Advice for Older Siblings of Adopted Children
Updated: Jul 7, 2020
When we decided as a family to adopt my little brother and sister, I was 20 years old. My biological siblings’ ages ranged from 22 to 14. I was living at home after graduating college and was working to save money to get the heck out of Dodge. Looking back at the confusion and frustration of not understanding why I living at home at all, I can now see God’s provision because He gave me that time to build a relationship with the little strangers who came to stay and to witness my family transform together.
Before it all became very real very fast, I knew I wanted to be ready, to make sure I could help with the transition as much as I could during the process of their adoption. So I obviously turned to Google…and really didn’t find anything for my particular role as the older biological sibling.
So I thought I’d write the article I wanted to read during that time, the one I would want to have shared with my biological siblings as they too were preparing themselves. The one that would have affirmed and reassured me that my life was about to change forever and that was no small thing even though I was practically grown and should have had everything together.
So here’s some advice I’ve now gleaned and hope maybe someday it could help someone else:
Your life is about to change forever and that’s no small thing even though you are practically grown and should have everything together
Adoption changes families. You learn how to grow and stretch, forgive and love, give and take in new ways together. You will be affected! Acknowledge this. Repeat it out loud. Process it now because it will be true and you’ll want to understand it before it hits you by surprise one day when you are suddenly doing things like soccer practice, time-outs, and trick-or-treating all over again.
Develop a sense of humor
Adoption is messy and hilarious. People will ask you if you’re the parent, or the babysitter, or the inappropriately young step-mom. Your sibling may throw a fit in public somewhere and yell that they don’t know you while everyone stares at you in a crowded Target; be able to laugh at it because it will be really funny one day.
It can feel like you have two different concepts of your family
The Before Family and the After Family. The Before was the sepia-colored, Polaroid family of your childhood, the one pressed inside scrapbooks and preserved alongside memories of car trips, summer vacations, that house with the crazy laundry shoot, your first pet that ran away, the inside jokes, and the horrendous denim matching outfits of the late 90s. It’s okay to love that concept of family and to miss it. But even if your family didn’t adopt, they still would be gone in the past. Celebrate it. Remember it. But look forward to the new memories to come, the ones that will be more full, complete, and surprising; the ones that will hold even more love, the vacations yet to come, the future spouses, nieces, and nephews to join that you don’t even know yet, and yes, the future horrendous matching denim outfits.
Dealing with resentment is natural
*Disclaimer: I’ve never once felt any resentment at all during this process. The only thing that I resent is that my brother and sister had to go through any pain or hardships at all, but I won’t act like it isn’t a natural response in some cases…and yes, even if you’re older. So let’s talk about it.*
If your parents are adopting, I really, really, really hope that you have the kind of relationship where you can address resentment. It’s something that festers and thrives in secrecy until it destroys relationships. If you feel resentment towards your parents – maybe a perceived deficiency in time, attention, patience, or financial support- call it out. Maybe it’s irrational and you just can’t see it. Maybe your parents have felt it too but didn’t know how to bring it up. This is the blessing about being older when your parents adopt: you’re not a child who can only express complex emotions through temper tantrums. You’re an adult who can feel stupid about trying to express complex emotions through passive aggressive temper tantrums. Just be honest and willing to be an active part of the solution.
BUT, if you’re feeling resentment towards your new sibling(s), perhaps it’s time to take a step back and consider why. It’s always deeper than mild annoyances because that child sure didn’t do anything to you. I would, before anything, pray for a change in attitude and then I would seek to build a meaningful relationship. Do you resent that your schedule changed and you have to pick them up from school? Blast your favorite tunes you want to share with them or start a book on tape that you can bond over. Sick of becoming the live-in babysitter? Watch a childhood classic that brought you joy ((when Paris discovered the Cheetah Girls and agreed that Raven Simone’s character was a hot mess, it was like the world became as it was meant to be)). Don’t like sharing a room with a new little sibling? Do like my sister Emma- make a cleaning schedule and put words of affirmation up on the wall. Needing space? Don’t be afraid to vocalize and prioritize that for yourself. The first rule of care-taking is that you’ll fail every time if you don’t take care of yourself. I believe knowing your limits and being able to cheerfully do the best you can within them are huge tools to work through resentment.
