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Destinations, Dreams and Dogs - International adventure with a fast-track family (& dogs) of Old World values, adopting the Russian-Italian-American good life on the go…!

Adopting an Older Child


It is not scary. For many of us, it’s wonderful. But you must prepare.

The other day I was in my favorite haunt, Walmart, a store I had never even been inside of BC (Before Children). I don’t live in the suburbs and I never saw the point of exploring. Currently, I understand the value of quality items at discount prices, but you’re not looking for my endorsement now, are you?

There at Wally World, I’m buying dog beds for my little Scotties. Mind you, my husband is right by my side. This is our date night, it’s around 10:00 pm and somehow we have diverted to Wally’s. That in itself is sad, but personally, I am delighted to be able to shop in peace. The two of us are definitely overdressed for the occasion, coming from a swank, in-town restaurant. We’re checking out and the lady behind us comments that her dogs are better behaved than her children. I try to avoid the conversation, simply smiling and saying, “Sometimes….”

The clerk jumps in and adds her husband to the lineup. “At least when I tell the dog, ‘Sit’, he sits. I tell the husband to do something, and who knows when he’ll get to it.”

“That’s why they have obedience school,” I wink, wondering how in this day and age we can train our dogs, but we can’t train our kids nor nudge our mates in the right direction. I point to Benedetto and comment, “He’s very well trained.” I’m trying to make a compliment, but unsure whether or not he will interpret it as an insult.

Children (and we can make a case for spouses) need training. Take them through their paces again and again, toss a treat their way, and voila! An obedient child.

Add the loss of parents, a trauma and abuse background, a foreign culture and language, ingrained habits and attitudes, and it becomes trickier. Not impossible for the older, internationally adopted child, just more challenging.

When we brought home our first son at age 7-1/2, Benedetto had to fly out immediately for an overnight trip. So Petya ends up in my bed, since kicking and elbowing his new mother all night somehow makes him feel more protected and secure. I awake exhausted, with a sleepy little boy cupping my face in his hands as though I might be a dream that could slip away in the night.

“Mama, am I ever going back?” he questions me in Russian.

“Not unless you want to return to visit sometime. You’re home to stay,” I assure him.

We walk outside that first spring morning to put up a balloon or two for Papa’s arrival. Petya picks me a bouquet of wildflowers, his happy countenance speaking volumes. He then eats a blueberry yogurt, spooning out the choicest of berries to hand feed to me. What bio child would pick out the best bits to offer their parent? Children who have known starvation may be tough in some respects, but are softies in heart.

Most adoptive parents want babies. Most older men want babes, too, but I digress. In both cases, the older the intended one is, the more you can tell about their potential. Many of the brain disorders arising from fetal alcohol exposure or other traumas are not evident until the child is approximately school age. That’s a good reason to adopt older. Plus, I’ve heard that little babies are very poopy, a definite drawback.

Give me an older child any day. They can walk, talk, and express their needs, which are usually neverending in the beginning. That’s why God invented the word “no”.

“Mama, I need a robot. Mama, I want a DS. Mama, Legos would be great for my birthday. Mama, I hear that I vill have torte,” says Pasha, who arrived less than two months ago. His twelfth birthday is pending.

“Cake? Presents? Who told you this?” I tease.

I remember lying awake at night in the summer heat of south Russia, memorizing his facial features, so chiseled and sharp, yet so childlike and sweet as he lay next to me. With my slight Russian abilities, I had been nominated to watch over him by night, should he need or require any assistance. Often, the older children are told they will be taken to America and chopped up for body parts, so they pose a definite flight risk. His emaciated condition makes me sure that no one could have tried that trick on him, plus Petya had been corresponding with him for years, and nobody had whacked him, yet. Pasha impressed me as more of a little child than a budding young man. He belonged nearby, as one would place a baby’s crib next to the parents’ bed. At almost five feet tall, he weighed sixty-something pounds. I prayed for him, listening for his every breath.

