How to Help an Older Child Adjust to Adoption

Adopting an older child is a very different experience than adopting an infant. One of the biggest distinctions between the two is the process of adjustment for older children. Unlike infants, it can take lots of time and effort for an adopted older child to see you as his or her family. However, there are some things you can do to help.

Concerns in Older Child Adoptions

When you adopt a toddler or older child, they come with a history. Coming to terms with these past experiences is a journey for both the child and the adoptive parents. When you adopt an older child, it’s not uncommon for them to experience numerous issues which spring from their earlier experiences, such as:

  • Defiant behavior such as purposeful rule-breaking, arguing, or other oppositional behavior.
  • Withdrawn or depressed behavior such as extreme shyness, unwillingness to do activities, or avoidance of social situations
  • Excessive neediness and “age-inappropriate” behaviors like wanting to use infant toys or drink out of sippy cups.
  • Behavioral issues such as lying, stealing, or blaming others for their own actions.

While these behaviors might seem unrelated, they all stem in one way or another from very common causes. Many older children waiting to be adopted have come from difficult family situations, and they have learned through experience that adults aren’t trustworthy or dependable.

This perception then leads them to act out in ways they feel keep them safe from further harm. Some children withdraw into their own internal worlds, while others act out in a show of strength and independence. Still others might regress to a younger state in an effort to receive the same comfort and care they got as young children.

Over time, your adopted child will learn to trust you and see you as a source of comfort. This adjustment process isn’t easy, but there are some things you can do to make it a little easier.

How to Help Your Child Adjust


The single most important thing to remember about the adoption adjustment process is this: It takes time. No child adjusts to adoption overnight. Even if your new child seems happy, cooperative, and content, there is a chance things could change.

Remember that most older children who are waiting for adoption placement have lived in multiple homes before yours. They may have been fostered several times, moved between family members, or placed in protective care. To them, your home might not seem permanent, and it takes time to break that perception. Full adjustment to a new home and a new family can take a minimum of six months; some children take significantly longer than a year to get used to being adopted.


As the old saying says, “consistency is key.” Adopting an older child requires you to be consistent in your rules, discipline, and lifestyle in order to avoid fracturing the fragile trust you are working to build.

Why is consistency important? Simple – most older children in the adoption system haven’t experienced it much before. Being consistent and following through will show your child that you mean what you say and that they can trust you.

For instance, it’s vital that you have consistent rules and expectations for your child and your home. Simple rules, such as cleaning up toys after playtime or eating together at the dinner table, help set a routine and build expectations. You should also be consistent and fair with discipline for breaking these rules. Don’t create arbitrary punishments; instead, make sure your child knows consequences ahead of time and apply those consequences consistently and fairly.

Along with rules and expectations, you should also be consistent in terms of your lifestyle. Praise your child consistently when they do a good job, and follow through on plans and promises. This will show them they can trust you to do what you say and to be there when they do well.


Nobody can say exactly how a child will react to adoption. Every child’s history and experiences are unique, and those factors shape them in different ways. This means the adjustment process takes many forms and sometimes leads to unexpected twists or turns.

Because of this, it’s important for you to leave yourself open and available to them for support, guidance, and help. Make sure they know they can come to you with their problems or ask you for help and comfort.

This can manifest itself in many different ways, from asking you to play at inconvenient times to making strange requests for foods, drinks, or clothes. The key is recognizing what’s really at stake: often the child doesn’t really want what they’re asking for, but are rather looking for unconditional support and sympathy.

Other Tips for Adoptive Parents

Know What’s Normal

Sometimes, issues that might look like problems with adoption adjustment are really adjustment of a different sort. Age-related adjustment issues are common in all children! You should know what to expect from your adopted child’s age range in addition to the above.

For instance, if you adopt a toddler, it’s perfectly normal for them to be defiant and demanding. If you adopt a pre-teen it’s common for them to be aloof and to question your authority. Not all issues in an adoption are caused by adoption itself. Knowing what is normal can help you adjust your expectations and plan ahead.

Know When to Seek Help

Finally, it’s important to realize that you can’t do everything alone. Sometimes children have real issues and problems that you won’t be able to work through at home. In these cases it’s beneficial to seek help from an adoption-competent counselor. They are trained and experienced in helping children overcome their problems. If you feel lost or like you aren’t making any progress, don’t be ashamed to ask for help.

Want to learn more about older child adoption in Oklahoma? Call us today at Deaconess Pregnancy & Adoption. As Oklahoma’s oldest and most experienced adoption agency, we can help you through every step of the adoption process. Call (405) 397-3140 today, or Like our Facebook page to get more advice and resources for your adoption.