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Adopting an older child in India has unique challenges, needs and rewards. A well-prepared family can help the adoptee feel embraced and supported.
The Central Adoption Resource Agency’s statistics for 2011-12 show that 500 of the 6,500 children were placed in adoption outside India. A large percentage of these are estimated to be older children and children with special needs.
Historically, adoption has been an option to explore after wrestling with fertility issues. In the past decade, more Indians in India are adopting and more parents with biological children are adopting. There are now more instances of older children adoptions in India.
Experts believe that these developments are a factor of people waiting longer to start a family, more people choosing their partners outside of arranged marriages (greater possibility of similar mindsets) and some adults choosing to be parents, independent of marriage. CARA’s guidelines for adoptive parents are below:
Age of child
Maximum combined age of couple; individuals’ age range
Minimum and maximum single parent age range
Source: CARA guidelines
Rewards and challenges of older child adoptions
Shefali*, a mother who adopted 5 year old Tanaya* 2 years ago says, “I got a lot of advice to adopt an infant. I don’t know why, but I thought an older child would be a better fit for me, a single mother with a support system that mostly consisted of similar thinking friends.’
Adoption in India is by itself an experience, with adoptive parents having to navigate many minefields and mentalities. In this, an adoptive parent with an older child has different challenges. Their rewards are also different.
Tanushree* reflects, “My child came to me through adoption when my biological son was almost 10 years old. My second experience was a breeze! My daughter was 4 years old, already toilet trained, walking and talking and able to tell me what she thought! Wow, a big difference!”
With these benefits come different needs. While the parents don’t necessarily deal with sleepless nights and potty training, they also were not part of many of the child’s ‘firsts’. Having been in an institution for significant periods of time, children may have faced many losses – their birth family, favourite care givers and friends they’ve played with.
The child struggles to make sense of another change, especially when they are told that they are ‘lucky’ to find this family. With very little time to get to know the adoptive family (a 10-day to 2-week transition at the better agencies), the child may lack time to reconcile themselves to the change. The child is also not developmentally mature to process such a change, even if it is beneficial to them in the long run.
Further, institutional care has side effects with the nuances of parenting being absent in a child’s life. An institution can provide for the basic needs of a child. Additional (and critical) factors like being held and comforted, being read to, being adequately stimulated, etc. are luxuries in even the best-intentioned agency that has to deal with staffing changes, budget constraints and bureaucratic red tape.
Shefali talks of her confusion in the first couple of months with Tanaya’s behaviour. “She was so quiet in the beginning. I thought we’d had a wonderful adjustment. Little did I know that the real experience started when she began to feel comfortable enough to act out with me.”
Any child who has experienced this deep level of loss has to cope with the seven core issues in adoption – grief, loss, rejection, control, identity, shame/guilt and intimacy/relationships. Additionally, an older child has consciously gone through more history with the details being blurry.
Pre-adoption parent counselling is not as widespread as required in India. While some agencies counsel parents adopting older children, parents often end up seeking out others like them, if they can find these support networks. Some parents may not talk honestly about their experience, making even support group sharing constrained.
“Adopting an older child is a wonderful journey and I would do it all over again, though I would have prepared myself better. I wouldn’t think it is just like birth or even adopting an infant. I am very frank on the difficulties and challenges, be it acting out or school and learning”, says Tanushree says emphatically.
Many adoptive parents agree, opining that while love is the basic foundation of all parenting, their lack of preparation has meant precious time lost in forging a good relationship with the child. Mahesh*, adoptive father of Karthik*, 7 years old, says, “I found myself driven to the limits of tolerance. Until I began to understand the effects of my child’s past on his present, I wasn’t able to do anything that worked!”
All families say that the whole experience, with its ups and downs, has made them better people. The parents I interviewed have parented their children for over 5 years each. While their children have settled in well, they feel that there continue to be areas of difficulty in behaviour, trust or schooling.
“I wish more teachers would get informed on why it is difficult for my child to function like everyone else at school. How do I inform them without singling my child out inordinately?” asks Mahesh.
Adoption of an older child in India is a new development. There are books that address the specific areas related to adopting an older child, albeit in the western context.
The Family of Adoption by Joyce Maguire Pavao – Written by an adoptee and mental health professional for over 25 years, this is a good first book to start with to ‘get’ the big picture on adoption. All parts of the adoption triad are addressed: the birth mother, birth father, adoptive parents and adopted person.
Parenting the Hurt Child: Helping Adoptive Families Heal and Grow by Keck and Kupecky – This is a good book for practical parenting, helping the adoptive family understand the mind of the adoptee and providing some practical suggestions.
Our Own: Adopting and Parenting the Older Child by Trish Maskew – This is an older book that provides a good overview of the entire process, especially before applying for adoption. While the book is firmly set in the U.S. context, some takeaways are in the areas self-evaluation of reasons for adopting and learning about the core issues in adoption.
You may also like to watch this video on the joys and challenges of adopting a child in India.
With prepared and informed parents, sensitive educational systems and knowledgeable/accessible mental health professionals, an older adoptee will get the support they need.
* – Names changed in the interest of privacy
*Photo credit: Ashok Saravanan .Ay (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)
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