Preparing Siblings for an Adoption

Fact Sheets


Preparing Children-compressed


The addition of a child changes the family dynamics for everyone and especially for the children already in the home.  This is the case regardless how the new child enters the family, but adoption throws in an added wrinkle.  The adopted child may not be a newborn, the child may have established habits and behaviors that complicate sibling relationships, and the child may be of a different race.  Plus, there are fewer resources available to help with this transition.  And let’s face it: adoption isn’t the norm, so you and your existing children often have more explaining to do.

If you are adopting a newborn of the same race as the rest of your family, then you would prepare your existing children more of less the same way you’d prepare them for the birth of a sibling.  You’ll playact with dolls and stuffed animals, you’ll point out new babies everywhere you go, and you’ll read lots of big brother and big sister books.  In addition, you’ll read books about adoption.  We have a great list of books to help prepare siblings for an adoption, but you should also read some age appropriate books used to explain adoption to an adopted child.

If you are adopting a child of another race, your family will be the object of more attention when you are in public and it helps to prepare your children for this probability.  You need to help them with understand that families do not need to match in order to be families.  Depending on their age, they will likely get questions from other kids and from adults.  Help them with an appropriate response.  I overheard my 7 year old say to a friend, “Of course she’s my sister. Don’t you know anything about adoption!?!”  I might have preferred a bit more politeness, but thought he got the point across succinctly and effectively.  We have a great list of suggested books and resources to help explain unmatched families.

If you are adopting other than a newborn, you’ll have some more preparing to do.  If your children are old enough, it helps to prepare them in advance for the myriad of ways their new sibling may react.  Remind them of times they had to adjust to a new situation and how they reacted.  Explain that their new sibling may be scared and reject them or go to the other extreme and become their shadow.  Unfortunately, their new sibling may be mean.  Some toddlers and older kids have learned to aggressively compete for the limited attention in first families or orphanages, and while these behaviors might be effective and necessary in that setting, they are inappropriate at home.  Although it helps to explain to your older children why their new sister is behaving this way, you also must protect them while gently but firmly retraining your new child in better coping techniques.

Explain to your children in advance that your new child may be overwhelmed at first, and that you will be staying close to home for a while after she comes home.  Brainstorm with them ideas for things they would look forward to doing at home: maybe you need to replenish your art supplies or buy the really large Lego set that will take weeks for your child to assemble.  Maybe now is the time to invest in that new swing set you’ve had your eye on.

If you are adopting out of birth order, pay particular attention to which of your existing kids is being displaced from his position in the family.  For example, if you are adopting a child older than your eldest child, pay special attention to how your former eldest child adapts and seek ways to reinforce her position.  The same care should be given to any child that is being displaced from his position as the only boy, the only girl, or the youngest.  Preparation, forethought, and individual attention are needed to smooth these adjustments.  Parents can be sensitive and sympathetic, but can’t necessarily prevent the sometimes rocky adjustment.  We have a great video, one hour radio showrules for successfully adopting out of birth orderTop Ten Tips for Disrupting Birth Order, and other resources for parents adopting out of birth order.

You can usually expect sibling rivalry and developmental regression on both sides.  The new child may get a disproportionate share of the attention, or at least it will seem disproportionate to your existing child.  Keep your children’s routines as regular as possible during the transition, and set aside one-on-one time with your existing kids.  It may be hard to find the time, but it really is essential.

A nice gesture is for the new child to bring a gift for the other children when she arrives.  If family or friends bring a present for the new child, gently suggest that they bring something small for your existing children.  If the new child is an infant, you might ask them to forgo the present for the baby and only bring a small gift to your older kids.  The baby won’t know the difference anyway, and you can give them a suggestion of something small and inexpensive.

Yes indeed, adding a child to the family can be stressful, but it can also bring a wonderful depth and fun to a family.  Siblings can be each others greatest supporters and sometimes greatest pain in the necks throughout life.  There is nothing wrong with having only one child, but I for one, am glad we added the complexity, complications, and joy of raising more than one. Those of you who have already been there, done that, please share your experiences and suggestions in the comment section!


