People often ask me what they need to know to successfully adopt and parent older children. Well, I don’t have a magic answer (sorry, but I really don’t think there is one), but I do have some suggestions to make it easier.

Be Prepared to Change

When an older child joins the family, we need to learn what her needs are and how to meet them. I don’t mean simply reading about the child’s history or diagnoses, I mean finding out what the child needs from us, the parents. We should ask, “What does this child need for me to be her mom in a way that’s going to make her life better and help her become part of the family?”

Too often, we go to conferences and therapists hoping to discover how to change our child’s behavior. I’m the first to admit that the behaviors can be challenging (all right, they can be downright awful) and hard to live with. So, when I go to workshops to learn about how to manage a certain disorder, I reframe offered strategies to look at what I can do differently. I ask, “How can I change myself to make it easier for him to comply? What am I doing to make it easier for my child to live in this family?” I have to change myself to become the mom my child needs me to be (and I mean needs, not wants).

The wonderful part of this is that my kids don’t need me to be perfect or right all the time. They just need me to be trying really hard, and they need me to be malleable, and they need me to have realistic expectations about what they can do at this point in time.

I’m not suggesting you have to change your values or core being; that all stays the same and is the foundation for everything you offer your child. But your skills and your approach will have to be tweaked for each child, because what each needs from you will be different from what the others need or from what you expect him to need. It’s a constantly changing process. The payoff is that we can end up being more grounded, capable, loving, and (for some) more spiritual people than we ever dreamed we could be. That’s partly why I have so many children; I keep trying to be a better person. But as my children remind me, “You’re not there yet, Mom.”

Two dads with young child

Develop Patience

An important change for many parents is the need to develop more patience. That has been hard for me (I really was made to run an army or a maximum security prison, or maybe rule some planet—anything where people would give me total and immediate obedience), but I make myself remember that my children need me to wait while they learn to behave and to belong. After all, my children waited years before they got the permanence and stability of their own family, so it’s only fair that I wait for them to learn how to live with us. Parents have told me, “It’s been six months, and we’re still having these problems.” If the child is five or ten years old when he is adopted, six months is a drop in the bucket. The truth is our children are likely to have difficulties throughout the time we’re raising them.

Patience also means developing a broader view. Although that’s hard when we’re in crisis, we still need to work on it. We need to say, “I can wait until you feel some kind of love for me. I’m not going to go anywhere. I can wait the rest of your life.” It’s not so much patience on a day-to-day basis, but rather a lifetime of patience. For us—as it was for our children—waiting is just part of the adoption package.

Love Kids for Who They Are Now

I have heard so many people say, “I love who my son is going to be in five years. I can see so much potential.” Can you imagine what that feels like to the son? It sounds like you love another child—a future son who may never exist.

Not long ago, friends of mine adopted a brother and sister, ages six and nine. They were experienced adoptive parents with 17 other children. Still, these new children had challenges my friends hadn’t dealt with before and the initial months were rocky while their new daughter fought against connecting with them.

One morning, my friend Paula called me to report, “Angela spent all night long carving ‘Mom is a ______.’ and ‘F___ Mom’ and other things about me all over the house.” (They have a wood beam house with lots of space for deep carving—they should have known better.)

I sympathized with my friend and asked how she was going to address this problem. She responded, “There’s no problem. She spelled every word right!”

Clearly she missed the point, so I asked her if there was something else going on here. After thinking for a moment, Paula added, “You’re right. She must not have attention deficit disorder—that took her all night! I’m so proud of her.”

I wasn’t done trying to get to the bottom of this episode, so I asked her to look again at what had happened. After a few silent moments of deep thought, Paula answered excitedly, “You’re right again. She carved ‘Mom,’ not ‘Paula.’ She’s bonding! How could I have missed something so important!” I finally realized that it was me, not Paula, who had missed what was important here.

Loving our children for who they are now also means knowing and valuing their strengths. They have so many labels and diagnoses that it can be easy to forget that they are so much more than that. At a NACAC workshop I went to recently, the speakers talked about the gifts—like creativity and spontaneity—that go with attention deficit disorder. My oldest son, who has severe fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), has gifts of spirituality and forgiveness that are deeper and more sincere than I have ever witnessed before. I sometimes think that FAS—even though it took a lot away from him—gave him a level of kindness and generosity of spirit that is awe inspiring.

