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Adopting a Young Teen
Amy Eldridge of LWB shares her insights
December 01,2012 / Amy Eldridge
Untitled Document

Editor's Note: Although Amy addressed the concept of adopting an older child from China, the reality for these children is true across all countries. As the adoptive mom of two older children, I can share that the rewards are well worth it! -Martha Osborne

I've been asked a lot recently how I feel about the growing number of adoption pleas we see for kids who are almost turning 14 and aging out of the international adoption process. Some people have written me that they feel it is wrong to make a child start over at age 13 or 14, having to learn a new language and not really understanding what it means to live in a family. Many have expressed concern that the kids will be leaving the friends they have had their whole lives, while of course others spread the news far and wide that a child is about ready to age out, wanting to help them find a permanent home.

After working with teens in China for the last 7 years, I advocate for older child adoption for many reasons. While it is impossible to make sweeping generalizations since every orphanage is different, here are some of my reasons for believing every child, regardless of age, deserves a chance at a family to love them:

1) Many people do not realize the deep and ingrained stigma that an orphaned child often faces in Chinese society (and many other cultures). Orphans are often felt to be unlucky or even "cursed," and so they often have many strikes against them when it comes time to go to school or find a job.

There are many different levels of schools in China; many orphaned children are only able to attend the lowest level schools, as parents who are paying higher fees for the better schools don't want their children to have to attend with "unlucky orphans". Education is so important in Chinese society, and parents often push their children to try harder and work longer on their homework. Orphaned children rarely have anyone pushing them or encouraging them, and so we frequently work with young teens who only have rudimentary educations and who have trouble believing their lives will ever be better. The few dozen children in orphanages whom we have been honored to sponsor for college are the exception. To actually make it to university as an orphaned child is a true achievement. And even after graduating, jobs are often very difficult to come by due to businesses again not wanting to employ people who might bring bad luck to the company. Many of you might remember the young lady we helped earn an accounting degree in college a few years ago. She was unable to find a job in her hometown because of her orphan status. She was finally hired by the local government when no private company would agree to hire her.

2) Some people might ask how anyone would know you were an orphan after you left the institution. Couldn't you just keep it quiet? There are several factors that make it hard to ever lose your "orphan" status. The first is your hukou, the formal registration status that every individual in China has. Your hukou is family-based in your home city, and orphaned children often have a "group" hukou that clearly identifies them as not having a family. In addition, in the past it was very common for orphanages to use "created" surnames for the children in their care. For example, many orphanages used the last name of "Fu," which directly implies an orphan, or else they used the first syllable of the town or district, such as Shan or Mei. These "created" surnames often immediately identify a child as not having a real family. Because of this, and knowing the trouble that orphaned children often have assimilating into Chinese society, the government has recently been giving children more common last names, such as Li or Chang.

3) Almost everything in Chinese society revolves around the family, and great reverence is giving to one's ancestors and lineage. During major holidays, if at all possible, you return to your family. For orphaned children who age out of the social welfare system, they often find life very difficult with no family ties, and they frequently live on the margins of society.

4) Many people worry that the older children being adopted don't really want to leave their home country. At least in the orphanages where we work, the children are always asked, and in many cases, they have to pass a provincial interview before they can be registered for adoption. Many provinces require the child to sign papers that they want to be adopted. As a mom of teens myself, I really admire the kids who find the courage to overcome their fears in order to have a chance at a family, a real education, and a fresh start, but it does raise the question of whether a 12 or 13 year old should be left on their own to make such a life-impacting decision.

I wouldn't allow my 13 year old to decide their entire future on their own, and so adoptive parents need to understand the great fear and cold feet that can come on adoption day. We need to remember that there are often cases where the older kids in orphanages who have already aged out of adoption will tell the younger children scary stories about foreign parents, since they were unable to have the same opportunity. Aunties will often tell a child that they can never do anything wrong or they will be returned. There is indeed deep pressure put on children who agree to adoption at an older age to be good, and it is understandable why there is so much anxiety, fear, and tears on adoption day since very few aunties or children really have a clear understanding of what life will be like for a child outside of China.

