Ask AF: How to Encourage a New-Sibling Bond?

"We adopted our 10-year-old daughter as an infant, and adopted her seven- and eight-year-old biological sisters last month. How can we help all three girls bond with each other?"

Q: We adopted our 10-year-old daughter when she was an infant. Last month, we were able to adopt her two biological sisters, ages seven and eight years. She understands their relationship to her, and says she loves them, but she is clearly SO used to it being just her for 10 years. Also, they are used to having each other, and don’t seem keen to open up or try to bond with her. How can we help all of them through this new situation? Help!

A: Whenever new members join a family, there are bound to be growing pains for everyone—the children, the parents, extended family, and even family pets! Yet, knowing this intellectually is completely different from actually feeling the jealously, rejection, and confusion that can take up residence as our roles, loyalties, affections, and routines get reshuffled.

Depending on the younger sisters’ previous circumstances, they may feel the need to protect each other. Any perceived threat to their relationship may be frightening to them, so it’s important that you help your older daughter come to understand that their close bond is less about how they feel about her and more about the confusion and fears they may have about being separated from each other. Create opportunities for the three children to be together and for each younger sister to have some time alone with your oldest child. Find something that your older daughter has in common with each younger sister—a sport, music, game, food—and set aside time for them to do this together. Slowly build in these experiences with intention until they happen organically.

One of the challenges that may be playing out for your family is that, because all three girls are biological sisters, there can be an additional expectation that they will have an instant connection. When this doesn’t happen, we can feel let down or that something is wrong when, in actuality, it takes time (sometimes years) to develop relationships and build trust. The main goal right now is to spend time together as a family—playing, and creating new family rituals and memories.

As parents who have raised an only child for 10 years, you’ll also need to manage your own expectations about what a sibling bond will look like. We all want our children to have a close, uncomplicated connection, but keep in mind that it’s often within the safety of our sibling relationships that we develop important life skills that build resiliency, like how to manage loss, disappointment, and competition.

Throughout this transition period, also remember to spend time with your older daughter, listening to how she feels, without giving any advice or trying to fix anything. We often underestimate the power of being heard and validated. Each day will surely bring opportunities for your family to grow closer.

is Associate Director of the Modern Family Center at Spence-Chapin Services to Families & Children. Friedberg is a licensed clinical social worker with 20 years of experience working with adoptive families at all points of an adoption journey.

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