Adoption Issues with Older Children

When you adopt a child, one of the issues you must decide is whether to adopt an infant or an older child.  Most adoptive parents prefer to adopt an infant, but there are pros and cons to both.  Certainly if you’re going to adopt an older child instead you’ll want to do it with eyes open, knowing all the issues and challenges that can come with this decision.

1.  You’ll miss out on the baby stuff with an older child.

For many parents (especially mothers) there is no time they enjoy more with their children than infancy.  They feel as close or closer to their child during that time of its life than any other.

Adopting an older child means skipping past that infancy stage.  You’ll never see it take its first step.  You’ll never hear it say its first word.

On the other hand, some parents (fathers more often) don’t bond as well with babies.  They’re able to feel a lot more of a connection with a child that is able to communicate and is less fully dependent.  They think of the “changing diapers and getting up constantly during the night to deal with a crying baby” stage of their child’s life as something to endure until you get to the good stuff.  For them, skipping the infant stage might actually be an advantage to adopting an older child.

2.  An infant is closer to a clean slate.

Probably the single most important difference between adopting a newborn and adopting an older child is that the older child has already lived a good portion of its life and received a great deal of influence from its environment and experiences.

And it’s definitely relevant to note that in the overwhelming majority of cases, that environment and those experiences contained a lot that was unhealthy and damaging.  Why is the child being given up for adoption, after all?  If its existing situation was a stable, loving, nurturing environment, with sane, skilled, caring parents, it wouldn’t be available for adoption in the first place.

Far more often than the average child, an older child who is being put up for adoption has suffered physical abuse, suffered sexual abuse, been neglected, and/or been in conflict with its parents or other adults.  It is more likely to suffer from physical and/or mental disabilities.  It is more likely to have lacked positive role models.  It is more likely to have been around people involved with drugs, crime, incarceration, smoking, and/or alcohol abuse.  It may well have already bounced around to different homes in its short life, from its birth parents to one or more foster families, with possibly some other stops along the way.

If the child has indeed had that kind of life, it is likely to have been scarred in various ways by it, to have certain baggage.  The child may have anger issues, may be unable or unwilling to risk getting close to anyone, may be easily frightened, etc.  There may be a lot of bad habits to unlearn and a lot of healing to be done, which could take years to happen, or never happen.

Which is not to imply that an adopted infant is a complete blank slate.  Even if a child is raised from birth by adoptive parents, it still has the genes it has.  A lot of how the child develops will be because of its birth parents and ancestors.

Whether you adopt a newborn or an older child, you don’t control the hand you’re dealt.  The difference is, with a newborn you’re playing that hand from the start.  With an older child, someone else played the hand for awhile—may have overbet it, may have underbet it, may have tipped what they have, etc.—and now you’re taking over in the middle of the hand.

Some adoptive parents are fine with that.  They have the patience and the compassion to deal well with someone who may be significantly damaged and may be more “difficult” than most children.  But it’s definitely something to think about if you’re considering adopting an older child.

3.  You know what you’re getting more with an older child.

When you adopt an older child, you know what disabilities it has or doesn’t have.  You probably know if you can expect major medical costs and ordeals.  You’ve spent enough time with the child to have a sense of its personality type, its behavioral issues if any, how compatible it is with the members of your family.  You know what kinds of unhealthy habits it has developed if any.  Though there can always be some surprises, roughly speaking you know what you’re getting, and you can make an informed decision about whether adopting such a child would be a good thing for it and for your family.

Some of that you can know with an infant (you know if it’s a Down Syndrome baby, if it’s deaf, etc.), but some of it you can’t.  Consider Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, for instance.  That cannot be diagnosed in newborns.  You won’t know if the baby you adopt suffers from it until it is older.  You can’t have nearly as much of a sense with an infant what its personality is going to be like.

The older child is more likely to bring with it difficult issues to deal with, but at least you’ll know going in what most of those issues are.

These are among the matters you’ll need to take into account in deciding if adopting an older child is right for you.


Ellen Singer, “Adopting Older Children.” Adoption Issues.

“Adopting an Older Child Pros and Cons.” The Labor of Love.

“Are You Ready to Adopt an Older Child?” Our Own Kids.

“Advantages of Older Child Adoption.”

“Older Child Domestic Adoption.”