My husband and I have six biological children. We love parenting, and had talked of adopting older children someday, as the older children generally get overlooked when people are considering adopting a child.
We turned to international adoption and adopted a sibling group of four from Russia, which consisted of one boy and three girls. We also adopted a girl from another orphanage at the same time, and three years later we adopted another daughter. Our children were ten years old, eleven years old, thirteen years old, almost fourteen years old, and almost fifteen years old when we adopted them. Today, we have two fourteen year old daughters, a fifteen year old daughter, a seventeen year old daughter, an eighteen year old son, and a nineteen year old daughter.
Not all of their behaviors were due to their early upbringing or orphanage life; some of it was normal, run-of-the-mill teenage angst. My children are like most teenagers. They worry about their skin, their weight, being physically fit, their grades, and being pretty. They are interested in members of the opposite sex, and a wide variety of music. They throw fits and slam doors. They criticize each other and nit-pick each other unmercifully. In essence, they are just normal teenagers that happen to talk with a lovely accent and an interesting turn of phrase. They are our children, stinky feet, pimples, dimples, and all.
Our 3 Greatest Challenges: Combating Their Fear and Lack of Trust
Our children still have horrible nightmares about their 'papa' in Russia and will wake up afraid that he will come back to steal them. They are ever watchful. When they first came to America, the girls would all stand behind their brother and peek around him, to look at us or at a stranger. They were uncomfortable when someone just dropped by without calling. We always told them when we knew we would be having company, who they company was going to be, the purpose for their visit, and how long they would stay. They did not like us leaving them house without them. The children wanted to go with us, and when we go to our destination, they immediately wanted to know when we were going home. It took a long time, but they did learn the routine of our lives. Their fears become less evident the longer they are with us, because they feel more secure about their environment and our commitment.
When we got upset with them, they reacted as if we hated them and would be mad at them forever. They had to be reassured a lot, and we still give our sons and daughters hugs and tell them we love them. The children were never allowed to hug anyone in the orphanage.
Teaching Effective Listening and Communicating Skills
The children are easily distracted so we have to keep them focused on a conversation. They just were not used to adults actually talking to them. We sit around our dining table and talk after most meals. Some of the children will stay and ask questions, while some will leave the table in favor of finishing homework, or watching a favorite program on TV. Usually, when one of the children says, "I have a question", the other children will stay to hear the question and listen to the answer. Sometimes we have some very long, in-depth conversations about bodily functions, two-faced people, or why there are different cultures and different traditions in the family.
Communication is vitally important to everyone's growth, development, and understanding. They have needed to learn to talk to other people. The children were never taught manners and had to learn acceptable social behaviors. We have one daughter that simply does not apologize. If she accidentally runs into one of them, her attitude is, "Well, they shouldn't have been in my way". If I ask her to say "thank you" when someone does something nice for her, she will tell me, "I didn't ask them to do that nice thing, so why do I have to thank them?" Those conversations are very long.
Irrational Love/Hate for Old Relationships
The children have mixed feelings about their biological parents. On one level, the children love their birthmother, and on another level they feel sorry for her. Another child will talk about how much he or she hates her. The best thing we can do is listen to them talk. We encourage them to try to see their mother as an individual, not just as their mother, so they can understand the problems she was dealing with. The children's first parents drank heavily and would leave the children alone for long periods of time. When their parents were home and drinking, they would fight with knives and hurt each other and the children. We have tried to help our children see that this was perhaps the only way their birthparents could cope with life. Their parents had almost no education, and could not read or write. We talk about how important a good education is, as it brings understanding and knowledge on a personal, as well as academic, level. Our son sometimes stills says that he hates his mom because she did not love them enough to do the right thing. When asked, "What was the right thing she was supposed to do?", all he could answer was, "She was supposed to love us and care for her family like a good mom; not be a drunk".
Their mother passed away a year and a half ago and it was tragic. All four of our children grieved, but in different ways. Our oldest daughter cried a lot, and talked about all of the wonderful and loving things she remembered about her mom. Our son just said, "She lived like a drunk and she died like a drunk!" Harsh words for sure, but he has always blamed his mother for being sent to an orphanage; oddly, he never blames his father. Our next-oldest daughter cried and rocked. She talked about wishing that her mother could have loved her, and then said, "Now I guess I will never know."
Our children have two older sisters. The oldest is six years older than our oldest daughter, and was not very nice or loving. The children have another sister who is a year and a half older than our oldest, who lived in the same orphanage. They were very close to her. We learned about this older girl just before we came to Russia to adopt the children. We were told that we could not adopt her as she was over sixteen years old and that she resided in a hospital for very ill patients with tuberculosis. We didn’t learn until months later that we were lied to. The children write to this sister and talk with her on the phone. They have asked her to consider coming to live in the USA, but she says she is afraid to leave Russia.
