It is very common for adopted children to have biological siblings who are living with their birth parents. However, for some parents (adoptive and birth parents alike), talking to their children about siblings who don't live with them can seem tricky. Even parents with a strong open adoption relationship where the children have met each other may be tempted not to introduce the fact that the children are related.
Why does this happen? Usually, it has to do with concerns parents have that explaining the children’s relationship to one another will bring up hurt feelings or questions they don’t know how or are afraid to address. The concerns sound something like this: Won’t they be confused? Won’t they feel unloved or unwanted? Shouldn’t we just answer questions as they arise? Maybe we should wait until they’re older and able to fully understand all that goes into adoption decisions?
These fears can get in the way sometimes, so I posed these common concerns to our counseling team. Here’s their advice.
Treat the discussion about biological siblings the same way you do the topic of adoption in general. Be open and honest with your children from the very beginning. Explain the situation in words they can understand. Add to the explanation as they grow.
The earlier you tell your child about their siblings, the better. It should simply be a part of the story they’ve always known. Waiting until the child asks a question or until the child reaches some magical age is likely to mean that you never explain the relationship or that it is many years down the road. Tip toeing around the relationship may only lead your child to think you are hiding something from them or that it’s something to be ashamed of. The later you introduce this important piece of their story, the more shocking it may be to hear.
Invite your child to express their questions and concerns. They may, for instance, be worried that they aren’t secure in your home. Assure them they are. That you love them and will take care of them even though someone else is taking care of their siblings.
An adopted child may wonder why their birth mother couldn’t parent them but can parent another child. Assure them that she loved them very much and still does, but that at different times in someone’s life they can do different things.
Birth parents can feel an added burden. You may feel a need to shield the children you are parenting from any of your personal sadness around having placed a child for adoption. While this is a natural reaction, it can create a distance between you and your children around a very important topic to all of you. By sharing the fact that you are both sad that you aren’t parenting their sibling but happy with the family you chose for them you are actually explaining in simple terms that adoption is complex. Giving yourself permission to show your child that you are sad and mad about the situation even while you are confident with your decision and happy to see your child thriving in their new home will give your children permission to feel a mix of emotions, too.
Realize that children have a right to feel sad or mad about the fact that their brother or sister lives in a different family. Acknowledge this. Tell them it was a hard decision and that you understand they may not like it. Use words like “adults need to make hard decisions sometimes.” Explain that not choosing adoption would have impacted all of you, too. Use language appropriate for their age. For young children, for instance, you can say: “Sally can’t live with us. Her parents would be very sad not to have her in their family. She needs to live there.”
When talking to the child they placed, birth parents can use words like: “You know I never doubted my love for you and wanted very much to give you everything in the world. But I simply couldn’t at that time. It was hard for me to face that but it was true. So I found a family who could give you what I was not able to. And I am so happy with how this has worked out for all of us. The love that I have for your baby brother will never replace the love I have for you. I am just in a different place in my life now so I am able to be the mommy to him that your mommy is to you.”
The conversation birth parents have with the child they are parenting will sound slightly different, but it hits the same notes. Acknowledge that even though you know their brother or sister is happy where they are, you still sometimes wish they were living with you. Then add in the context. Something like: “But if we had another child, I know I wouldn’t be able to take care of you and them --- even with your help.”
If the child you’re parenting is younger than the child you placed, it could sound something like this: “When I chose Sally’s mommy and daddy, I wanted very much to be her mommy myself. It was very hard for me to choose adoption for her. But I just couldn’t be the mommy I wanted for her. I couldn’t give her everything I am able to give to you. I have always loved her, that’s why I found Jeff and Susan just for her. Now they are her mommy and daddy. And they would be very sad if she wasn’t living with them. But you are still her brother and she is still your sister and you will always have each other. ”
Reassure them that no matter what, they have a brother or sister. No matter where the brother or sister lives, they are still brothers and sisters. Explain that they will always have a special connection and that you care enough to help them nurture that bond.
A great resource for birth parents parenting other children is a book entitled Sam’s Sister.
“I know Sam is where he should be. And even though he doesn’t live with us, we will always be a part of his family.” (Sam’s Sister: Juliet Bond , Perspectives Press 2004)