Special Needs and Development of Children Adopted at an Older Age

An overview of developmental issues of older adoptees, from a child welfare specialist.

By Victor Groza, co-author of Adopting Older Children.

As a community, we have moved from a general description of special needs to talk about the specific needs and issues encountered when adopting older children. Older children have more experiences, positive and negative. Having negative experiences early in life can result in many different types of difficulties. It depends on the type of negative experiences they had pre-adoption and prenatally, when those experiences happen, how long the negative experiences lasted and the severity of the experiences.

One issue for many families is that early negative result in less than a secure attachment. Most children attach but they may not have the optimal, secure attachment. Their experience has taught them not to rely on adults to get their needs met so they figure it out themselves.

Developmentally older children are a mosaic. In some areas they are developmentally delayed, in other areas they may be on target and in other areas they be ahead. They are complicated developmentally as a result of some of their experiences. If the developmental milestone is dependent on completing an earlier stage in development, they may look one age but developmentally be a different age.

Older children often have difficulties in learning by traditional methods. If their birth parents had learning difficulties it increases the likelihood that they will have learning difficulties. They may be behind in school and their learning needs may not have been a priority for school. Plus children from chaotic or negative backgrounds don't usually have a parent who is a good advocate for them in school.

Older children have behavioral/mental health issues disproportionate to the general population. Plus adoptees are different. Their early experiences creates an array of survivor behaviors that even if you change the environment can remain for many years. After disappearing, they can re-emerge if the child becomes anxious or fearful. Parent-child relationships and peer relationships can be a challenge for older children.

Parents, before they adopt an older child, need to find professionals who are adoption sensitive and have expertise in the assessment of older children. It has to be someone the parent trusts and can help the parent understand what supports and services children need. It can be as complicated as working with a child psychiatrist to as less complicated as working with a tutor after school. Each older adoptee will be different and need different things at different times. Even siblings raised together before adoption will have different needs even if they had similar experiences. Flexibility and expectation management are the linchpins of successful adoption. Rigid families and high expectation families will fare the worse in adoption, as will their adoptee.

For children of a different race, it’s important that diversity be part of adoptive family life. Having diverse people in your life is more than just going to a faith community that is diverse. Adoptive families need diverse friends, social events and communities to optimize the racial identity development of adoptees. Over time, identity issues become more and less important. A parent’s job is to build as many strengths in their children as possible. Having a cultural, racial or ethnic identity is a strength. We hear from adoptees about being the only (black, Indian, Asian, . . . ) in their community. Even before adopting across race or culture, parents need to have a diversity plan for their family, which may include moving from an all-one-race community. The diversity plan includeshow to expand your family social network to include diverse people as well as planning social and recreational activities with diverse groups.

Victor Groza,PhD, LISW-S, is a professor of Social Work at Case Western Reserve University, with expertise in child welfare and institutional care of children. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and articles relating to child welfare and global adoption, including the book Adopting Older Children.