Adopting Siblings: Who’s the Parent Here Anyway?
In the past adoption agencies and foster care systems didn’t try very hard to keep siblings together. After all, it is harder to find homes for multiple kids, and even harder to find homes if one or two of the kids are older. Why, they wondered, should a younger child have to wait for a family that is willing to adopt siblings when this child could easily find a home right now? Plus, the idea is to create new families, right? Better to leave the old one with all those bad memories behind. Right?
From research and from talking with adult adoptees, we have now come to value the lifelong benefits of keeping sisters and brothers together in adoption, whenever possible. Sometimes the sibling group is too large or the sibling relationships are unhealthy, but when possible, adoption professionals recommend keeping siblings together. As adoption therapist Erin Nasmyth said on last week’s Creating a Family show: sibling relationships are worth preserving because they are the longest relationship most of us will have in our lifetime.
One of the issues that often arises when adopting siblings is the older sibling taking on the parenting role. Sibling groups are seldom available for adoption when strong capable biological parents were involved. Almost always there was a void, and often a loving older siblings stepped in to fill it. Social worker Kimberly Offutt called this survival technique “parentification”—one child becoming a parent figure for the others.
While we adults might view this as a problem for the older child because he deserves a chance to be a kid and for the younger child because of confusion over who is in charge, many parentified older sibs resist relinquishing this role because it feels comfortable and because they aren’t completely sure that their new parents are up to the task. Besides, often their identity is connected to being the one in charge.
Our guest experts on the Creating a Family show on Adopting Siblings gave some specific suggestions for changing this pattern of interaction.
- Plan on easing the children into new roles gradually over time as they come to trust this new family.
- Spend time alone with the oldest child doing age appropriate activities to allow this child to be a child.
- Acknowledge with the older child how hard they worked to keep the family together and to care for the younger kids. Tell them how proud you are of them and that they should be proud of themselves. Gently tell them that in this house they don’t have to be the one in charge.
- After the oldest has had time to see that you are capable of taking care of everyone, start discussing the importance of letting you be the parent.
- Allow the eldest child to keep a specific caretaking task that is important to her, such as fixing lunch or taking the others outside to play.
- Gently correct and redirect when the children revert to their old patterns. Understand that stress may cause regression.
Did you adopt siblings? Did you face the issue of the elder child taking on the parenting role? Was this role hard to change?
Image credit: tamckile