Preparing Siblings for an Adoption
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 show, rules for successfully adopting out of birth order, Top 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