Sibling Connections

By Deb Shrier, MSW, LCSW

Family configurations come in all shapes and sizes. With a greater amount of openness being shared between biological and adoptive families, not only are birth parents a part of the adoption story, but information regarding birth siblings may exist as well. Although sibling groups may be adopted together, it is not always possible due to the needs of the children or the adoptive family. Regardless, the connection amongst birth siblings remains important. An increasing number of adoptive families are choosing to help foster relationships with the families who have adopted their child's birth siblings. (See featured family articles on our website.) The following questions focus on some of the issues stemming from the topic of birth sibling relationships.

Due to my present circumstances, I can't adopt my 4-year old son's birth sibling. Will this be difficult for my child? How do I explain this to him later on?

The fact that your child has a birth sibling living in another family is important information to share. While you state that it is not possible for you to adopt your child's birth sibling, are you willing to maintain contact with the family that does? Sibling connections are important and are usually very positive experiences for a child. Ongoing contact between adoptive families and birth siblings are a great way to keep the children connected to one another and to foster healthy adoptive family and birth sibling relationships!

My wife and I are open to having contact with our child's birth sibling and his adoptive family. While we are aware of the benefits this relationship may provide, are there challenges as well?

These kinds of family relationships are complicated and there are always issues to juggle. The benefits for the children as well as their respective adoptive families can be wonderful. For example, children will have a biological connection, and adoptive parents may gain additional information regarding biological family and children's experiences prior to their adoption. Children often find some comfort in knowing someone "just like them."

Challenges in family relationships present themselves differently over time. Children may be very different from one another. Questions may arise regarding why birth siblings couldn't stay together. Each set of parents who has adopted the siblings may have a different style of parenting or family life. As with all relationships, you need to find what is most comfortable for you and your family. These relationships evolve and develop over time (more/less contact) as the needs of your children/families change.

We have a wonderful relationship with the family who adopted my son's older birth sibling and get together a few times per year. While our families have a great time together, I have noticed that my son tends to act "differently" when he is with his birth-sister.

 It is common for children to fall into roles they may have previously had when they were living with their birth siblings. For example, one child may assert himself as a caretaker for the other siblings while another child may appear unusually distant from his/her siblings. Children will often behave differently as a result of feelings that they are unable to express verbally.

It is good to note these behaviors and to check in with your child after time spent with his sister. You might want to ask how he feels seeing his sibling. Acknowledge that the visits are probably mixed emotionally (happy and sad) and explore that idea with him further. Be sure to check your own feelings surrounding the visit without imposing your own expectations of the relationship.

If you are sensing that your child is distressed, anxious or depressed regarding the visit with a birth sibling, you may consider discussing how to work through this issue with an adoption sensitive professional.

My 9-year old daughter is very close with her biological sister and she would like to include her and her adoptive family in a project for school regarding families. I'm not sure if this is a good thing since there will most likely be lots of questions surrounding her adoption and why the sisters don't live together. Is it okay for her to share this information? How does she respond to questions that others have regarding her biological sister?

First, let me comment on your daughter's view of her family: she sees relatedness amongst all these family members in a very real way - regardless of whether or not they live together. Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone felt this way? It indicates that you have done some wonderful work with her around her adoption.

Second, your feeling about her openness within the classroom is a normal reaction - who wouldn't want to protect their child from difficult questions about a personal aspect of his/her history? Most likely, you are thinking about questions that could arise in the classroom such as why don't you live with your "real" sister, parents, family, etc.? Also, there is a good chance that your child's classmates do not understand the concept of adoption, let alone the idea of having this type of openness within two families connected by adoption.

This is a good opportunity to review the idea of "setting limits" with other people around personal information. For example, your child may be very excited to share parts of her story with her classmates, but not everything. How does she respond to questions - and does she actually need to answer every question asked? Several suggestions follow:

  • Spend some time talking about what she is willing to share as well as what she would rather not discuss with peers.
  • Give her some useful, simple suggestions when addressing these issues.
  • Use role playing, where you can stage some questions and give her a chance to answer comfortably. (Think about reversing roles as well in order to address some questions you think might come up.) Help her determine a way to politely let a friend know that they have asked a question she does not wish to answer.
  • Consider talking to the teacher beforehand to get support for your child surrounding this important project.

Raising biological siblings in separate adoptive families can be challenging, but manageable, and an enriching experience for all family members involved.

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