When the New Brother or Sister Is Not a Baby

Your kids will be excited to find out they'll be getting a new adoptive sibling, but that might fade if the new child arrives with challenges. Here's how to help them prepare.

A new sibling through older child adoptionmay change the family dynamic

The decision to add to your family, whether your first child (or children) was born to you or adopted, is generally accompanied by positive images: one child teaching another to build a block tower, the kids having a snowball fight in the back yard, riding bikes together, or shooting hoops in the driveway, cuddles and kisses at bedtime. Yet the arrival of an adoptive sibling can alter the lives of parents and resident children in unexpected, sometimes adverse, ways. This is especially true if the adoptee enters the family with any history of trauma — multiple foster home moves; loss of language, culture, and friends in the orphanage; prenatal drug and/or alcohol exposure; neglect from an inadequate caregiver-to-child ratio; outright abuse; and so on — as have a majority of waiting children, infants through adolescents, both in the U.S. foster system and abroad. Navigating the relationship between a child who is developing typically and thriving and a newcomer who presents challenges can be difficult, and yet is also vastly rewarding. If you are considering a special-needs adoption, or are already home with your new child and find yourselves struggling, here are ways to facilitate the close, connected relationships you imagined when you made the decision.

Managing or Updating Expectations

When told about the family’s adoption plans, brothers- and sisters-to-be develop expectations about the new sibling, just as the parents have. Common assumptions include:

  • “I will have a playmate!”
  • “I will have someone to teach!”
  • “Great, I’ll have help with chores!”

These optimistic attitudes and beliefs are certainly wonderful for the newly arrived child to experience — he may never have been welcomed so wholeheartedly into a family, or have lived with a family at all. Yet, after a “honeymoon” period, resident children may find that their new sibling is not capable of being a good playmate, and prefers to attempt to manage his own needs rather than accept help from a parent or sibling. His developmental skills may lag significantly behind his chronological age. Resident children I spoke with years after they had gained a sibling through adoption made statements like:

“I expected children like my sister and me. I thought I could teach them the fun things I did when I was younger, like dolls, sidewalk chalk, and sewing. At first, there was a nice period. And then they basically started terrorizing the house — running around, breaking things, fighting.” “Our house isn’t as much fun as it used to be because my brother takes up most of our time. My dad has more gray hair now. It kinda upsets me. I thought we were going to get a baby.”

Forming realistic expectations, or updating existing ones, increases the ability to accept the new family member, with all of his needs, and integrate him into the family system.

 Preparing Your Children for a Sibling

Some parents delay telling their children about their plans for fear that the adoption won’t go through, while others seek to shield their children from the reason for their siblings’ behavior. The instinct to protect is understandable. Yet your new child is arriving after having experienced complex trauma. Your other kids need to be ready for safety concerns, unusual behaviors, and questions and stares from strangers. “Experienced” sisters and brothers tell us that parents must be proactive in offering information — and in keeping the door open. Some typically developing children keep their questions and concerns to themselves, feeling that their parents are too stressed or saddened by the new child’s needs to talk. The interval between the homestudy and the homecoming should offer plenty of time to quell your children’s concerns and start preparing them for a new adoptive sibling, based on what you learned in your pre-homestudy adoption training. You should continue talking openly long after the new child’s arrival. Below, I outline “Family Talks” you can adapt for your children, to help prepare them for siblings from various backgrounds.

Family Talk: A Sibling Arriving from an Orphanage Setting

“Your new brother has been living in an orphanage. There were probably a lot of babies and children there, and only a few women to take care of all of them. So your new brother may not know much about having a mom, a dad, or a brother. We will have a lot to teach him. He may not know how to play or how to eat the way we do. He may cry a lot or have trouble sleeping. We will have to be patient. He will be scared. This will all be new. We will have to understand that, while we are all happy to have him join our family, he will be feeling sad, mad, and scared.”

Family Talk: Playing with a New Sibling

“The social worker said that your new brother loves to play baseball and soccer. You two seem to have some things in common. She also said that he can be very competitive, and push other kids to get the ball. We want to talk about some of the ways you could handle this.” OR “We learned today that your new sister sometimes likes to play house. Isn’t that great! You know, sometimes kids who come from unsafe homes play house differently. They play that there is no food or water. They play that the mommy isn’t home and so the baby dolls are all alone. They may also want the dolls to fight and hit each other. If this happens, we want you to come and get one of us right away. Your new sister wouldn’t be doing anything bad. We just want to be able to teach her a happier way to play, so you two can have fun. How does that sound?”

Family Talk: Becoming a Multicultural Family

“Your dad and I have been reading up on adopting a child of a different culture, and realize that we must look at our family and our community. We thought we could make this a family activity. We thought you could start checking out your school. Are there any African-American children or teachers? Any from Ethiopia?” “I thought we could go online and start reading about Ethiopian culture, so we can learn about the food, customs, and holidays your new sister will be used to. All of these things will be important to your sister and to all of us as she grows up. We’re also going to help you learn more about racism and prejudice. What questions do you have so far?”

Family Talk: A Sibling Arriving with Complex Trauma

“We received some information about a girl named Renee. She is seven. It seems that her birth parents hurt her in several ways, like we read about in Zachary’s New Home. She was often hungry and left alone. Her birth parents fought so bad that the police were called to their home. She must have been so scared. “She enjoys some of the same things we do, like singing and reading. She also has some problems. She has temper tantrums and she throws things. We have some ideas about how to help Renee with these tantrums. We will also be getting some help from a therapist, a person who helps kids like Renee, and from the social worker you already met. “When we go to the matching meeting, we would be happy to ask any questions you may have. Let’s write them down together.”

