Preparing Your Biological Kids for the Adoption of a Sibling

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 of how that new child enters the family, but adoption certainly throws in a few added wrinkles:

  • Your adopted child may not be a newborn.
  • He may already have established habits and behaviors that complicate sibling relationships.
  • She might be of a different race.

Additionally, you will discover that there are fewer resources available to help with this transition than when adding a new child to your home by birth again.  Finally, adoption still isn’t the norm across society, so you and your existing children will likely have more explaining to do to those not in the know.

Adopting a Newborn of the Same Race

If you are adopting a newborn of the same race as the rest of your family, then you can prepare your existing children more or less the same way you would get them ready for the birth of a sibling.  Role-play the transitions and new activities with dolls and stuffed animals.  Point out new babies everywhere you go and talk up the coming changes. Read lots of big brother and big sister books.

One “new” preparation you should do for adopting a same-race newborn would be to add in books about adoption to your nighttime routine.  Our partners at Creating a Family have curated some great book lists specifically to help prepare siblings for the pending adoption. They also offer book lists – broken down by age – to explain adoption.

Adopting a Child of Another Race

If you are adopting a child of another race, understand that your family will very likely be the object of more attention when you are in public. It will be helpful to prepare your children for this probability. You will need to help them with understand that families do not need to match to be families. Depending upon your children’s ages, they might even get questions from other kids and from adults. Help them with an appropriate response by role-playing some common scenarios. This will help them get comfortable with a few answers that work for their understanding and ability to respond.

Remember that kids might respond more succinctly (and even bluntly!) once they work through the transition of your new family dynamic. That’s okay, they will learn as they go and it’s a good sign that things are becoming normalized for them – almost like they can’t figure out what the big deal is to others around them. Creating a Family also has book lists and other resources to help explain unmatched families to your kids while you wait.

Adopting an Older Child

If you are adopting an older child, say age 4 and older, you’ll have some more preparing to do.  If your children are old enough, it will help to prepare them in advance for the myriad of ways their new sibling may react, especially in the early days and months of the transition.  Remind them of times they had to adjust to a new situation and how they responded.  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 also act unpleasantly or even in mean ways.  Talk together about how sometimes kids have learned to aggressively compete for the limited attention in their birth/first families or orphanages.  Assure them that while these behaviors might be useful and necessary in that setting, they are inappropriate at home.

Learning what is appropriate in a new family will take some time, patience, and love. It is helpful to explain to your existing children why their new sibling might behave this way. It’s also necessary to reassure them that they will be safe, and you will 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 together for ideas of things they would look forward to doing at home. Start some new family rituals like Friday Movie Night or Make Your Own Taco Tuesday.  Maybe you need to replenish your art supplies or buy that huge Lego set that will take weeks for your child to assemble. Perhaps now is the time to invest in that new swing set you’ve had your eye on?

Adopting Out of Birth Order

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 to that change. Seek ways to reinforce her position in your family.  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 that won’t necessarily prevent the sometimes-rocky adjustments.  Creating a Family has a wide variety of resources to help work through the adjustment of disrupting birth order. This fact sheet, Top Ten Tips for Disrupting Birth Order is a quick read that will get you started on what to know and how to prepare.

When adopting out of birth order, it’s typical to expect sibling rivalry and developmental regression on both sides of the displacement.  The new child may get a disproportionate share of the attention, especially at the start of the new relationship. Even if it’s not true, be prepared that it will seem excessive to your existing child.  Keep your children’s routines as regular as possible during this transition.  Schedule one-on-one time with your current kids.  It may be hard to find the time, but it really is essential.

Setting the Stage at First Meetings

It might be a nice gesture for the new child to bring a gift for the other children when she arrives. If your bio kids are excited about the new arrival of their sibling, encourage them to decorate her room with handmade cards or small tokens of welcome like a pretty new throw pillow or stuffed animal.

When extended family or friends plan to bring a present to welcome your new child, gently suggest that they also 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 instead 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 new child to the family via adoption can be stressful, but it can also bring incredible depth and fun to a family.  Siblings, no matter how they join the family, typically end up being both each other’s greatest supporters and greatest pains in the neck throughout life.  While parenting only one child is a valid choice, there is a lot to be said for the life lessons of relationship, community, and friendship that comes from sibling relationships. Even if it’s a bit more complicated when adding adopted kids to your family of biological children.

For more insight on adoption and sibling relationships, check out this essay on the importance of sibling relationships and what we can learn, from our partners at North American Council on Adoptable Children.