Linda Bush, Ph.D

Older Child Adoption: A Psychologist's Story of Love and Attachment

Posted on 2005-12-29

When people hear my husband and I adopted a child, they immediately assume we adopted an infant. How old is the baby they ask. My usual response is My baby is 8 years old!

We are now home 2 months with our daughter, Marina, adopted from an orphanage in the south of Russia. We did not immediately set out to adopt an older child. Like many hopeful adoptive parents, we initially wanted to adopt the youngest, healthiest baby possible, preferably under six months of age and certainly no older than one year. Why such a young baby?

Most prospective adoptive parents eventually hear of a diagnosis called RAD. RAD stands for Reactive Attachment Disorder, a severe psychological disorder which can affect a child who fails to securely attach to a parent. As a psychologist who has done research on child attachment, I wanted to avoid the problems that can arise if a child does not form a secure attachment early in life. For attachment to occur, a child must have close physical proximity over an extended period of time with a single individual who satisfies the childs needs for nurturance, safety and love. Failure to attach can be due to a variety of factors but in the world of adoption it is usually caused by the lack of a consistent, stable caregiver during the first few years of life.RAD can also be caused by inconsistent parenting in which the childs needs are not met, as well as early experiences of neglect and abuse.

We began our adoption journey determined to adopt an infant who would attach to me like a biological baby usually attaches to a mother. I had a deep desire to bond with a baby, a dream thwarted by years of infertility and multiple pregnancy losses. I must admit, however, that my other reason for wanting to adopt a young baby was fear, fear that an older child would have RAD and would never be the other half of my idealized mother-child relationship. How was it that we eventually adopted an 8 year old? I would like to think it was a well thought out plan based on research about adoption and my expertise as a psychologist. In truth, there was nothing scientific about it at all.

We adopted Marina because once she found us, we knew deep in our hearts that she was the child we were meant to have all along. I still get to bond with a baby; its just that my baby is 8 years old! By the time we learned about Marina, we had been through two failed domestic adoption situations, two countries, and two agencies. Summer was approaching and I could not bear the thought of yet another summer without a child. We applied to a hosting program that brings older Russian children to the US for a few weeks, hoping to learn about older child adoption and enhance the life of a child. As fate would have it, the host situation fell through too. We were devasted. Again. Then someone told me about an older child adoption program with Kids To Adopt and I contacted the Director, Sandy Roberts.

My initial impression of Sandy was extremely favorable. She told me there was an urgent situation involving an 8 year old Russian girl who needed a home, and said a family might be able to travel within a few weeks. She sent me some brief information about Marina and my heart skipped a beat. Marinas birthdate was April 10th, the same birthday as my husband! My husband and I are strong believers that there are no coincidences. Things happen for a reason, even when we do not always understand the reason. The coincidence of Marina and my husband sharing a birth day felt like God telling me to take a closer lookto get serious about this little girl! When my husband came home, I showed him the information about Marina. Do you see her birthday? I asked. He paused for a moment, nodded his head, and then burst out in a huge smile! We were hooked! We fell head over heals in love with Marina, Jeffs birthday soul mate, and our future daughter.

From that point on, we were in a mad rush get as much information about Kids To Adopt as possible. We did research by contacting other adoption professionals and families for recommendations and checked with the accredited Russian adoption agency associated with Kids to Adopt. Within two days we were updating the paperwork necessary to switch agencies and countries for the third time and three weeks later we were traveling to Russia to meet Marina! I will not go into details about the trip, except to say that all went well and meeting Marina was like a dream come true. She was beautiful, sweet and intelligent, as well as strong-willed and determined (otherwise known as stubborn).

Ten weeks later we returned to Russia to complete our adoption and return home with our daughter! We enrolled Marina in school a week after she came home so that she could benefit from the excellent English as a Second Language (ESL) services in our public school system. We hired a local Russian speaking college student a few hours a week for the first month to help the transition. The first month we also frequently used picture dictionaries and an online translator, a useful tool for older adopted children because they can read! Marinas adjustment to family life in America is all that we expected. She is an incredibly resilient child who has survived more in her 8 years than most of us will ever know.

