Steps to Take When Adopting Older Children


adopt from africaAdopting older children brings both joys and challenges into your home. There are steps you can take to make the journey into your home smoother.

Knowledge is power

Read about the country you’re adopting from, and learn as much about the culture as you can. Keeping your child connected to his/her culture is crucial in his development and sense of self. This is especially important when adopting an older child who has experienced more time practicing their culture and traditions.

Cultural norms in the U.S. differ significantly from some of the international countries. For example, nodding your head means “no” in Bulgaria, while shaking your head means “yes”. This is the opposite what is done in the U.S.!   Gifts such as clocks, straw sandals, a stork/crane, and handkerchiefs and gifts in the colors of white, blue or black are associated with death in China and should not be given. Music and dance are extremely important in the Congolese culture and a child from the Democratic Republic of Congo will enjoy continuing these activities.

It will be crucial to do research on your child’s country to ensure that you understand some of the country’s traditional norms before you travel to their country.

Learn as much about your child’s language as possible

Familiarizing yourself with some basic phrases in the language of the child’s country will be helpful to you when visiting your child.  This will help you navigate the city upon arrival as well as be able to briefly communicate with your child. Most children do not speak English at first, so learning some of their basic phrases will be enough to communicate with your child while you are in their country until they move to the US and begin to learn English. Also, learning common phrases will let officials in your child’s country know that while you may not fluently speak their particular language, you respect them enough to try. Learning your child’s language will also help to more quickly begin the attachment and bonding process with him.

Help your child learn English

You can help your child learn English by buying CD’S, CD ROMs, books, and Leap Pad learning systems. A CD called, “Rush into English” by Teressa Kelleher can help Russian children learn the English language more quickly. Also, Rosetta Stone computer programs are great resources. Having these resources available to your child as soon as he gets home will allow him to learn English quickly.

Do not overwhelm your child

Be aware that most children who have lived in orphanages or in foster care have probably never been to many public places like Walmart or have not experienced many car rides. After your child has arrived, you may be tempted to take him to fun recreational places like Chucky Cheese or Disney World, but do understand that your child may easily become overwhelmed in large crowds or noisy environments.

It is completely normal to want to introduce your child to all of his family members upon their arrival but keep in mind that this, too, can be overwhelming to your child. As your child adjusts to this big change in his life, it is vital to allow time for him to bond with your household first.

Your child is still adapting to his new life and you will notice that taking everything one step at a time will be the most beneficial to him as he learns to trust you. Don’t worry, within a few weeks your child should start to open up a little more and may already be comfortable with his new routine.

Be aware of food issues and prepare

Find out what your child likes to eat, and start off with offering him that item first. If necessary, find a specialty store and purchase some of the foods he likes. Research some local cultural grocery markets which will likely have the foods that your child likes and is familiar with. Make sure you keep track of what your child eats and how often he eats to ensure that he does not go too long without eating a snack. Always leave some items like fresh fruit or protein bars on the counters so your child can access food when needed.  Plan to integrate new foods slowly so he will have an opportunity to develop new favorites.

Look into some of the common recipes used in your child’s native country. Compiling a list of these recipes before your child comes home will help you be ready when you go grocery shopping after he arrives. Practice preparing foods from his country before your child arrives so you will be comfortable with the process when he is home.

Hoarding food is also common for children who have never had enough to eat. Some children will do this for months until they feel comfortable and confident that access to food is always available. Try to negotiate your child, and if keeping the food makes them feel secure, try giving them a baggie or zip lock bag to place the food in or prepare some snacks for them.

Make a list of rules in their native language

Since your child probably does not know how to read English or comprehend it well, try to write a list of rules in their native language. This is most helpful for older children. I would recommend that these rules to be very brief and basic, such as ‘turn the light off when you leave your room,’ ‘wear clean clothes every day’, and ‘brush your teeth each morning and night’. Once again, be sure to not make this list overwhelming for your child by having “too” many rules listed. Google is a useful source for doing language translations. After observing some of your child’s habits after his arrival, you may find yourself adding a few new rules or deleting some.

Practice basic safety

Be sure to also go over some safety hazards that may be unclear to him. You cannot assume that your child will be accustomed to the safety hazards which seem like they should be common sense. Although we may have lived in the United States for our entire lives and internalized the best practices for remaining safe and protected, these practices may not be innate to your child. Some safety hazards that you can discuss with him are: procedures in case of a fire or natural phenomena, declining candy offers from strangers, emergency contact numbers (911, family phone numbers etc.), safety routes, and staying away from frozen ice that may be in the ponds/lakes of your neighborhood.

It would also be beneficial to help familiarize your child with his new home address, house number, and both parents’ cell phone numbers. A card with all of this information written out may be helpful for him to carry with him at all times, especially at first.  You can also discuss with him some scenarios and situations in which he should call the emergency contact numbers.

There are many things you can do to help your newly adopted child adjust in his new home. Your attention to his/her immediate needs and explanations about our culture will not only help him adjust to life in the U.S. but will also help build a strong bond to you and your family.


Tiffany Turner is in a yearlong internship program at MLJ Adoptions as part of her Bachelor’s of Social Work studies at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. Upon graduation in the spring of 2016, Tiffany hopes to work with children in the foster care system.

MLJ Adoptions is a Non-Profit, Hague-Accredited adoption service provider located in Indianapolis, Indiana, working in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Pacific Isles. We are passionate about serving children in need.