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From Only to Oldest

Preparing your child for a sibling.



"You know, you’ll be potty training the baby and teaching me to drive at the same time,” said my 14-year-old daughter, Gracie, just after we brought our infant son home from Guatemala in 2002. “And when he starts kindergarten, I’ll be off to college.” Her words were an eye-opener for me—a dose of reality, as well as a subtle expression of doubt on her part, that required my careful consideration.

My husband and I chose to add to our family through adoption when we were well into our 40s. We studied and took classes to prepare for the needs of our infant son. But we realized that we also needed to help our daughter prepare for—and adjust to—life as a big sister. Whether the age difference between your children is a few years, or a wider spread, like ours, it helps to anticipate the changes and challenges in your family dynamics. Here are some things we learned along the way:

1. Get your child involved.

Adoption is a major family event, and all members of the family should be involved. Younger children can take part in choosing the baby’s name, deciding where he should sleep, buying a special toy. If your child is older, involve her in the adoption process. We invited Gracie to attend meetings with us as we evaluated adoption agencies. We also talked with her about the questions we had to answer: Boy or girl? Domestic or international? If international, which country? To be sure, there were differences of opinion, but we welcomed and considered her ideas.

2. Be ready for tough questions.

“Mom, what if the baby is funny-looking?” asked Gracie one day. “Or what if he cries all the time and I go insane?” My impulse was to “sell” Gracie on how she would fall in love with the baby no matter what. But I knew that wasn’t realistic. “He may be funny-looking,” I responded instead. “And you may feel annoyed by his crying, and that’s okay. There’s no pressure for you feel any particular way about your brother.” With the freedom to feel what she honestly feels, your child can engage emotionally with her new sibling at her own pace.

Having granted your child the right to her feelings, don’t be disappointed if they’re negative, especially after the baby arrives. Even a child who eagerly awaited the baby may be resentful when the reality of the change sinks in. Help her express her feelings and work together on solutions, such as reserving time for the two of you when the baby is asleep.

3. Enlist your child in readying the house.

Gracie loves to shop, so we asked for her help in choosing Michael’s clothes and decorating his room. I didn’t always agree with her choices, but I knew her contributions were more important than my color schemes.

Gracie also helped choose our son’s name. The pros and cons of Cody, Gabriel, and other names on our list made for some spirited dinnertime conversations. In addition, we discussed where the high chair should go and how we’d share feeding duties. Imagining him there with us helped us anticipate the changes to come.

4. If possible, take your child on the adoption trip.

“Children are the heart and soul of the family, so why not include them every step of the way?” says Donna Class, a clinical social worker with Adoption Alliance of Denver. “It gives the sibling a sense of the child’s country of heritage, and the chance to develop an early relationship with the new brother or sister.”

Families that don’t need to travel a long distance might set aside some time at home without visitors to give each member a chance to spend time with the new baby.

5. Give your child some breathing room.

It’s important to let your child know that some things in his life won’t change. His bedroom will remain his own, for instance, and can be closed to the little one if he chooses. Though siblings are usually encouraged to share, let your child decide which of his things are off-limits. Keep his social life untouched, too; children of all ages need to spend time with their peers, without younger siblings tagging along.

Your child’s need to retain some control of his life may change as he and the baby get older. When we brought Michael home as an infant, Gracie wanted his bedroom to be right across the hall from hers. Now that he’s a curious toddler, we’ve installed a lock on her door.

6. Get ready for comments.

Help your older child prepare for questions and remarks he’s bound to hear about his new sibling, such as, “Where’s her real mother?” Discuss possible responses: “I think you mean her birthmother, right? Her birthmother is in Korea.” Let your child know that he needn’t answer every query. Decide in advance what information should be public and what should be shared only with close family and friends, and talk to your child about privacy issues. In addition, think ahead about what to share with your older child about your new family member’s history. There may be details that shouldn’t be shared with anyone, even older siblings.

7. Expect sibling stuff.

Even if sibling rivalry isn’t an issue, there may be times when the younger child needs or receives more attention and the older one feels left out. Deputizing your older child as a special helper—having her hold or feed the baby—may let her feel involved rather than ignored. When 6-year-old Hannah Motley accompanied her parents to a New York adoption agency to pick up her newborn brother, the social worker had her sign a paper marked “sister.” Then she took Hannah to the nursery, and together they delivered baby Ian to her parents. Looking back, Hannah says that allowing her to bring in the baby was wise. “I felt it established a rapport between Ian and myself, and prevented me from feeling that he’d been imposed on me.”

Because Gracie was an only child for so long, I was concerned that with a new baby there wouldn’t be enough of me to go around. But my husband and I have arranged our schedules so that each child gets some one-on-one time with each parent. This year, Gracie and I were even able to get away for our annual mother-daughter trip.

8. Be reasonable in your expectations.

I can’t count the number of times people have said to us, “How wonderful! You’ve got a built-in babysitter!” Yes, it is nice. But Gracie is a popular sitter for other families, as well, and also has a full social life. If we want to go out, we ask Gracie as far in advance as possible. We respect the fact that she may have her own plans, and we pay her to babysit. Similarly, though she’s a good sport about helping out with baths and diapers, we try not to take advantage of her good nature.

9. Promote togetherness.

Look for family activities that all ages can enjoy. Our family enjoys dancing, playing in the snow, picnicking, outdoor concerts, singing, taking walks, and attending baseball games. Remember that many older siblings love to revisit early childhood joys like cartoons, blowing bubbles, and running through the sprinkler.

There will be times, however, when the family can’t agree on a joint activity, or each child would rather spend the time with his friends. Try to accommodate everyone’s activities, or plan separate parent-child outings.

10. Watch them grow close.

My sister and I are eleven years apart. Our roles changed over the years, and now I am as apt to seek her advice as she once was to seek mine. She is my confidant and friend, and the difference in our ages seems nonexistent because we share many interests. Anita Lane of Chicago, who grew up in a family of four, agrees that gaps in age and interests may fade in importance as siblings grow up. “I remember the day I first talked to my baby brother about politics,” she said. “It was eye-opening to realize we have so much in common.”


Eliza Castaneda is a writer who lives with her family in Greenwood Village, Colorado with her daughter, Gracie, 15, and son, Michael, 20 months.


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