Focus on Commitment

In the early years of an older child adoption, we need to shift our focus from love and trust to commitment. Many of our children have no reason to trust anyone and they don’t know what parental love feels like. Their experience tells them that the minute they let down their guard, everything is going to fall apart. Adoptive parents need to prove this is the end of the road. We have to be there for them again and again. What sometimes feels like your child’s inability to learn from her mistakes is really her need to be shown that you are rock steady. Even when we don’t like our children and they don’t love us, we must remain committed to their place in our family.

We also have to earn the attachment we expect of them. If you have a newborn, you earn attachment and love in the first year. Your baby squeals and fusses, is an awfully demanding little nuisance, but you take care of him and nurture him despite sleep deprivation and frustration and the total destruction of your social life.

Older children need to feel the same level of commitment. They may not always recognize love, and they aren’t always ready to offer it, and in the early stages of an older child adoption, the child may mistake your commitment for stubbornness or he may think you’re just plain weird. But it’s commitment, not love or trust, that will get us through the days when nothing else is working for anyone.

Embrace Adoption for Life

Adoption is forever. Where I live, many adoption professionals are going through a phase of telling children that they are going to be placed with their “growing up family” rather than with their “forever” family. The professionals fear that the adoptions won’t last. I still call adoptive families “forever families” because that’s what it’s about. Children may come and go from our lives for different reasons, but it doesn’t mean the end of an adoption.

At 15, my oldest son, Jason, was a plague on humanity; he set fires, stole cars (and crashed them because he didn’t know how to drive), pulled break and enters, and was very aggressive with his much younger brother. The aggression made him too dangerous to live in our home, and we weren’t sure what to do. Fortunately, his behaviors caused the law to intervene and the courts kindly offered him an alternative place to live, but only for a short time. After he was released from the detention center, I had to decide if he could safely come home. I was really fearful for my younger son, so I arranged for Jason to stay with his birth grandmother. That was the best thing I ever did.

However, not everyone agreed, and they were quick to tell me so. Professionals and friends accused us of throwing our son out and “dissolving” the adoption. I pointed out that we hadn’t broken up the family at all. We paid child support to his grandmother, my son phoned home nightly, and visited often. We never thought he was out of our family; he was just out of the house. And it never occurred to him that he wasn’t ours. After he moved through this difficult stage, he bounced in and out of the house until he was finally successful with his independent adulthood. I never worried about losing Jason, and he never worried about losing us. He is always and forever my son, but that was the process we needed to go through with him to keep everyone safe.

When these situations come up in your family, remember that your commitment is forever. Your adoption, your family, isn’t going to end just because you have a crisis or because your child needs more help than you can give her at home. You are going to be the grandparents of your children’s children. You are there for the good and bad—forever. Maybe our kids can’t always live with us, but it doesn’t mean we have to leave them.

Treasure Other Adoptive Parents

I have deep respect for adoptive families because most of us cope very well with the transformation from a typical family to a family that daily has to deal with challenges that our friends and families only read about. Adoptive parents start out as pretty normal people, and then we adopt older children who dramatically change our lives. We have to give up being like other families, and we have to grieve that loss and focus on what we have gained.

And what have we gained? Well, how about a universe full of colors and richness and beauty. Learning to see the world through the eyes of a child with FAS means learning to see beyond the limits, learning to see the possible in all things. And learning to see the world through the eyes of a child who has been hurt beyond measure means learning to value all that is good and right and decent about ourselves and our lives. We all need to honor each other and value the knowledge and skills and joy and success that we have to offer.

To honor and value our families, we should do things like go to the NACAC conference. After all, adoption isn’t our hobby, it’s our lives. We need to share time with others traveling the same road. When we do, we go home to our children as stronger and more committed parents. For me, time with members of my adoption culture (as at NACAC), where we can share and strengthen one another, is no luxury; it’s essential.

Be Faithful and Fearless

Basically, we adoptive parents have to be faithful and fearless—faithful to our children through thick and thin. We have to be faithful to who they are now and who they may become. We must faithfully meet their needs and be their parents. We also must be fearless—we cannot be afraid to turn ourselves into what they need us to be. We have to be brave enough to stretch ourselves with each new child so every one of them can find the safety and stability he or she needs.