Ask AF: Should We Tell Our Child She Has a Birth Sibling if They Can’t Be in Touch?

"Would knowing that somewhere, out in the world, she has a biological sister—but one she can’t get in touch with or live with as a sibling—help our child, or be harmful?"

Q: We adopted our 7-year-old daughter at birth. At the time our daughter was placed, we know that her birth mother was raising an older girl—but not much more than that; her birth mother requested a closed adoption and we have no way to contact her. Our daughter knows she was adopted, but we have been hesitant to tell her about her sister. Our two main worries are that she would be upset about not having any contact with this biological sister and feel hurt about the fact that her birth mother is raising this other child but not her. (While we of course know that this couldn’t have been an easy decision and that there were probably countless factors that went into it, we’re not sure how to convey all those shades of gray to a 7-year-old….) But we feel we need to tell her now before she gets any older. Coincidentally, she has recently been talking a lot about wishing she had a sister (it’s not feasible for us to adopt a second child, however). Would knowing that somewhere, out in the world, she has a sister—but one she can’t get in touch with or live with as a sibling—help or be harmful? How to explain all of this? Or should we keep this explanation separate from her wishing she had a sibling?

A: At the age of 7, your daughter understands what adoption means and I am wondering if she has asked you about the reasons for her adoption? I appreciate your concern about sharing information and answering questions when you know so little.

My first suggestion would be to ask your attorney or adoption agency if they have more information or would be able to ask the birth mother if she might be open to contact now.

When you share this information, the most important thing is to be ready to accept her response and encourage her to express all of her feelings. I completely understand your desire to protect your daughter, but unfortunately, as parents, we cannot. What we can do is love and support our children through their journey of making sense of what it means to have been adopted and coping with difficult feelings of loss and grief.

If your concerns are correct and your daughter does feel everything you described—hurt, angry, confused, and wanting to meet her sister, validate her feelings. You can tell her that you also wish you had more information, but you can “speculate” on the possible reasons for her placement, keeping the discussion as simple as possible: e.g., you believe her birth mother may have felt that she could not raise a second child as a single mother.

Your daughter may ask why her birth mother doesn’t want contact. Many birth parents who want a closed adoption feel that continued contact would be too painful for them. This reasoning will not necessarily make sense to a child her age, but might provide some reassurance to offset some of her feelings of rejection.

Depending on her maturity, you can let her know that you did to try to get more information and that you will continue to try to establish contact with her birth mother and sister (and that she may certainly continue these efforts as an adult with your full support). The most important thing is to validate her feelings. Even if you aren’t successful, her knowing that you understand and support her feelings will be invaluable for your relationship.

Regarding the wish for a sibling, this is not uncommon with only children. Once again, I suggest you validate her feelings, but also be sure to explore what may be contributing to them—e.g., make sure other children aren’t making her feel different/bad about being an only child. Let her know that families come in all shapes and sizes and comment on what a wonderful family yours is!

—ELLEN SINGER, LCSW-C, C.A.S.E. Training Coordinator. C.A.S.E. is located in Burtonsville, Maryland.

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