally, financially, or in a practical sense.  Due to the circumstances, Mark was there for a week before I arrived and he had a really hard time communicating with the kids, leaving all three of them frustrated.  I was able to pick up Amharic (the language they spoke) much easier than Mark was, so that did help, but I still did not know enough of the language to be able to really put the kids’ fears at ease.  The kids were, in general, traumatized and terrified and our time in Ethiopia was, in all honesty, a bit of a nightmare.  Reflecting on it now that things are settled and I am not in an emotional or exhausted state of mind, I am able to see what I wish we had done differently or had known at the time that would have helped us.  I hope that by sharing, others can have an easier transition than we did.

1.  It gets better! Our kids have been home for fourteen months now and things are a world away from what they were when we first brought them home.  They have adjusted.  We have adjusted.  Our other kids have adjusted.  Things are actually going incredibly well.  It took a lot of work, but it also just took time.  I wish I would have been able to know with certainty that things were going to get better because I lost sleep, tears, and worry at the time, wondering if life was always now going to be hard.

2.  Their initial behaviour is not a reflection of your parenting. This one may seem obvious to others because of course if you have only met the child the day before for the first time, their behaviour has nothing to do with you or your parenting skills, but at the time, I felt like I must be the worst parent in the world.  When we would go out in public and they would tantrum, I would feel like people were judging me.  When we were alone in the hotel room and they were having tantrums, I was judging me!  In retrospect, they were two scared little kids who did not speak the same language as me and were going through a traumatic time.  I was a complete stranger and their behaviour or sadness had nothing to do with my parenting skills or lack thereof.  I wish I had been able to relax and not take it so personally.

3.  Take Time to Think.  We were so sleep deprived before even arriving in Ethiopia.  Add to that the time change and the stress, and our brains just were not working at their full capacity!  Looking back now, I am able to see simple solutions for things that at the time, seemed like major problems.  As an example, our kids usually only wanted to eat doro wat (which is like a chicken stew).  Traditionally, it is served with a hard boiled egg.  Our kids would fight and tantrum over who got the one egg.  They didn’t want us to cut it in half.  They didn’t want to take turns.  They would not share it.  Every time, this egg was a huge issue.  Now that I can think clearly, I realize that we should have ordered it with an extra egg – such an easy solution but one that did not occur to us the entire time!  Of course, eventually you want your kids to learn about turn taking and sharing, but during the most tumultuous time in their lives is probably not the time to start insisting that!  So, my suggestion would be to take a step back and take a deep breath and consider simple solutions.  I can think of about ten other examples of this same type of thing during those weeks just because we were so stressed out that we were not thinking clearly.

4.  Don’t count on anything.  Many families travel to pick up older children and find that their children are easy and they are able to tour the country and spend time with other adoptive families.  This is often the case because most children will have a honeymoon period initially.  But there are exceptions and in our case, our kids did not have a honeymoon period while we were in country.  It soon became apparent that our plans to travel around Ethiopia were not going to work out.  If you have strong expectations for what your kids are going to be like or for travel or sightseeing that you plan to do when you are there, you will likely be disappointed.  I wish we had gone into it with less expectations and been more easy-going about it.  When we finally resigned ourselves to the fact that our kids did better if we just stayed in the room and ate our food in the room and did not go out, things improved dramatically.

5.  Visit orphanages or schools prior to having custody of your child/ren.  We did go to visit two orphanages to bring donations, hold babies, and play with the kids, but that seemed to heighten our kids’ fears.  From talking to them now, I know that they thought we were going to leave them at those orphanages.  They did act out on those days, but their English was not good enough to share their fears and though we reassured them in our attempts at Amharic, we obviously did not do a good enough job.  So if I were to do it again, I would plan to visit the orphanages prior to taking the kids with us.

6.  Learn the language.  This one may seem obvious, but before we traveled to Ethiopia, most families who had previously adopted older children told us not to bother, that the kids learn English so quickly that it is a waste of time.  With all due respect to those families, I disagree.  Our earliest days with our kids were spent with them fighting for their lives because they thought we were going to hurt them or even kill them and we were not able to calm them or reassure them.  I felt helpless and so sad for them.  We did have our driver and guide interpret for us, but they were not there most of the time and it’s not the same thing as you talking to your child.  The little bit of Amharic I had learnt before I went (thanks to the Simple Amharic for Adoptive Families CD) was invaluable and I asked questions of most of the Ethiopian people we met on the trip to learn as many words as I could.  One day, Sedaya accidentally locked herself in the bathroom and was hysterical.  My sister-in-law and I were frantically trying to look up the word for “open” in the phrase book we had and then we butchered the pronunciation so she couldn’t understand us anyway!  The other bit about learning their language is that now, the only Amharic words they remember are the ones I still use with them on a daily basis.  We are now hoping to learn Amharic as a family to help them to maintain a bit more of their culture and ties with the Ethiopian community.