Image credit: sean dreilinger

05/10/2010 | by Fact Sheets | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog, Other Adoption Resources | 10 Comments

10 Responses to Preparing Siblings for an Adoption

  1. Avatar Foreman says:

    Awesome ideas! Thank you very much

  2. Avatar WinnowGateFarmFamily says:

    Our kids were 10, 12, and 15 when we were waiting to adopt our new child who was 2. We downloaded alot of the Creating a Family shows on attachment, adopting a toddler, mixing kids by birth & adoption, and really anything we thought would bring up subjects we’d like our kids to hear about. We used the questions sent in by listeners as a starting point for talking and of course, we also used the expert’s responses too. I’m not sure that the 10 year old would have really paid attention to the whole shows, but we stopped them and would talk. We played them in the car when we were going someplace and would only listen to short parts for him to maintain interest. It seemed to work really good. Our eldest downloaded and listened to quite a few on her own. We also used your list of books to prepare siblings, espcially our youngest. We have been a family now for 10 months and I think our pre preparation really helped. It was a really easy adjustment for the older kids because they had thought through what our new little one was going through and had thought through how they might feel. It was easier for all of us to talk about it because we had talked about it first before it happened.

  3. Avatar Second-Time Around Mom says:

    It doesn’t matter how much older they may be, sibling rivalry exists at every age! We are Second-time around parents (with four grown-and-flown bios) who refilled our empty nest.
    Six months ago we adopted a sibling pair aged 13 and 7.
    Our two oldest married sons (with little kids of their own) are so bent out of shape jealous of our new kids that they are barely speaking to us. A very sad situation.
    Fortunately our third son and our daughter feel very differently and have welcomed our new kids.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      2nd Time Around: You make a good point–just because the existing kids are out of the house doesn’t mean they don’t have an opinion and aren’t affected by the adoption. I hope things improve with time.

  4. Avatar Heather says:

    We adopted transracially when by older daughter was five. We read lots of books about adoption together, ate at Ethiopian resturants monthly, and gave her a baby doll with dark, brown skin. I think one of the most heart warming things she did during our wait was getting all her friends together on the couch, pretending it was a plane ride, and carrying the doll around as her baby sister. She included her friends in her play around adoption, which helped perpare them for the change in our family. When her sister came home not only was our daughter comfortable with all the changes, so were her friends. The best thing we did however was having her travel with us to pick up her baby sister in Ethiopia. It really made her feel included and she has such fond memories of Ethiopia and when her sister joined our family.
    ~ Heather

  5. Avatar Jamie says:

    With our first adoption, we got our kids involved as much as possible in the planning and prep. We had a Russian tutor come over and work with our kids on Russian words and phonograms (helpful for Mom and Dad, too!), the kids made a “Morningstar ABC” book for her to show her pictures of our home and community, etc. It seemed to help a lot.

    With this adoption (currently awaiting LID for China), our oldest kids were mature enough to complete the Adoption Learning Partners classes with us. Although they admittedly didn’t pay rapt attention to every moment, they remember more about Chinese holidays and customs than I do, and they still bring up what they learned about issues of grief and loss in adoption.

    I don’t think there’s any magic process for helping your other kids feel a part of the adoption, and bringing a new sibling home is a lot of adjustment however they enter the family, but our policy is that the more involved all of the kids can be, the better.

  6. We adopted a special needs child with a visible birth defect. So in addition to all the talking and praying together and preparing that we had done before receiving her referral, we had that conversation to deal with. To help the kids, I printed pictures of her referral AND the close up of her affected ear and gave them to them to look at. I wanted them to get comfortable in advance looking at, talking about, and thinking about her “little ear” before she came home so they were ready for other folks’ questions. Additionally, it helped them deal with any thoughts or feelings about it BEFORE they met her. That way they could focus her home-coming and settling in on HER as a whole person, not a need.

    Cute story: my littlest guy, 6 at the time, had been walking around with the picture of her ear for a day or two. He came to me one day after that and said, “Mommy, looking at her little ear makes me sad.” I acknowledged that it was a bit sad to look at (especially as it was a close-up and there were scratches and marks on her head from having her hair shaved) but asked him to consider this: “Why don’t you think about thanking Jesus for that ear every time you think about it or see it? Because, really, buddy? That little ear is what is bringing her home to us.” He looked at me with such clarity. And said, “Oh! You’re right Mommy. That ear makes her OURS.” He “got it” that day. And every time I think about that conversation, I smile at how easily our kids adapt and accept the needs and “defects” of the ones that they love!!!!

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      What a good idea to acclimate them to what her ear looked like so when they saw her they saw the whole her, not just her ear. Great idea.

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