“Is he uncontrollable?” Russian officials would inquire after he arrived into our care.


Pasha came from the same Special Internat (orphanage boarding school) for slow children where the boy adopted to Chicago came from, several years ago. That boy ended up dead within a few weeks of being adopted. The mother never knew the extent of his mental disabilities and snapped when he smeared feces all over the apartment walls. It was alleged that she beat him to death.

“Keep in mind that he will destroy your family. He’s incorrigible and severely retarded, not to mention an invalid,” the Ministry of Education warned. They had recommended that we not adopt him under any circumstances. The only diagnosis they did not give him was that he would turn out to be the next major serial killer, a Russian Charles Manson.

Now, maybe I’m brain dead, but Benedetto and I came to the conclusion that if Pasha was retarded, then we were retarded. (This might explain a lot of things….) We observed the boy and found nothing to back up their allegations. So we plowed ahead. The dream became a reality after four years and now we face the daily realities.

The dire prognostications loomed before us. He would rob us blind, wet his pants, kill the pets, trash his room, kick and bite us, burn down the house, and threaten us with knives. In any order. He was probably a sexual predator and, if we had any younger kids in the house, they would need to sleep behind locked doors and with motion detectors in the hallway.

We devised a plan of action: prepare for the worst, and believe for the best. Opportunities to mess up would be limited. Our first day together his eyes widened at the pile of pocket coins on the hotel room table in Russia.

“Ach, tishka!” came his usual remark of amazement. Such wealth had never been seen before.

“In a family, we can put our spare change on the table and not worry about anyone taking it. There are no banditi here,” I explained. While there may be no thieves, there were other everyday issues that we had to address head-on: motion sickness in cars or planes, crazy lying when he tried to impress us, animal-like table manners, blanking out with far-away looks, non-stop talking, not wanting to do any school work since they always told him he was an idiot. A few of these issues I encounter on a daily basis with adults that I know, so it was hardly anything new….

Each day became a new opportunity for positive brainwashing. Pasha’s favorite mantras were: “I can’t…” (Yah nyee magoo) and “I don’t want to…” (Yah nyee hachoo). So we renamed him “Mr. Magoo” (Mr. I Can). All of us cheered him on in every endeavor, definitely going overboard, but what do you say to a pre-teen convinced that he can’t do one jumping jack, or one leg lift-? I was ready to get out the pom-poms and megaphone, and place our family in a pyramid formation with Misha and Grisha balancing at the top, paws outstretched. “Go Pasha – go Pasha – go Pasha!” I figured it would be problematic in heels. With encouragement, his troubled frown inevitably turned into a sheepish smile as he discovered he can manage whatever is before him.

He can do ten jumping jacks, when he used to fall down after one. Literally fall down. He eats raw carrots and spinach, if not cooked. He finally remembers the multiplication tables after incessant practicing. He enjoys swimming lessons to build up his spine that is bowed over from the repeated yellings and beratings of orphanage workers, causing him to literally withdraw within himself.

“Sit up straight,” I encourage.

“I can’t. It hurts my back,” he moans.

“That’s because the muscles that support your spine are weak.”

Together we do ballet leg lifts. I see the spine straighten day by day. He is blossoming like a flower. Within a couple of more months, you will not know that this child ever had any physical or emotional problems. He will be healthy and happy.

I am so convinced of his rosy future that I occasionally run ahead of myself. Recently, we passed a historic university.

“Pasha,” I enthused, “you may wish to study at this university one day. They have an excellent Russian language program.” I drone on about how the head of the modern language department is an expert in Russian, etc.

He looked at me like I was nuts. Why in the world would a Russian speaker wish to study Russian, said his raised eyebrow.

“In any language, our vocabulary needs to expand and develop as we grow up. You may want to do ‘beezneez’ in Russia one day—.”

“’Beezneez’? Like Misha and Grisha do their ‘beezneez’ when we send them outside?”

Only then do I see him grin. It’s the first time he’s tried to joke with me.