One mom told me how incredibly hard it was to see her new daughter crying on the phone to her orphanage a few days post-adoption. She said it was easy to think, "Am I really doing the right thing taking her away from all she has known?" Many older kids have told me how scared they were to even consider adoption, but the desire for a family is something that many of them carry deeply in their hearts.

5) Another question that is frequently asked is why are we hearing about so many kids about ready to age out now when there were so few over the last ten years? After speaking with dozens of orphanage directors, it is clear that the majority of them truly believed that Westerners only wanted babies to adopt, and I think for many years that was a fair assumption, since many families put as young as possible on their home studies. Many of us know people who even requested that they wanted a 3-5 year old child and yet were referred a baby. Even in 2007 and 2008, when LWB was conducting provincial trainings on special needs adoptions, the audience, filled with aunties and directors, would shake their heads as if they couldn't believe us when we said people were willing to adopt children who were 11, 12, and 13. Many orphanages would start out by agreeing to submit paperwork on one or two older orphaned children, and then as they saw those children be adopted, they would agree to send more files. The CCAA also started new initiatives, matching agencies with orphanages to see if families could be found for the older children. It has been a slow and steady process for orphanages to realize that older children most definitely can find families through the adoption process. It has been wonderful for us at LWB to see the older children in the orphanages where we have worked for five years or longer finally get a chance at a permanent home.

How do you feel about older child adoption? Have you ever considered it or have you personally adopted a child older than 10? LWB has several volunteers who have adopted teens who are more than willing to discuss both pre- and post-adoption issues with families. You can always contact us at info@lwbmail.com for more information!

Amy Eldridge is the Executive Director of Love Without Boundaries and the mom to seven wonderful kids (2 from China). LWB has launched a new blog this month, located at: http://www.lwbcommunity.org/

