One Mom Shares: “Building a Nest: Older Child Adoption”

WACAP parents Kristi and Alexander adopted their son, 7-year-old son Henry, in February. Here, Kristi shares about the experience of adopting an older child: what’s different, what’s familiar, and what’s amazing as their family of six grows closer.

May  2017 In my mind’s eye, I see a sparrow. She carefully arranges bits of string and twigs in her nest tucked by my window. A gust of wind comes and blows some of the nest away. She doesn’t stop her work. The sparrow continues to gather more building supplies for her home. With each tiny twig or bit of string she is creating a safe and secure nest for her babies. She is focused on her goal.

  Photo Credit: Sara Davis Photography

I am that sparrow. Having adopted him three months ago from China, my son is the baby bird, even though he is seven. My fourth child and my only son. My husband and I also have two biological daughters and one daughter adopted from China when she was 1-year-old.

We met him in a hotel lobby. A chaotic meeting place and first introduction. He arrived with the clothes on his back and a bag of candy to give us as a gift. The first moments with him were frenetic and he was nervous.  

I had prayed for this moment but I could barely catch his eye to say hello. This was my first indication that older child adoption was going to be different than adopting a younger child. The paperwork had all looked the same. The flight to China was just as long. But in this moment chasing my son through a hotel lobby—this was all new.

Our time in China can best be described as a “rescue and recovery” mission, in a sense. We tried desperately with the help of our translator to build bridges with our son and find common ground where we could start to bond. He was very restless and it was very difficult for him to calm. We had been prepared by our agency for the different types of responses children might have to the adoption process. But to see in person how truly difficult and traumatic this is for a little soul. To be immersed in a world so foreign, where every sense is engaged, heightened and pressed on every side must be terribly shocking and difficult. That young person is unsure where they fit in this new reality, and this can result in reactions such as grieving, acting out, shutting down or overstimulation.

Our son responded to this sudden jolt of new reality by staying in a heightened state of overstimulation for the first couple of days. By the third day, we began to see glimpses of him. He was holding his sisters’ hands and joyfully counting in Mandarin and in English. However, he continued to have a great deal of nervous energy and struggled to control his emotions when things did not go his way. By the end of the first week, he was communicating in a very basic way regarding hunger and toilet needs. He was also snuggling and hugging as well.  

As we made the long trip home, I wondered what this new reality would look like as we slipped into the schedule of day-to-day. I scanned his face to try to peer into his soul—desperately wanting to guess his feelings and thoughts as well. He had always lived in the orphanage. His world had been so very small for so long and it had changed in a matter of seconds, the moment he became our son. His home, food, toys, friends and caregivers instantly changed. When asked, he confidently and happily exclaimed that “He was going to Meiguo’ (America).” But he had no idea what that truly meant yet.

Our first month home, we immediately attended to medical needs first. Our son had undergone two major surgeries, including open heart surgery, and spent many months of his early life very ill and laying alone in a hospital bed. We visited doctors to ensure that he was healthy and determined next steps for medical care. No matter how necessary, I can only imagine how terrifying this must have been for our son to endure this onslaught of medical care in an unfamiliar setting. We continually reassured him that we would be by his side when he expressed fear and reservations. 

Like a newborn, our son was learning at a rapid pace and demanding much of our attention in the process. The first month home we were exhausted. We laughed and cried. We got it right some days and some days we missed the mark. We were so grateful for the loving support and help of family and friends. They provided much needed respite, brought meals and even helped with laundry.

Having never seen a home, and especially a kitchen, our son was learning new rules of safety. Our other children acted as playmates, teachers and helpmates as he learned how to co-exist in a home. Our three daughters’ love, compassion and patience with their brother has been amazing to witness.

There is evidence of sensory deprivation. For seven years, he lived in a small group of rooms at the orphanage, rarely going outside and not experiencing many hugs or cuddles. As a way to compensate or, overcompensate, for what was lacking in his early years, he constantly seeks out new sensory experiences, whether it be a shiny button to push or a spicy food to try. Also, if you meet him you will likely find yourself wrapped in a big bear hug or the recipient of a happy high-five.

With so many children in an institutionalized setting, caregivers and nannies rarely have time to discuss emotions and feelings with the children in their care. Children who are adopted as older children struggle to correctly match emotions and proper responses to everyday experiences. Our son takes disappointment, and not getting his way, especially hard. To combat this, we read books on different emotions and talk about how we can deal with sadness, fear, anger and frustration. Moreover, we talk through proper ways to behave when we are happy or excited. This, I confess, I had taken for granted in my other children, and I am learning how to help our son to process the range of emotions he is encountering.  

Despite all this hardship as a young child, our son radiates joy and excitement for life. He loves his family and his home. Our son is so proud when he accomplishes new things. He loves reading books, listening to music, riding his bike, attending church and playing with his dog. But his favorite part of any day is playing with his sisters.

He never misses an opportunity to tell someone he loves them. This is a gift he has given to us—our family will never take the gift of love for granted.

We have been together now for three months. The nest we had built for our family had to be completely rebuilt as our family dynamic shifted and changed. Every day, we take steps backward and steps forward. By the time I gather more twigs, the winds have changed. But there is one thing I know, like that sparrow I will keep working and fiercely protect my nest.

We are so grateful to WACAP for helping us wade through the adoption process to bring home two of our children. This process can be arduous and scary, but the staff at WACAP was always there to help us. I would encourage anyone thinking about adoption to take the next step and talk to a WACAP staff person today. There are so many children who need a loving family. We are so glad we said YES!

By Kristi Dews Dale


WACAP (World Association for Children and Parents) is one of the largest and most experienced international nonprofit adoption and child assistance agencies in the United States. Since 1976, we’ve placed over 10,000 children with loving adoptive parents and provided food, medical care and education to more than 200,000 children around the world.
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