You’ll make mistakes
If you’re older and really gung-ho about the adoption process, you may want to do research so everything is perfect. Maybe you read all about transracial families, or families of children with special needs, or whatever new thing your family may become. You may learn new things, like how to do black hair, or how to affirm all types of beauty, or ask another adoptive family to mentor yours. You may try to do everything you can that all the top experts recommend…but you’ll still make mistakes. Maybe they’re not the same ones of your childhood but that’s the fun of being human- you’ll always find new ways to mess up. Be easy and patient on yourself. Is your home safe, healthy, and supportive of your new sibling(s)? That’s enough.
You may be on a long list of brothers and sisters and that’s fine
I don’t know why I was a big stickler for wanting my siblings think of me as their big sister from the get-go when that was pretty unfair of me. They’ve lived with a lot of people- some biological, some not. They’ve had a lot of concepts of “siblings”- what will make you unique is the tenacity of your love. You’ll be there for them one, five, fifteen, fifty years from now. The recognition will come naturally at one point- just be patient. Maybe they don’t introduce you as their sister; just make sure you always make sure to introduce them as yours, showing them you accept them always.
Their story is theirs
As the sibling, you will have to share about their adoption, especially to people who knew your family before the adoption. But your story is not their story. You don’t get to share the juicy details just because you were witness to it. Because one day your sibling will grow up and have to reconcile with their history and identity, and how they choose to tell it; they don’t need strangers knowing more of the details that even they may. Don’t make any of their past sufferings some badge for your own self-serving purposes, like “look at how selfless *my* family is”. It’s your job to protect your siblings now. That’s sacred. Don’t you dare exploit that.
Of course, people may know the circumstances so I’d recommend sharing with close friends and family the amount of privacy desired when the adoption is discussed. At its core, it’s not about keeping secrets or on the flip side, tugging at heartstrings with gory details; it’s just about respect.
Recently a local publication shared the graphic details of an adopted child’s past trauma in a glowing recommendation for an adoptive mother for a Best Mom contest. It was gratuitous, irresponsible, and will always be out there without the child’s permission. We get it, adoptive moms are amazing; we can know that without the specific details of trauma, thank you very much.
If you don’t live at home, don’t forget to keep building on your relationship
Let your sibling know you care for them and think about them. You don’t want to be some mysterious, unwelcoming figure in their mind. Postcards, small gifts, phone calls, and pictures can help remind them of your love. They may not appreciate it now but this effort will be invaluable down the road.
You have a responsibility to help your parents
Adoption must be supported as a society, as a community, and as a whole family. Sorry, this isn’t some “you’re grown so here’s your Get Out of Responsibility Free Card”. If you had a happy childhood, it’s your moral obligation to ensure that your sibling grows up happy. If your parents provided for you, your siblings deserve that too. So you babysit if you can. Chip in on chores. Offer to drive. That’s family.
It’s not only a biblical mandate to support adoption and objectively the right thing to do, but it’s rewarding. You get to be on the ground floor of relationship-building and you get to show your love and appreciation to your parents in a tangible way. Maybe it’s just vocalizing to your parents that you’re proud of the amazing thing they did; trust me, sometimes hearing it from you is help enough.
You have the blessing to be their sibling
It’s fun but also extremely powerful. Your family gets to experience a concept of family that not many others get to; you get to know point-blank the tenacity of your family's love and dedication to each other. Celebrate every moment because that will get you through the hard times (and there will most certainly be hard times). Have fun!
Always remember, you now have one more sibling who will take your side even when you’re obviously wrong, who will call you some day to laugh about that embarrassing thing your mom always does, who will want you to take them back-to-school shopping, another Scrabble partner, and Christmas gift-giver. You’re so lucky!