If you are preparing to adopt a child, you probably already have an inkling of how daunting a process it is — and just how rewarding it will be. It’s important, however, to remember that all members of your family are preparing to welcome a new child into their home, and some may struggle to adapt to the change. This can be particularly true of your birth children. Luckily, there are concrete steps you can take to prepare your family unit for an adoptive sibling and make the transition as smooth as possible.
1. Start the discussion early.
Exactly when you start discussing the adoption with a birth child largely depends on his or her age and development. In general, children old enough to grasp concepts of time are more likely to need longer to prepare for something as life-changing as a new sibling. For younger children, who don’t yet know the meaning of a day or a week or maybe a month, the time needed to prepare is much shorter.
Of course, this also depends on each individual child’s personality. Some children adapt more easily than others, while some struggle with change. Some children want nothing more than an adoptive sibling, while others may be wary. In the end, you know your child best, so be thoughtful of his or her individual character in making this decision.
2. Discuss the definition of family.
A good way to introduce the topic of adoption, especially to younger children, is to discuss the definition of family. Help them understand that not every family looks the same: some have several generations living under one roof, some have just one parent, and others have two parents of the same sex. It is helpful to draw examples from your community or people the child knows to illustrate this. Assist them in coming to the conclusion that the true definition of a family is simply a circle of people who celebrate each other’s accomplishments, support each other through struggles, and are committed to sharing their journeys.
3. Teach your family and friends the proper vocabulary.
We’ve all heard someone use the term “real mom” instead of “birth mom” or “biological mom.” In fact, the general public talks about adoption ineffectively and with words that often disrespect those who live within the complex relationships that make up adoption. Though it isn’t done out of malice, that does not erase the hurt it can cause. Take the example of “real mom.” Aside from being dismissive of the adoptive mother, this can make the adopted child feel alone, without a parent of his or her “own” — especially in cases where the birth parent is no longer involved.
By learning the compassionate vocabulary of adoption and then teaching it to your family and friends, you’re setting them up to communicate effectively with the new member of your family. This includes friends, neighbors and extended family.
What exactly does this look like? Set the example by using terms like “birth child,” “adopted child,” and “placed for adoption” rather than “put up for adoption.” Encourage your birth children to talk to their new adoptive sibling with words like “brother” or “sister” and “our parents.”
4. Prepare answers for the big and intrusive questions.
The circumstances involved in adoption will inevitably create complex questions from your children and even complete strangers. Preparing answers in advance ensures you aren’t caught off guard.
One of the most common is this: “Why did ____’s birth parents decide not to care for him/her?” You want to be careful never to criticize the birth parents, because those people are an integral part of your adopted child. Instead, frame the answer as positively as you can. Perhaps your adopted child’s birth parents didn’t actively choose to place the child for adoption. Or, if they did, you can simply recognize the difficult and selfless act of love the birth parents performed in placing their child for adoption so he or she could be cared for properly.
Adoptive parents may also experience adverse reactions, both from people they know and from complete strangers. This is especially true of “visible adoptions” — situations where the adopted child’s appearance is visibly different from that of the adoptive family. Strangers frequently take this as license to ask inappropriate questions that may be offensive to the adoptive family, the birth family or both.
5. Practice flexibility.
As much as you might prepare for specific changes before your adopted child arrives, there are still unexpected ways his or her arrival will affect the household. Be flexible. And encourage your family to do the same. From bed-time rituals to meal times, everything will be different once you add a new family member to the mix. It is impossible to anticipate how everything will change, which is why it’s important not to deny this but instead help your children see that not all change is negative.
6. Promote excitement around the adoptive sibling!
Like any family preparing for the arrival of a new sibling, it helps to promote the positives and the excitement that will undoubtedly surround the new child’s arrival. Help your birth children find similarities and things they have in common with their adoptive sibling. Stress how great it will be to have a new playmate. If your birth child is still associating the excitement with negative feelings, another option is to assign he or she an important “job” in the transition process. Emphasize how important this role is — and how fun it will be!
7. Check in regularly.
Your birth children will be experiencing a lot of emotions in the time leading up to your adopted child’s arrival. Make sure to check in with them and ask about these emotions. They might be: scared, excited, angry, happy, sad, confused, anxious, jealous, worried, or even downright celebratory. Some children will be running around telling everyone they see about their brand-new sister or brother. Others will be quiet and reserved, and maybe less willing to reveal their emotions to you. Help your child address these emotions both before and after the new sibling arrives.
8. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help.
It’s important to remember that there are therapists with experience in the specific issues of adoption. Your family is not alone in this process and having one or more members of the family speak with a professional can greatly improve the communication and relationships in your newly expanded household.
Sparlin Mental Health (Sparlin) is one such organization with therapists experienced in the process and family impact of adoption. We provide individual and family therapy according to your family’s unique needs. This may include trauma treatment if the adoptive sibling has a history of trauma, sibling therapy if that relationship needs improvement, or therapy to address parenting issues.
Your family is going through an extraordinary change, and we’re here to make sure it goes smoothly. Contact us today to speak with someone about how Sparlin can help.