The Biggest Issues for Our Children: Learning Expected Social Behaviors
The children had to fend for themselves when they were not much more than toddlers. They had to scrounge through their neighbor's trash for their food, or raid a local garden. In the orphanage, life was also survive by their wits. They had to eat their food very fast or the older, stronger kids would take their food away from them. They learned to hoard their food in case one of the caregivers became angry at them and deprived them of their meal. They had to be sneaky and secretive in order to survive; the children have the ability to look you in the eye and lie through their teeth. We had to teach them children social skills slowly. Once one skill was mastered, we move to the next.
We had to teach the children table manners first. We started by passing bowls of food around the table. The curious thing was that although the children would readily pass the food they never took so much as a spoon full for themselves. We realized that the children were taught not to touch the food, but wait to be served. Also, they were unsure how much food they should serve themselves, never having done that before. The children were home two years before they would take what they needed! They are all very bright and quickly learned the correct way to use their utensils and their napkins. It took a while for them to learn that it really was alright to drink their beverage during the meal instead of waiting until the meal was over.
Next we taught them to use polite words for what they wanted or needed. Words like, "please pass the potatoes", followed by "thank you". They learned so fast. We had to work on being respectful and not talking loudly over everyone else. Also, if someone asked them a question that they either did not understand, or just refused to answer, they would avoid eye contact and act as though the other person had not spoken at all. If they felt they were being criticized, they would many times stare straight ahead and freeze their movements. It took a lot of talking, but the wall slowly came down. We learned that they froze up in the orphanage because the caregivers so often beat them or demeaned them, that the only way to survive was to close in on themselves.
Living in One Culture After growing Up in Another Culture
Their Russian holidays were different than ours, as were their traditions. Our children don't remember much celebrating before they went into the orphanage. They came to know about the holidays and soe of their traditions through different caregivers, but never celebrated their holidays in the orphanage. Christmas was not observed, but they did get a piece of candy on New Years day. They knew about Mother's day, but it was not observed. Many celebrations were all toasted with vodka, much drinking and singing or dancing.
The children had never celebrated their birthdays or even knew of anyone who celebrated the day of their birth. They had never seen fireworks before, and were utterly fascinated with the Fourth of July. Halloween was really confusing for them, but the children had a lot of fun dressing up in homemade costumes and going trick or treating. Thanksgiving was overwhelming because of the amount of food that was put on the table. Their first Christmas with us, was also the first Christmas they had ever celebrated and they got to learn about why this was such a special time for us. They loved to sing the old carols. In Russia they did color Easter eggs, but only used red onion to dye the eggs. They were gleeful participants in their first Easter egg hunt!
Understanding the Concept of Family
The children did not understand what family meant, except that they were brother and sisters. Mom and dad (to them) were adults that would go away for weeks at a time and leave them with no food, water, or heat in winter. When the parents did eventually come home they would get drunk and fight with the knives. Our children have been with us for over four years now and every once in a while they will say something like, "we have been here four years and you have not beaten us yet." Or, "we are waiting for you to get drunk and leave us." Slowly they have learned that this is who we are: we work to pay the bills and take care of our children. We are active in their educations, their sports, and their interests. We spend long hours talking to them and answering their zillions of questions. We love them and give hugs goodnight. Our son is a senior in high school this year. When we went to College Night, he would not look at any college that was more than an hour away. He said, "That is too far from my home".
Our 3 Greatest Joys: Witnessing Their Love of Being Educated
The children have learned so much and it seems that the more they know, the more they want to know. Their teachers are so surprised at how respectful they are to their educators. The children will sit and watch the history channel with dad and ask a lot of questions, then watch the science fiction channel and want to know about fictional characters. We’ve read to them from the very start and they always listened in earnest. They are so curious about their whole world!
Listening to their never-ending questions and answering their questions has been a gift. It's like looking at the world again, but this time through different eyes. As we explained and answered their many questions, the children would ask more or different ones. We learned a lot about ourselves as we explained our thoughts, beliefs, and how the world worked. Our older children were charmed by their new siblings and greatly fascinated by their perspective.
We have been given a unique opportunity to get to know these incredibly resilient children. They were all physically delayed due to poor nutrition, and emotionally under-developed. We have watched immature kids grow into intelligent, self-possessed young adults. It has been a joy to witness their personalities bloom and their individuality come forth. Their journey has proved what a strong, intelligent group of young people we have added to our family.
This article was reprinted with permission from the EMK Press excellent title, "Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections."The names in this article have been removed to protect the privacy of the children. However, their experiences are not unique. Many families who adopt older children, especially those who are flexible with expectations, grow into close, loving relationships.