Fostering Attachment

Children attach to parents first, then grow into relationships with siblings, extended family, and the rest of the world. No matter the age of the child joining your family, you and your partner must carry out all primary caregiving for the first six to 12 months post-placement. This is not to say that siblings cannot interact with their new brother or sister, but you must be the ones to feed, bathe, put to bed, and comfort your new child. Older resident children are often eager to engage in caregiving — and worn-out parents may be tempted to let them — but this would delay the natural progression of attachment. Sit down with your kids and explain this; don’t wait until after the baby comes home to tell your daughter that she can’t feed him a bottle. Then discuss other ways they can be helpful — warming up bottles, carrying the diaper bag, changing bed sheets. Come up with your own list! You certainly want to encourage strong sibling relationships, and your children’s feelings of wanting to help and to make their new sister or brother feel comfortable, but it’s important to be firm about the caregiving boundaries.

Striking a Parental Balance

After adopting a child with special needs, it’s common for parental time and family resources to shift so dramatically to caring for the “ailing” family member that the needs of healthy brothers and sisters (as well as the parents) are put on hold. Once this pattern is in place, parents find it difficult to rectify the situation, to strike a balance and meet the individual needs of all of their children. Parents begin to question themselves, asking:

  • “Did we make the right choice by adopting?”
  • “How is this affecting our other children?”
  • “Will our new son or daughter ever heal?”
  • “Will our family ever be the same as it was before?”

Resident brothers and sisters might say or think things like:

“Before the adoption, someone could have told me how much attention my sister would need, and explained that having a little sister was not going to be all fun and games. I’ve lost privacy, time with my parents, and a peaceful household.”

“I get really mad at my brother. I also feel like I can’t go anywhere without him right behind me, breaking something of mine, copying me, or just touching something he shouldn’t be touching.”

Life revolves around the premise that once the adoptee is “healed” or “better,” “we will have a happy, peaceful family again.” Yet, this may take a lot longer than the one-year mark many families assume before adopting. So how can you strike a balance during the transition period and beyond?

Put on your own oxygen mask first and ask for what you need. Parents are the ones who help their kids survive and grow, and they must have the energy to do so. Carol, a parent of four, asked for an unusual Christmas gift. After adopting, she asked relatives to “pool the money they would have spent buying clothes, movies, or jewelry for my husband and me to pay for a cleaning service. A few of them thought this was odd, but I didn’t care. It’s what I needed.”

Schedule “dates” with your resident children. Parents often think, “We can make up the time once John is better,” or simply lose track of time in the post-adoption haze. Tony and Maude began surprising their kids by showing up at their school and taking them out for lunch. “Sometimes we even take them out of school for the afternoon for some special alone time,” say these parents of three. “Our adopted child has many needs, and this makes going out as a family in the evenings or on weekends difficult.”

Talk to your children. Parenting doesn’t require you to mind read. Share information and ask your children what they need to feel supported. Asking also acknowledges that the family life they were used to has changed in significant and everyday ways.

Keep resident kids in the loop. Cole and Becky hold monthly family meetings with their three older, typically developing, daughters through adoption. Their son, who is still healing from past trauma, goes to his grandmother’s for dinner while the rest of the family reviews the month over pizza. “Our daughters are well-informed about his mental health diagnoses, and we’ve had many discussions about why he eats up so much of our time. We believe in sitting down and sharing information, because they are part of this as family members, too.”

Give your kids a chance to vent. Resident sons and daughters may benefit from interaction with other children residing in adoptive families. They’ll be able to talk with peers who understand about diminished parental and family time, behavior stemming from trauma that they find confusing or embarrassing, fielding adoption questions, and feelings about their own adoption that surface after a sibling’s adoption. Check with adoption agencies in your area. Because kids’ groups are less common, you may have to search for them through adoptive parent support groups.

Get creative with child care. It is easier to preserve attachments among parents and resident children when the family has access to child care, yet, it can be difficult to find a babysitter with the experience and patience to care for a child with behavioral difficulties. You might start with the traditional sources — grandparents, other relatives, family friends, trusted neighbors. Maggie and Brent hired two babysitters — twin sisters who lived nearby — and reassured their daughter via phone calls when they were out. Lorraine, who adopted several children with mental health and learning needs, used the family’s respite subsidy to hire their neighbor, a retired teacher. She helped the youngest three with homework while Lorraine worked with the older children — and “homework was done in half the usual time! This in-home respite allowed time for games, a movie, or some extra snuggles.”

 Forming a Shared History

Almost all of us have had the experience of being the “new person.” For example, when you started your job, how long did it take to get to know your co-workers, the workplace dynamics, where everything was kept, the formal and informal rules? Assimilating into the workplace probably took time. Assimilating into a family takes longer — perhaps years. But parents and children will grow together, learn from each other, and form a new family dynamic.

Adapted from Welcoming a New Brother or Sister Through Adoption,  © 2014 Jessica Kingsley Publishers (jkp.com). Reprinted with permission. This article may not be reproduced for any other use without permission.

Copyright © 1999-2024 Adoptive Families Magazine®. All rights reserved. For personal use only. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

More articles like this