Adopting a Tween: the Joys and Challenges of Older Child Adoption

Our daughter came to us through straight adoption from the foster care system eleven months ago. She was nine years old. The first time we met her was in the administrative office of the group facility where she had been living for the six months prior to coming home with us. I loved her before I even laid eyes on her in person. We had been working to bring her home for six months (the entire time she was in the group facility). Mountains of paper work to read and sign, updates to our home study, more background checks, tons of red tape involving two states and multiple agencies. We were chosen to be her parents in November and didn’t get to meet her until May. I literally ground holes in two of my teeth in my sleep because I was so anxious to bring her home. She was 100% my daughter, my baby before she even knew we existed.

When we finally got to see her, I was amazed at how tiny she was! She was so much smaller than she looked in the photos we’d been sent. She had huge, dark brown eyes that were filled with fear and very greasy hair. (There was a lice problem at the group facility, so they greased her hair.) We met her on a Monday and she came home with us forever that Friday. She was all little girl! We played dress up and tea party. We did crafts, read storybooks and snuggled. Lots of cuddling and lap holding. I picked her up and carried her often, even when people scoffed at how ridiculous it was to treat a nine year old this way. We were immediately smitten with her. She was willing to bond and attach to us from the beginning. She had at least thirteen placements before us, so I think her willingness to let herself get close to us is just amazingly brave!

What a difference a year has made! She’s ten now and in fourth grade. She’s grown 5 inches and gained twenty pounds since she’s been home. I still carry her way more than I should – for my back’s sake! She’s gotten long and heavy! I still snuggle her and hold her on my lap whenever I can, but now she often calls for help from Dad because Mom’s being too mushy again. She physically looks like a different child. She still looked like a little girl a year ago. Now she definitely looks like a young lady, a “tween”. Her body is changing. She’s starting to get “goodies”. I’m fearful that her first period is right around the corner. We’re almost a year into our life together. She’s been with us for eleven months. Adopting an older child is a crazy ride. She came to us as a little girl and is now a full on Justin Bieber loving-training bra wearing-lip glossed-tween. I’m grateful we had a few months together to work on attachment before puberty started knocking on our door.

She spent her first four years dealing with abuse, neglect, poverty and abandonment. Then she spent the next five years bouncing around foster care. She was actually in a children’s psychiatric hospital (where she spent both her ninth birthday and Thanksgiving) when we were chosen to be her parents. She came to us diagnosed with ADHD, ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), anxiety and depression. We knew parenting her would be a challenge. We also felt we could handle it and that she was capable of healing.

She has come so far. In the beginning, she got stressed out if you asked her if she preferred a turkey or ham sandwich. That required looking inside to her own thoughts and feelings, something she fought vigilantly to avoid. She refused to talk about her past. She would not acknowledge any feelings other than happy and mad. Her “mad” was big. She could spend up to an hour hiding in her closet screaming like she was in a horror movie. We tried therapy with two different mental health agencies. They did not get trauma and attachment. One therapist actually made things worse and the other suggested we stop when our daughter stayed silent in sessions after five months of weekly visits.

I read up on therapeutic parenting and attachment disorders. I found an online network of moms in similar situations (“Trauma Mommas”) through blogs. I gave her the words for her feelings and told her about other kids with “hurt parts” like her. I repeated things like, “Stop, take a deep breath and relax” and, “You’re safe, you’re loved, you can handle this.” My husband and I both let her know that we were here to listen anytime she wanted to talk, but we couldn’t force her to share her memories or feelings with us. Slowly, she started to open up in spurts. One day in the car she randomly asked, “How long do you think my kids will get to live with me?” At nine years old, she was terrified of being a bad mom and having her kids removed from her. “It’s in my history and people always say history repeats itself.”

As she’s started to process her past, the behavior challenges have actually increased. She’s dealing with a whole lot of hurt and pain that she’s kept buried her whole life. She has meltdowns with screaming, wailing and flailing. She has episodes of defiance, disrespect and destruction. The difference is that now she is usually able to talk about the real reason behind it (instead of “You were mean to me!”) and feelings beyond “You made me mad!”

This past weekend was Easter. It is the last holiday (other than Mother’s Day) before we hit our one year together. We had three days of epic meltdowns, disrespect and defiance. Some of the highlights included: stabbing herself with a pencil, kicking me, screaming until she made herself ill and walking around the neighborhood barefoot when I told her not to leave the yard. She told us that she had to move several times right before holidays. She is convinced that we are going to “get rid” of her “just like everyone else”. She thinks this is because she is a bad kid who doesn’t deserve nice things or a family. Since we didn’t “get rid” of her at 4th of July, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, etc. she just knew it was going to be Easter. She was trying to hurry along what she felt was the inevitable by throwing out the worst possible behavior. Our adoption is finalized. We are a forever family. It’s hard to buy into “forever” when things didn’t work out with your biological parents. If your biological parents aren’t forever, how can you trust anyone else to be?

She woke up Easter morning to see that she was still home with us. She realized that we still loved her, despite her behavior; that we forgave her; that we were still taking care of her. There was still breakfast, clean clothes, hugs and the Easter Bunny even brought her presents! She spent the whole day hugging us, writing us love notes and pointing out that she hadn’t had a tantrum all day.

I have found her age to be a huge challenge. It’s hard to know when she’s moody, emotional, argumentative, cops an attitude, etc. if it’s stemming from her trauma and attachment issues or just typical tween hormones! I have a tendency to associate everything with her past. Sometimes she really is just upset because of an argument with a little girl at school or nerves about saying “hi” to the boy she has a crush on. And sometimes she’s just acting like a brat because she’s a kid testing her boundaries and not because of some post traumatic stress disorder trigger.

I’ve learned in the last year how quickly children grow and change and how fast time speeds by. I’m so honored I’m her mom and that she has allowed herself to love and trust me. I’m grateful that my husband and I are able to provide her with the safety and comfort to begin processing all that happened to her and the big feelings that go with it. Helping her heal is difficult, exhausting and sometimes overwhelming, but it is amazing to watch. She is going to be okay. My daughter is going to be healthy, happy, strong and healed.

Happy one year to our family!

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