A positive outcome is not always the case. Sometimes there is neurological damage from fetal alcohol via the birth mother. But if it’s simply a situation of neglect, where no one has ever bothered to instruct the child, well, we can open up new neural pathways by what I would call educational exercises. Use it, or lose it. Here are some key strategies that have helped us:

1. Plan to stay at home with your newly adopted older child. Take a month or so to teach her the English alphabet and easy beginning sentences. English as a second language DVDs and CDs can help. Yes, she wants to be around other kids, but you can accomplish that in your neighborhood, through sports, your local congregation, scouts, daycamp. Most days when they first arrived home, Petya and Pasha would each talk and talk about their past. They had to get it off their chest.

Either a child talks to a therapist (ka-ching, ka-ching), or she talks to you. Listen, empathize, soothe. Do not force her to speak about past trauma, but if it comes out, let it flow.

Slowly transition her into her new life. Faster is not always better. Show her by example what is a mother, what is a father, what is her role in this strange thing called a family. Push her into school, sports, extracurriculars, and go back to work within three days… and you’ll have a royal mess on your hands.

2. Learn Russian. How will he speak with you, unless you can speak with him? In the beginning, it’s enough to learn the simple phrases on any adoptive parent CD: “Are you hungry?” “Do you need the toilet?” “Brush your teeth.” “Don’t cry.” “Mama and Papa are here.” “We are flying to America.”

Why should your child flounder? Why allow him to be fearful without any ability to comfort? Why place the responsibility on his young shoulders: “They learn English soon enough”?

If you are dragging him away from his native country, language, foods, and setting, then care enough to learn a few words of his language. Don’t get me started…. And for extra credit, pick up a few DVDs in Russian that he would enjoy.

There are silly moments that arise even when a parent knows some Russian. The child still has to learn English. The other day, Pasha asked when I would be ready to put jelly in his hair.

“Gel,” came Petya’s exasperated voice from the other room.

3. Read books on attachment and how to encourage a child to bond to you. The boy or girl will need plenty of long hugs, sitting on your lap, tickling, stroking, chasing, and walking hand-in-hand. It doesn’t matter if they are a teen. They missed much of their childhood and the physical touch and rocking that they needed. Expect clinging and hanging all over you for the first two or three years home. Become a huggy-kissy family at once, if you are not already.

These kids don’t need traditional discipline as much as they need constant reassuring and building up their self-esteem. “Time-in” (sitting quietly next to you) is better than “time-out”, isolated in their room on lockdown. Spanking does little for a child who has been beaten in the past. Instead, learn to set boundaries and express disappointment when the lines are crossed, but continue to reassure that the child will be alright and is loved. Counterintuitive, not counterproductive.

Suggested reading: “Attaching in Adoption” or “Nurturing in Adoption” by Debra Gray, “Beyond Logic, Consequences, and Control” by Forbes and Post, and “Help for the Hopeless Child” by Dr. Ron Federici.

4. Keep the level of stimulation low. No need for a big family reunion, Disney World, and a vacation to far-flung places within the first month home. She may not know how to flush a toilet, eat properly with a fork (think face in food, shoveling it in), or make the simplest decision (red shirt or blue shirt? milk or juice? soccer or basketball?). It results in overload for a child already being exposed to new foods, new faces, new language, and a new way of life. Maintain a steady routine whenever possible and let her know what will be happening next, to mentally prepare for it.

I remember our first time to Chuck E. Cheese, two months after Petya arrived. He joined up with two other orphanage pals who now lived about four hours away. Bedlam is what best describes it. Angry mothers shouting at me as our kids pushed in front of theirs at the prize kiosk. I was so embarrassed. I considered saying that I had no idea who these kids were. Survival of the fittest does not translate into genteel society overnight.

It takes time. But a good outcome can result. We are well on our way to model citizens. If you want true success in your family, outsource as little as possible. Take the time and make the time. It may be a pain to train them, but the results are the sweet elixir of happiness. And don’t forget the treats.


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