Blending a family by birth and adoption often involves the question of adopting out of birth order. It used to be so simple to address the issue: disrupting birth order through adoption was strongly discouraged. The matter was usually cut and dried: it just wasn’t done except in infrequent circumstances. Families who wanted to adopt out of birth order were routinely turned down or re-directed.

However, thoughts around disrupting birth order have steadily been changing in recent years. It started to change in foster care adoption and moved into international adoption. The change came about mainly because there are so many children older than toddler age who need families. There are not enough families to meet these kids’ needs. Adoption and foster care professionals and mental health providers have shifted their stances. The message has moved from “it’s complicated and risky; therefore, don’t do it” to “it’s complicated and risky; therefore, let us help you be successful.”

Disrupting Birth Order Requires Preparation

To be sure, it’s still not the best choice for every family, for every child, or for anyone who isn’t willing to go in with their eyes wide open. However, it’s a reality in the adoption community for which we believe families can prepare. Our vision is that every adopted and foster child has a family who understands their unique gifts and challenges and is equipped to help them thrive.

Consider this online course for pre-adoption training.

The Rules of Thumb When Disrupting Birth Order

To that end, we’ve compiled the following “rules of thumb” to help families prepare for disrupting birth order through adoption. These tips come from guest experts on podcasts, adoption therapists, and experienced families in our community who have successfully adopted out of birth order.

Rule #1: Keep an Eye on the Oldest.

Please pay particular attention when it’s your oldest child of the resident children being displaced. This role change is often the most impactful for the resident child. You should keep an eye on his adjustment and look for stress or anxiety over his changing role. Keep communication between you and your oldest child open and honest.

There will likely be less disruption if the eldest child being displaced is under three years old. They haven’t yet had the time to settle into the “power” or role of being the oldest.

Your child’s feelings of displacement will be less if the new eldest child is a different gender than the previous eldest child.  For example, your son will still be the most senior boy, even though he now has an older sister.

Rule #2: Streamline and Simplify Your Life During this Transition.

Plan on spending focused time at home with your new family dynamic. Get help to handle everyday tasks that others can handle for you, like meal preparation, grocery delivery, house cleaning, or laundry help. The goal is to simplify your load of responsibilities so that you can attend to your new child’s transition and changing relationship dynamics the other children will experience.

Rule #3: Schedule Individual Time with the Kids.

Plan for each parent to spend alone time with each child in your family — the resident kids and the new child alike. You might need to get help with childcare and schedule their “Mommy dates” on your calendar in advance. Prioritizing this time with each child buffers them individually through the transition and supports your family culture as a whole unit.

Rule #4: Put Your Support Network to Work.

Arrange support for your resident children, such as a playdate with a favorite family friend, or time with the grandparents during the transition, to help them cope with the changes they are experiencing. Your family’s success will depend on your ability to support each child in the family emotionally, but that does not mean you alone have to provide that support.

While you are getting support for the kids, make sure to arrange care for you and your partner. That might mean a mother’s helper on the weekends to allow you to catch up on “Mom tasks” or a regular, vetted babysitter for Saturday date nights.

Rule #5: Give the Kids Voice and Choice

Your changing family will be more successful if each member feels as if they have a voice in the process and throughout the transition. Offer them opportunities to talk about their feelings and concerns and brainstorm how to craft successful relationships with each other. Create check-in times to hear from each other and utilize your time alone with each kid to talk about their transition and new relationships within the family.

Rule #6: Don’t Treat Virtual Twins the Same.

If you adopt a child close in age to a resident child (also called virtual twinning), create space for each kid’s individuality and independence. Your family’s successful transition, in this case, will depend mainly on the personality of the child being “twinned” and of the new child coming into the family. Neither child should feel pressured to be the other’s twin or best friend, especially at the start of their new relationship. While you are figuring that out, they can use the room to process and manage it for themselves, too.

Consider keeping virtual twins in separate classes at school if they end up in the same grade. Learn to celebrate each child’s unique skills and temperament without referring to academic achievement for those in the same grade levels. Instead, give kudos to each child’s expressions of individuality and character growth.

Rule #7: Larger Families Feel the Changes Differently.

Larger families (those with four or more kids already in the home) tend to experience the impacts of disrupted birth orders to lesser degrees. There are already so many different relationships going on between you that the change is less noticeable. However, it would help to remember that this general “rule of thumb” does not apply to displacing the eldest child.

Rule #8: Don’t Tie Their Age to Their Privileges.

When you are parenting multiple ages, please resist the urge to tie your kids’ privileges to their ages. Remember that the new child you are adopting might not be ready for the same privileges that your biological child can handle. Instead, talk about individual readiness for both the responsibilities and perks of being part of this family.

For example, staying home alone isn’t an automatic privilege at age 12. It’s a milestone one can earn when you’ve learned how to be in the house alone safely and without feeling anxiety or fear over it.

Rule #9: Get Help, Sooner than Later.

Your success as an adoptive family depends on your pre-adoption preparations and education, particularly over these topics related to disrupting birth order and the potential issues of adopting an older child. However, it also depends upon your willingness to get help early and often once your adoption is complete. As we mentioned above, there need to be practical supports in place so you can focus on guiding your family through the changing dynamics.

However, families should not hesitate to seek professional, adoption-competent therapy for this transition. Many adoption professionals recommend having a therapist in place pre-emptively so that families have a safe landing place to process what they are experiencing. The keys are to listen to your kids, trust your training, and not wait until your family has a full tally sheet on a checklist of warning signs.

Teresa Bernu, LCSW from Adoption Center of Illinois, encouraged parents in a recent podcast to seek help sooner than later:

“If you feel like you are in trouble, odds are, you are.”

Reach out to your caseworker or placing agency and ask for support or recommendations, and resources.

Be Patient with the Transition

You are preparing your family for some pretty significant changes. Exercise patience with your kids while they work through the process. After all, any changes in role take time for everyone impacted. While you are supporting your children through the process, don’t forget to offer yourself plenty of grace and patience too. You are entering one of those seasons in life where self-care is especially critical. Pour extra effort and intention into your children to settle them into new dynamics and relationships. But, please be sure to prioritize your physical, emotional, and mental health to support that well.

Disrupting birth order is no longer the big “just don’t do it” that it used to be. There are many supports and resources that adoptive families can access before and after their adoption. Be patient in the process and utilize the resources available to you. But watchful too. If your family is unsettled or disconnected after six or eight months of adjustment, or if you are feeling anxious about the transition, please be sure to seek professional help.

Have you disrupted birth order in your adoption process? Tell us what worked for your family in the comments!

**November is National Adoption Month. If you are interested in joining the voices that are raising awareness of the need for permanency for foster youth in care, check out Child Welfare Information Gateway’s #NAM2021 resources.**

Originally published in 2017; Updated for 2021
Image Credits: Mr Jan; Richard BH; moodboard