This content was originally published by Creating a Family, the national infertility education and support nonprofit.
April 10th is National Siblings Day. In honor of the joy and friendship that sibling relationships add to our lives, we thought we would take a break from all the talk about coronavirus to talk about how to prepare for the adoption of a sibling. Adding a child to your family changes the dynamics for everyone, but most especially for the children who are already in the home.
This is the case regardless of how your new child enters the family, but doing so through adoption can throw in a few added wrinkles. Getting your family off on the right foot when you add an adopted child to a home where siblings already exist takes forethought. We have compiled these tips to help smooth out those wrinkles.
Your adopted child may not be a newborn. That means that he will likely already have established some habits and behaviors that can complicate sibling relationships.
Your prospective child may be of a different race than his new-to-him siblings. Transracial adoptive parenting often takes a bit more legwork to find the resources you need to prepare well. Let’s face it: adoption isn’t the norm in many parenting circles, so you and your existing children often have more planning and then explaining to do.
Tip #1 – read and play together
If you are adopting a newborn of the same race as the rest of your family, then you can prepare your existing children quite similarly to the way you’d make them ready for the birth of a sibling. You can role play sibling interactions with dolls and stuffed animals. You will find yourself pointing out new babies everywhere you go. And of course, you’ll read lots of big brother and big sister books together.
In addition to these practical preparations, add some books or kids’ shows that feature adoption storylines. Creating a Family has this list of books to help prepare siblings for adoption. It would help if you also read some books to explain adoption to an adopted child.
tip #2 – talk about families that don’t match
If you are adopting a child of another race, your family will be the focus of more attention when you are in public, so it helps to prepare your children for these experiences. You need to help them with understand that families do not need to match to be families. Talk about it matter-of-factly and frequently to help normalize the conversation and the ideas of how families come together.
Depending on your existing children’s ages, they will likely get questions from both other kids and adults. Help them with an appropriate response by practicing “canned lines” or scripts that feel comfortable for your family values and sense of privacy. Kids have a way of taking pre-rehearsed lines and making them their own, so a variety of options will help both of you feel confident that they’ll land on one that works.
tip #3 – tell your kids why the adjustment might be rocky
If you are adopting other than a newborn, you’ll have some more preparation 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 or unexpected situation and how they responded. Bring up the times that they felt fear or uncertainty over a new relationship or new experience.
Explain that their new sibling will likely be even more scared than what they’ve experienced already. The new sibling might act on that fear by rejecting them — or go to the other extreme and become a clingy shadow. Unfortunately, their new sibling may also act mean or even angry. Please talk about the fact that sometimes kids have learned to aggressively compete for the limited attention in their first families, foster care, or orphanages.
Assure your children that even though these behaviors felt useful and necessary for their new sibling when he was in those settings, they are inappropriate in your home. Tell them that you won’t allow harm to happen while you are retraining your newly adopted child to cope with his big feelings. Indeed, it will help to continue to reassure your older children frequently that you are ready for these behaviors even after the new child has arrived.
tip #4 – Plan to stick close to home
Explain to your children in advance that your new child may be overwhelmed by all the changes and new experiences at first. Tell them the family plan is to stick pretty close to home for a while after she comes home. If it applies, remind them of the time that you or another family member brought new babies home from the hospital and stayed home to recover a bit. Compare the new adoption relationship to that time to help normalize the plan for your child, rather than resent the new sibling for it.
Brainstorm ideas of things you all can look forward to doing at home:
- Maybe have them make a poster together of a “Fun At Home” wish list.
- This might also be the time to replenish your art supplies.
- Buy a huge Lego set that will take weeks to assemble together.
- It might also be a great time to invest in that new swing set you’ve had your eye on.
If you have older children, get their buy-in by planning their social events in advance, negotiating together what is reasonable if they are not yet driving. Ask for their help in preparing favorite freezer meals together, or by stocking up on their favorite take-out and delivery gift cards to get you through tough days.
tip #5 – Pay attention to birth order
If you are adopting out of birth order, pay particular attention to the child whose position in the family is being changed. For example, if you are adopting a child older than your existing eldest child, pay special attention to how your (former) eldest child adapts and then seek ways to reinforce his 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. Expect a greater need to be sensitive and compassionate for your existing child’s changes, but remember that you cannot entirely prevent the struggle your child may experience.
tip #6 – prepare for regression
Prepare yourself for the possibility of developmental regression in both your existing kids and your newly adopted child. Talk about how it might feel for the “new kid” to get so much attention during the transition. Lay the groundwork for how your children can talk to you about how that feels. Acknowledge with them that it might feel disproportionate for a season. Again, if you can assure your kids that you have a plan to share your focus, that will help them cope.
Once your new child is home, be alert to behavior regressions. Remind the kids that when their new sister is feeling overwhelmed or scared, she may resort to lower-than-age-typical behaviors to get attention. Keep your household routines as regular as possible during the transition. Schedule one-on-one time with your existing kids. We know that might feel unattainable, and it might be hard to find the time, but it really is essential to help them all feel secure.
siblings can be friends for life
Yes, indeed, adding an adopted child to a household with existing siblings can be pretty stressful. But adding siblings to your family also brings beautiful fun to a family. Of course, we all know that sometimes our siblings can be our biggest pains in the neck, but they can also grow to become our most loyal friends and supporters for life.
It takes some preparation and some added layers of intentionality to add a child by adoption. When we watch our existing children welcome and blend with our newly adopted child, the complexity, chaos, and joy all fuse us together as a family.
Did you do anything beyond these tips to prepare your children for the adoption of a new sibling? Tell us about it in the comments!
Originally published in 2010, updated in 2020 by Tracy Whitney on Creating a Family.