When I told people that we were adopting an older child, some had a vague understanding that we were facing potentially exceptional challenges. This went beyond the somewhat more crude, “What’s wrong with her?” question I occasionally heard (Yes, I have the benefit of living in a fairly frank community). There are plenty of horror stories about the affects of prolonged institutionalization of kids, and while my wife and I did not discuss these stories (she likes to keep a positive shine on things until the fan is turned to high), we are aware of them.
When we entered the process of looking for an older child we gleaned the lists of waiting children looking for a girl whose dossier indicated at least strong hints of the child we brought home. We very consciously looked for a child whose background spoke to a certain amenability to blending with our family. That said, she did not get to pick us.
Nonetheless, the rule of thumb with various sensory, cognitive, and developmental delays is this: an institutionalized child will “lose” three months of “normal” process for every year he or she has been out of a primary caregiver relationship (read: family). This includes growth, speech, intellect, emotion, morality–all those things for which you can imagine a scale that says “my x-year old should be here.” Our daughter came home with us three weeks before her tenth birthday. Quick math: 30 months of “delays.” And no, there is no set schematic for exactly what those specific delays might be. Each child is different.
In the short run, we simply have someone in our house who is all at once between the ages of 7 and 10 and all the ages between 7 and 10. And, lest we forget, she is learning EVERYTHING in a brand new language. We are more fortunate than can be imagined because her attitude is so overwhelmingly upbeat.
In addition, a heavy dose of “re-parenting” (going back and parenting for all those years and stages during which she had no primary caregiver) is ahead. This means we will go back much further than 7. In some ways she has infant stuff that she never went through and we will do that too.
In the long run? Brain science shows that the organ is far more plastic for far longer than we believed even ten years ago. The delays are just that: delays. She will catch up and become, well, whoever she will be. We will not really know who she is going to be for years, but then, that is true of everyone, even us.