All orphanage children come to institutional care through unbearably sad and unfortunate circumstances. In Marinas case, it is clear she was loved and well-cared for in the orphanage, but she does bear some emotional scars from her early life. From a behavioral point of view, Marina is usually fabulous and sometimes quite difficult. Her behavior in group settings such as school is excellent, but adjusting to family life has been more challenging. Certain basic issues about privacy, such as knocking on a closed bathroom door before entering were new to her. At first she did not like the restriction of playing close to home because she was accustomed to little supervision. She had to learn not to walk way from us in public places like shopping malls and, like many children, she does not like to be told no. She has had a few tantrums when frustrated over communication, overtired, or homesick for Russia. Fortunately, these meltdowns seem to be disappearing as Marinas English improves. In fact, we hardly ever need to use the online translator anymore because her English is really taking off!

The truth is, the issues I have been least prepared for are issues within myself. The first month home I was more exhausted than I ever was before. I was surprised at how easily frustrated I got about common everyday problems, such as getting Marina to do her homework or go to bed. There have been other surprises too. One pleasant surprise is that my husband is much more patient than I am with Marina. In fact, on most nights, homework is his responsibility with Marina because he has turned out to be the better teacher. Parenting is REALLY hard, something I knew intellectually but did not fully comprehend until I became a parent myself. I feel guilty when I get angry more often than I would like to admit or I look forward to a few hours to myself. I sometimes find myself wondering what is wrong with me that my attachment with Marina seems to fluctuate. It is at these moments that I remind myself that pregnant women have nine months to bond with a baby before coming home, while the stressful years prior to bringing Marina home were filled with endless paperwork, financial worries, infertility treatment (ugh), emotional anguish, and gut-wrenching doubt!

Attachment is a careful partnership between parent and child based on a mutually satisfying, loving relationship. Children need to feel safe and secure in order to attach. Certainly an older child coming from a traumatic background to a new country thousands of miles away cannot possibly feel 100% safe and secure right from the start. All children need time to attach, whether they arrive home at birth, 12 months or 12 years. When I hear stories about attachment disordered children, I sometimes wonder whether as adoptive parents we expect too much from our children too soon. I also wonder whether as parents we struggle with attachment ourselves as we attempt to cope with our own emotions. The moments that feel like parenting nightmares for me are not attachment related at all. They occur when I lose patience with the everyday stress of parenting, such as when Marina's need for a new hairstyle conflicts with my need to get to work on time. Although some older adopted children have serious attachment-related behavioral problems, this is certainly not always the case.

Many older adopted children did not spend their entire early life in an orphanage. They may have been loved by parents or relatives who later became unable to care for them, or suffered abuse and neglect but still managed to form attachment relationships. Sometimes a close sibling relationship serves as a bridge to attachment. Other times a loving relationship with an orphanage caregiver can heal old wounds. An older adopted child should be expected to have some attachment issues during the first year or so, but this does not mean the child will have RAD. It takes babies a year or two to securely attach to a parent under the best of circumstances, so it stands to reason that we should expect a similar time frame from older adopted children.

In my private practice, I treat people who were abused and neglected as children, or grew up surrounded by alcohol, drug abuse and other hardship. Yes, they have emotional issues; but they are also functioning productive members of society: teachers, police officers, doctors, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Marina may have some emotional problems related to her past, but that is also true of half the people I know anyway. At times she can be extremely strong-willed and oppositional; but she is not attachment disordered. She is also affectionate, smart, loving funny and pretty much amazing most of the time! Although parenting an older adopted child can be hard, parenting any child is hard.

Further, older child adoption has many benefits, the first being NO DIAPERS! The benefit of no diapers first became apparent to us on the flight back from Russia. While other adoptive parents were juggling crying babies with poopy diapers in the tiny airplane restroom, OUR child quietly listened to music on a headset and helped the flight attendants pass out peanuts! Older child adoption works very well for single parents or families in which both parents work outside the home. It is much more pleasant to enroll an older child in school than to drop an infant off at daycare (not to mention the cost!).

Families adopting older children often have the opportunity to adopt siblings, a wonderful way to keep children together and enjoy a larger family. Older children also make great family members for older parents. Marina is about the same age as most of our friends children, and I must admit it is nice knowing we will probably still be alive for a good portion of her adulthood. Another benefit of older child adoption is the idea that giving a home to an older child is a selfless act of charity, though I must admit this never occurred to us. This week I felt so blessed and fulfilled as I observed Marina at school, beaming with life as she worked hard to learn the lesson and enjoying the other children. When people tell us how lucky Marina is to have us, we smile and proudly say how lucky we are to have HER!