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Readers Comments  (25 Comments)  View All Comments
The situation is the same in Korea. Orphans there don't have a chance because of high education costs. I would adopt older kids or siblings. I do wish Korea and China were open to singles.- Christine
My husband and I would love to adopt children. We have no problem with adopting older children. We believe that children of any age should have love and a family. That all children need to be adopted and that they can overcome just about anything that is put in front of them. I have adopted to bothers at the age of 6 and 7 and it was hard to deal with but I would not change anything about the adoption. I would do it all again.- Danielle
My advice to anyone considering the adoption of a teenager would be: (1) do NOT adopt out of birth order. I never thought this would be a problem, but after many years, it turned out to be a bigger problem than anticipated; (2) From what I have seen, the most successful teen adoptions are by parents who have already raised bio teens to adulthood. You have experience with teen issues, and your new child is the youngest in the home and gets to be "the baby," which is what they need.- Marie
We just got our lid from china we are adopting a 8yr old and 13 year old anyone who can give me help and information on what to expect would be GREAT!! How long does it take for conformation letter the 13 year old turns 14 Sept2,2010?- Dawn
I have adopted children, 6 of them teens - 4 of those adopted when they already hit the teens. It´s challenging, but it can work. Being upfront and frank about what family is and the obligations and committments required from both sides to make it work really helps. Speaking their language, living in their country, and knowing their culture also really helped and gained their confidence in me. And I am totally supportive of single parent adoptions - I am a single parent.- Anonymous
What a great article!!! We adopted our daughter when she was almost 13. It has been two years and she is an incredible blessing. She is definitely a typical teenager, but we think that given all she has been through that it is amazing she is so normal!!! We are looking to do it again, and yes -- older children again. God Bless you for spreading the word about how special it can be to adopt an older child!- Lisa
Amy, thank you so much for this article! We have been home 4 months with our 14 year old son AND 2 year old daughter from China. This was our 4th adoption process and adding an older child can be very challenging, but we are all learning together and are seeing amazing positive changes in ALL of us! I am homeschooling for the first time, and our son would have faced most if not all the challenges you addressed if left in China.- Connie in OK
We adopted a 12 year old girl from China in July 2009 and previously a 4 year old girl from China (11 now) and a 4 year old boy from Russia (13 now). Our oldest 2 are 10 days apart. Was is harder as a teen than a 4 year old - yes but we would do it again in a heartbeat. Our daughter fits in perfectly with our other two children. She is a typical 13 year old now - moody, talks back, hates homework, talks too much on the phone, but is loving, caring, funny, a great big sister and our duaghter.- Barbara
Laurie in California: We adopted a 9 year old from Taiwan 1 1/2 years ago. Within 3 months she was speaking English well enough to get her point across. Another 3 months went by and the senteneces were coming with only the little words (it, him/her confusion) missing or backwards. Now after 1 1/2 years, she is up to a 2nd grade reading level and has no trouble communitcating! During the first 3 months she was home, we just played charades a lot!- Kaye
Older adoption? Yes!!! We have been home with our now 15 year old Daughter from China one year. Older children have a clear understanding of family and the future or lack of. So for our daughter works very hard to a part of all aspects of her new life. She once said she is unlucky but now says I am very lucky.- Anonymous
If you adopt an older child from foster care, you can get to know them before you make a decision. Why is no one talking about the 125,000 children waiting here?- Terri
I have adopted 3 teen girls from Russia in the last 4 years. They have had a few adjustment problems, but wanted a family and so we are now that. If I could afford it and had the room I would have papers all over the world to adopt older children, they are a gratifying age (even when they are not that cooperative and act unlovingly!) and I would not change anything. Do wish I could have gotten my other boy from Russia, but someone came in and took him after I had signed for him. Unforgetable- MamaBev
We adopted 10 and 12 year old girls from Haiti 8 years ago, and are starting the process for a 9 year old boy in China right now. Our girls have done great-but it was tough academically for them, and the late teen years were hard for one of them. But when I think about what their futures might have looked like, I am SO GLAD we did it.- Joan
We adopted 3 teenagers (siblings).4 years ago. We have also adopted 3 other toddlers. The toddlers have done great, the teenagers have done terrible. I would never recommend teenage adoption to anyone, and we are experienced parents. (We also have 5 biological older children.) The people that I have talked to that adopted teenagers say the same thing.- Anonymous
To the woman wanting more programs for singles: If you are a single woman willing to adopt older children there are many programs! Older kids are available to singles in Bulgaria, the Philippines and other countries.- Megan
Amy, thank you for writing this. I have been a social worker in international adoption and what I have found is that it comes down to abuse. If the child was cared for and not abused in the orphanage, then they usually adjust well to a family.- Anonymous
Our very close friends adopted a 12 year old from China. She was strong willed (in a positive way), remains bi-lingual at age 22, and is a fantastic human being. Truly exceptional as a person and as a daughter.- Jaime P
We adopted a 9-year-old girl in 1998. Our daughter will turn 21 this year and as been a JOY to parent. She dreamed of a mother more than anything in the world. Yes, she missed her friends, but also reconnected with some of them through the internet after they were adopted, too. It's an unfortunate "secret" that there are wonderful teens just waiting for a family.- Martha
I adopted a 13 year old girl from Russia in 2004 and a 10 year old son from Kazakhstan in 2007. My kids are wonderful. I am a big advocate for older child adoption. You can read more about us on my website, the Crab Chronicles.- Dee Thompson
When I read articles such as this, it makes me wish that more programs would open their doors to single parents. Just think of the possibilities.- Anonymous
I am considering a five year old girl who does not speak english. Do kids suffer much frustration at first at not knowing the language? Do they seem to pick up english quickly? I would love to hear other's experiences. Thank you.- Laurie in California
great article. I've been advocating for older kids as well, and this is such an informative article. thank you- karin
I really loved this article. You answered some of the questions we have been talking about. We have 7 children, one adopted from China. Our son was a "special needs" six yr old when we brought him home. We have just decided to start our second adoption for a 10-12 yr old. We have discussed the pros and cons over and over, and just feel it is the right choice for our family. We do believe all children need a secure forever family to call their own.- Heather
Excellent article, and I am also an advocate for older child adoption. However, it is not for the faint of heart! I adopted a 10-year-old from China who is now almost 20. Sometimes the issues associated with institutionalization take years to surface. The later teen years can be extremely difficult. Even at that, every child deserves a home and family.- Marie
We have 7 children adopted from Kazakhstan and Latvia, including a daughter who came home at age 11; she is 14 now, and, I think, very happy to be here. I am willing to talk with families considering siblings sets (we adopted a sib. set of 5), unrelated children (2 from Kaz.), and older children (though my experience only includes up to 11 yr.'s old).- Jacqueline Smith
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