7.  Let it go!  I had this foolish notion that while we were in Ethiopia, we should have rules for them and consequences so that they could begin to adjust to our house rules (our family isn’t overly strict, but we do have some basic rules).  I was convinced that if we were pushovers in Ethiopia, they would walk all over us once we got home.  When I think about that now, about how I gave them time-outs (they were probably completely bewildered because they couldn’t even understand most of what I was saying), my heart just breaks for them.  I wish I could go back and just hold them more, play with them more, and let everything else go.  Who would it have killed if Sedaya had worn Elijah’s flip flops instead of her shoes every day or if they had not brushed their teeth for those two weeks (they ended up having over four thousand dollars of dental work that needed to be done so I’m sure that an extra two weeks of not brushing after years of not brushing wouldn’t have made a difference!)?  My advice to others would be just to relax and get used to each other slowly during the trip.  The rules can be introduced once you are home.  Then they will just think it’s a Canadian rule!  (or American)

8.  Try not to predict their personalities.  This is a really tough one for people because all we have of our kids are these pictures and so we have spent hours analyzing the pictures and poring over every detail, including their facial expressions.  From that, we naturally make assumptions about their personalities and then when we meet them, if they do not match what we expected, it can be a difficult shift.  In Sedaya’s referral and update pictures, we thought she looked so sad, heartbroken actually.  Now that we know her, one of those looks is kind of a sad look, but more of a “I didn’t get my way” kind of sad, and the other, a mischievous look!  From Elijah’s pictures, we pegged him as being outgoing and fun and happy.  It turns out that though he is friendly and very likeable, there was a lot of sadness hiding behind that small and underneath those bright eyes, was a traumatized boy who needed help to work through his feelings and his past.

9.  You cannot do it alone.  The first weeks home are much harder than anyone can prepare you for.  Even if your child is in a honeymoon phase or just an easy child, it is a huge transition for the whole family.  You will have jetlag and even possibly be ill.  If you have other children at home, they will need extra time and attention when you get back, not only to reassure them that they have not been replaced, but they will have missed you while you were away.  Many mothers experience post adoption depression, from mild to severe.  The language barrier alone is exhausting.  The extra laundry, extra cooking, extra thinking, extra emotion, extra stress, and the extra appointments as you sort through parasites, fungus, and perhaps even therapy for your child create a life much busier than the one you had before.  ASK FOR HELP!  Better yet, set it up before you leave, while you are still able to think straight enough, while you have time to make the phone calls.  Arrange for people to bring meals, do laundry, clean your house, or take your other kids out for outings.

10.  Attachment and bonding are possible.  With our previous adoptions, we had gotten our kids as newborns or babies, so I did not expect that I would be able to attach as much to older children.  I knew that over time, they would feel like my kids, but I thought that it would take a long time.  Secretly, I worried that maybe I would never be able to love them with the fierceness and passion that I love my other kids.  I wish I had known then what I know now…that sometimes just thinking about or talking about Elijah or Sedaya can bring me to tears, that the first time I went away without them, I missed them with a hollowness that is difficult to describe, that they are a part of me.  I wish I had known that even with kids who were seven and four the first time I held their hands in mine, I would be forever changed by their love.


9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Deanne on October 17, 2010 at 6:25 am

    Thanks Sharla – those are wise thoughts for those going through the adoptive process to consider. I agree wholeheartedly with your suggestions – I wish I had known the language – you were pretty amazing with what you did know. If I remember correctly even the locals were impressed with you pronunciation! You definately have a gift for languages and apparently many other things as well!


  2. Sharla, thank you so much for posting your thoughts on older child adoption. This is one of those posts that I would like to print out, so that when we’re in the thick of things that I can remind myself of the wisdom of one who as gone before us. Now it’s time for me to get practicing my Tagalog!



  3. Posted by alicia on October 17, 2010 at 6:00 pm

    Great post Sharla! Thanks for posting!! We are in the process of adopting a 3 yr old boy from Ethiopia. We need every bit of advice we can get! 🙂


  4. Posted by Shelley on October 18, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Hey Sharla
    I think everything you shared actually applies to ALL children being picked up. Taye would melt down every time we went outside. He freaked at the orphanage when we visited. He was only 9.5 months old, and all of these applied for us too. So I think you should retitle… what all internationally adopting families need to know! 🙂

    No. 4 especially. We felt so guilty for not going to all the places people talked about visiting (the pottery shops, markets, up the mountain, etc.) but Taye would get so scared, why make a stressful time for him, even more stressful for our own selfish needs?


  5. Posted by Laura on November 8, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    Thanks for all these suggestions Sharla! I’m kind of nervous about our trips to Ethiopia and information like this is invaluable.


  6. Sharla: THANK YOU for this insight and honesty! We have a 4 yr old who we adopted from Chin at 8-1/2 months old. I suffered severe post adoption depression…I think mainly because my expectations were too high and no one was truly honest with me as to what to expect (she was our first child also). We are now in the process of adoption a 12-1/2 year old from China so what I just read is wonderful advice. Your blog is invaluable information and I just wanted to say how much I appreciate your honesty!


  7. Can I repost this on I think it would be really helpful there! Let me know!


  8. I enjoyed your post. Adoption is such a learning experience and there is nothing like it, it is hard to explain to others the joys and frustrations that take place when you invite a little one (or big one) into your home. Much to my amazment, all my fears have been erased about adopting older children. I love that you are honest with your experience. We all have regrets, but we need to press on looking into the future and thanking God for the changes He shows us we need to make and possibly use these experiences to share with others who are going through the same process. We adopted three children as infants, then 14 years later adopted older children. They responded to love in such a wonderful way, we are forever grateful to the Lord because if we had not had our first experience, it could have been terrible. The Lord has definitely proven that love conquers all. I have learned to be more flexible, (yet firm with the important things) and forgiving with my children because I am a sinner and the Lord forgives me over and over again. God’s LOVE is unconditional and children need it from us just as we need it from Him.


  9. I just hopped over here from the Adoption Story Blog Hop. This is wonderfully written and, having friend’s that have adopted older blessings, it sounds like it’s SO on target. My heart is with these older kids and I can’t wait to see what God does. Thank you for sharing this!

    P.S. We have seven blessings (four of which are adopted).


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