Overcoming Unhealthy Dynamics Between Siblings

Tracy Whitney


Many times, when you adopt a new child, you are also taking on a whole set of family dynamics that are unfamiliar to you and unhealthy for the child. The child may have experienced trauma, abuse, or neglect that forced him to respond to the people around him in undesirable ways. How do you overcome unhealthy dynamics between siblings in your newly formed adoptive family?

Adopting a child who has experienced trauma, abuse, or neglect can strain sibling relationships. Overcoming unhealthy dynamics between adopted siblings.

Beyond Typical Sibling Squabbles

“Oh my gosh, my little one tattles (whines, cries, fights, etc.) all the time!”

“I wish my Johnny and Susie could get along for just one day! I’m starting to feel like this adoption has ruined our whole family.”

“Jane is positive that Susie is my favorite, and that anger just makes her resist everything I say or do to form a relationship with her. What do I do?”

Do these parental exclamations familiar to you? Indeed, they are relatively common complaints of parents with more than one child in the family. However, adopting a sibling when children are already in the home can upend relationships for a while. Sibling dynamics with a newly adopted child can feel much more contentious and unhealthier than you’ve experienced thus far. It’s exhausting and painful for a parent’s heart. It impacts all of you.

Keep in mind that your child used many different coping tools before coming to your home. These unhealthy habits helped him survive and protect himself during challenging experiences. It took him a while to develop these unhealthy habits of relating to people, so you will need to exercise patience and grace while he unlearns and re-learns new ways of interacting.

It’s exhausting and painful for a parent’s heart. It impacts all of you.

We talked with Erin Q. Nasmyth, LCSW, in a recent radio show, and she offered these practical tips to ease families through the transition. Whenever our family goes through a significant life change – my son’s deployment, the onset of distance learning, my daughter leaves for college each fall – I have to pull these tricks out of my parenting toolkit again to help our dynamics re-settle.

Tips for Overcoming Unhealthy Dynamics Between Siblings

1. Observe the dynamics from your own family-of-origin.

Think about how you respond to conflict or tension in relationships before you start addressing your children’s struggles. Take some time to deal with your stuff and know your triggers. I have found Dr. Dan Siegel’s book Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive* helpful for this type of introspection.

2. Dig into the background information.

Before placement, or as soon as you can afterward, gather whatever history about the child’s experiences and relationships that you can. Talk with the caseworker, former foster parents, or other primary caretakers to gain a full picture of the child’s habits. Ask about:

  • Potential triggers or known traumas
  • Common reactions to conflict or fear
  • What works to soothe the child

3. Give your children some context.

Talk with the children already in your home – in age-appropriate ways – about the child’s experiences and relationships before the child arrives. If you cannot do that, be sure to touch base privately with the kids once you learn more to help them understand their new sibling’s context. Again, this should be an age-appropriate conversation, and once the child is in your home, it should be with an eye toward healing and empathy without creating pity.

4. Shine the spotlight every chance you get!

Recognize each child’s individual strengths and offer opportunities for those strengths to shine. Follow those moments of success with praise, encouragement, and affirmation of the inherent skills and talents you see in the child. Brag about him to others about the character traits that make his accomplishments so note-worthy.

5. Seize the moments.

Look for teachable moments in which you can narrate healthy interactions. When an interaction goes off the rails, take a moment (when everyone is calm and regulated) to create a re-do or role-play how the exchange could go differently.

Follow those moments of success with praise, encouragement, and affirmation of the inherent skills and talents you see in the child.

6. Keep things positive.

Teach all of your children positive habits for dealing with frustrating interactions. You might even start by being an exaggerated model of positive management of stressful moments. Talk to them or talk them through how to:

  • Lighten the moment with humor
  • Take a few deep breaths
  • Take a break and walk away for a moment
  • Stop and count to ten
  • Use “I Feel… when you…” statements

7. Comparison is the thief of joy.

Resist the urge to compare yourselves to other families or to compare one child’s process to his siblings. Our children quite often feel immense shame when they are aware that their habits of interacting are unhealthy. Comparing your family to another or siblings to each other will compound that shame. Think of that child’s progress only as related to his past behavior and find joy in that development. Be his biggest cheerleader.

8. Grace, space, and then more grace and space.

Finally, give each other plenty of grace to grieve and process everything you have been through, as individuals and as a family unit. Talk about “progress, not perfection.” Be a safe space to fail and try again.

Don’t beat yourself up that your kids are not kind and loving with each other all the time. Instead, recognize that being a sibling in this new family dynamic is new to them all, and you will all “get there” eventually. The best news is that you’ll get there together.


Image Credits: greg westfall; Alexey Dushutin; John Morgan

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08/07/2020 | by Tracy Whitney | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog, Fostering, Fostering Blog | 0 Comments

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