When Parents Adopt Out of Birth Order

Conventional wisdom says not to adopt a child out of birth order. Yet there are many reasons why this choice may be right for you–and many ways to make it work.

Adoption expert Lois Melina on talking with adopted children about unknown birth family information

Conventional wisdom says not to adopt a child out of birth order. Yet there are many reasons why this choice may be right for you—and many ways to make it work.

Adoption is sometimes expected to create families that mimic biologic ones. Adoptive parents are expected to be of an age at which they could be the parents of their child biologically—even if they aren’t. Consistent with this is the recommendation of many experts that children be added to a family at the “bottom of the birth order.”

But for some families, the age of the parents or the children doesn’t fall into conventional alignment. Couples who delayed pregnancy, experienced infertility, then had multiple infertility treatments before having their first child may find themselves beyond the age for another pregnancy through assisted reproductive technology or “too old” to adopt an infant. Parents seeking to adopt a child from the foster care system often pay more attention to how they “connect” to a particular child than where he fits in the birth order. Those who adopt the child of a relative are more concerned with keeping that child in the extended family than in conventional age distribution within the family.

Some social workers suggest that parents do best when they grow into parenting, that is, meeting and learning about each developmental stage as it presents itself. Thus, childless parents adopt infants, and parents of a child adopted as an infant now in kindergarten adopt a child younger than age 6. Under any circumstances, some argue, parents who have raised their child only to first-grade age shouldn’t attempt suddenly to raise a teenager.

Nonetheless, many parents have successfully integrated children older than the oldest into their families, and many social workers are aware and supportive of them. Parents who are seriously concerned about the impact of displacement on their oldest child or about their ability to parent a child of a specific age probably shouldn’t adopt out of birth order. But if parents are aware of the potential pitfalls but believe that a specific will be a good fit in their family, conventional wisdom needn’t stop them.

Tips From Parents Who Have Been There

Treat children as individuals, with privileges and responsibilities given on the basis of ability rather than age. If the child who has been the oldest loses status when an older child is adopted, she is likely to have hard feelings, especially if the new child is immature for her age.

Parents who are not rigid about connecting privileges or responsibilities to age honor the abilities of each child, no matter the age order. The child most capable of baby-sitting when the parents go out should be the one in charge of the siblings, no matter what his or her age.

At the same time, parents have to be conscious of not over-burdening the more mature children in the family, and dispense privileges in the same manner as they do responsibilities. If the 16-year-old in the family is not responsible enough to baby-sit younger siblings, it may be unfair to allow him driving privileges based solely on his age.

Avoid comparisons between children. Work closely with school so that the family’s philosophy about dispensation of privileges and responsibilities is reinforced there.

Regardless of age or position in the family, each child should develop his or her own interests. It may be easier on the parents if everyone takes tae kwon do lessons, but if they do, comparison becomes almost unavoidable. By focusing on individual interests and abilities, parents can develop self-esteem that is not based on a child’s ability vis-a-vis his sibling’s.

When older children are adopted, frequent moves in their past can mean academic skills below the standard for their chronological age. Comparisons between the academic achievements of children are always inappropriate, but in no case should a younger child be held up as an example to an older brother or sister.

Look for Appropriate Ways to Acknowledge the Individuality of Each Child.

Even while they are dispensing privileges and responsibilities on the basis of ability, not age, parents should also find ways to recognize each child on the basis of his or her place in the family. Families can have not only the “oldest child,” but also the “oldest boy” and the “oldest girl,” the “senior user of the second-floor bathroom,” each with its own privileges and responsibilities. Almost any child can be “the oldest” in some way.

Chores and perks do not have to be tied to age or ability. Each child can be taught to do laundry or pet chores, for example. This will relieve the more responsible child of the burden that sometimes accompanies that role.

Remember, any child, not just the oldest, can feel displaced by the arrival of a new child in the family.

The youngest child in the family can feel displaced by the addition of a younger one, but this is not considered an obstacle to adoption because it routinely happens in families formed by birth. The only boy in the family can feel rivalry when another boy arrives. When a sibling group is adopted, the children already in the family may find themselves jockeying for the comfortable positions that they once took for granted.

When parents see the individual needs of each child, being sensitive to displacement without overcompensating for it, jealousy needn’t threaten the successful integration of the new child or children.

Give Serious Attention to Serious Situations.

An adopted child with a history of sexual abuse who becomes the oldest in the family may use his position as a source of power over younger siblings. Parents should discuss this possibility honestly with the social worker before making a decision to adopt a specific child.

All parents who adopt older children should take advantage of post-placement services, particularly if they do not have experience with children the age of those they are adopting. Children who are older at the time of adoption have likely experienced significant disruption in their lives, and perhaps emotional or physical abuse. They may have attachment difficulties, be behind in school, or be accustomed to being responsible for younger siblings. Physical development may be delayed in children whose nutritional needs have been unmet or who have spent a long time in a substandard setting.

The behavior of a child with this background may be very different from that predicted by parenting books. Even parents who have experience raising an 11-year-old may be unprepared for the 11-year-old who wants to sit on her mother’s lap but also expects take care of her 5-year-old sister.

When adopting older children, meet them where they are, and throw out expectations that there will be consistency between the child’s physical, emotional, and intellectual development. If a child has the emotional needs of a 4-year-old but is entering puberty, find ways to address both stages of your child’s development.

This is where parent support groups and post-placement services can be particularly helpful. Professionals without experience in the adoption of older children, including teachers and psychologists, may not be as qualified to help new parents as social workers or parents with similar experience. And even if parents have no experience with a child of a particular age, they will, after a short time, become the experts on their own child. Consult adoption experts, talk to the experienced, and be willing to consider viewpoints other than your own. Ultimately, however, trust your own judgment about what’s right for your family.


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