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Parenting Biological And Adopted Children

Debra G. Smith of the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, 1996.

Years ago, if you went to an adoption agency seeking to adopt a child after having had a child by birth, you were turned down. It just wasn’t done. It was thought that you shouldn’t mix the two the children would be too different, and the difference would be insurmountable. Professionals advised against it.

Of course, the reverse order of adding children to a family was outside the control of adoption agencies. A couple might adopt first, and then have a biological child. That was their own business. But you still didn’t see many families with both birth and adopted children.

Today, we see all kinds of combinations of children in many kinds of blended families, including families with children by birth and adoption. Nowadays, adoption agencies certainly place children with families who already have biological children. In fact, when agencies recruit adoptive families for children with special needs, they look for adults with parenting experience. It is considered a plus. Birthparents who are given the opportunity to select an adoptive family sometimes like the idea that the child they are placing will have a sibling, especially if they had positive sibling relationships themselvesor always wished for a sibling.

Since the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse receives a number of requests for information on families with children by birth and adoption, we prepared this factsheet for prospective parents to address the following concerns:

What are your hopes and expectations about siblings in a family?

What are the particular issues associated with raising children by birth and adoption together?

How can you minimize sibling rivalry?

What are some resources available to help parents?

Not much had been written on this subject until recently, and a lot of what has been written is anecdotal. This factsheet attempts to synthesize what is available to help parents who are considering blending birth and adopted children or who already have created a family in this way.

Before You Adopt

In the Clearinghouse factsheet “The Sibling Bond: Its Importance in Foster Care and Adoptive Placement,” we discussed how the sibling relationship can be the longest lasting relationship that people have, lasting even longer than the relationship with parents, spouse, or children. That discussion was in the context of advocating placing biological siblings together in a foster or adoptive family when removal from the birth family is necessary. In thinking about creating a family through birth and adoption, however, it might be a good idea to focus on your own experience with siblings, and your hopes and expectations about siblings in a family.

In the book Siblings Without Rivalry, authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish relate how, when they discuss sibling issues with parents and teach them skills to minimize sibling rivalry among their children, the parents often reflect on their own experiences growing up. Their place in the familyoldest, youngest, or middlefigures prominently in their memories. One woman’s mother always compared her unfavorably to a more musically talented younger sister. Another man’s parents never protected him from a bullying big brother. These individuals had troubled adult relationships with their siblings that were not necessarily the sibling’s fault. Often the people in Faber and Mazlish’s discussion groups would end a description of the comparisons or the fights with their siblings with the expression “To this day… .” One would say, “To this day I feel like I have to be the responsible one.” Another would say, “To this day, I’m the peacemaker in any disagreement.” Thus, we know that sibling relationships are very significant in people’s lives, and that parents have a lot to do with how those relationships are perceived and integrated into a child’s sense of self.

This factsheet addresses the concerns of families who haveor are considering havingchildren by both birth and adoption. As you will see, most of the information applies both to cases where the adopted child is the first to join the family and to those where a birth child precedes an adopted child. First, however, we consider those of you who are thinking about adopting a child after you have had a child by birth.

Thinking About Adoption When You Have a Birth Child

There may be any number of reasons why you are thinking about adopting now. Maybe the first pregnancy happened easily, but the second one isn’t happening so easily. Maybe the first pregnancy occurred only with the intervention of costly and invasive medical procedures that you do not want to go through again. Maybe you have a humanitarian concern: you have been fortunate to have one child by birth and now you would like to provide a home for a child already on the planet who needs one. Perhaps you come from a big family and always envisioned a home with lots of kids running around, but biology seems to have provided you with “only” one or two.

Whatever your thinking, there are some additional questions to consider. (Some of these come from the article “Completing the Dream” by Joan Rabinor in the newsletter of Resolve of the Washington Metropolitan Area.)

Can you love and bond with an adopted child as much as you’ve bonded with your biological child?

You have a wonderful child. Why invite trouble? (This may be other people’s attitude as much as yours. How will you deal with this?)

Will your extended family favor your biological child?

To what degree are you willing to accept differences among your family members in terms of ethnicity, physical traits, special needs, and inherited abilities? How will that differentness affect your other child? (The Clearinghouse factsheet “Transracial and Transcultural Adoption” may be helpful.)

If you pursue adoption, are you giving up on the hope of another pregnancy? Can you seriously consider adoption while still trying to get pregnant?

Will you always wish you had tried a little longer to get pregnant again?

How much should you involve your child in the preparation for adoption?

The first question, the one about bonding, is very important. Your answer must be yes. But a feeling of closeness does not necessarily develop overnight. You will need to work at it, particularly if you adopt an older child who challenges you with difficult behavior, or who turns out to be a person who is quite different from you. And it can take a while even with a baby. Your biological child will watch your behavior and listen to the words you express about how family members are adjusting to one another. You will need to model acceptance, love, and inclusiveness if you want your biological child to start to feel those feelings, too.

The last question is significant as well. Ordinarily when a couple is trying to get pregnant again, they do not share that information with an older child, nor do they ask for the child’s blessing. Usually parents know what their child thinks about having more children in the family. It is something that has come up in conversation as they have observed friends and relatives adding children to their families.

If you don’t know how your child feels about having a sister or brother around, you do need to start talking about it. Because adoption has so much activity associated with it, it would be hard not to share the process with your child. After all, a social worker comes to your home, there is paperwork to complete, there may possibly be a trip to a foreign country in the planning stages or a visit with people called birthparents, and there is often a period of not knowing whether a new child will or won’t be coming to the family. A child will sense that something is going on with this activity surrounding him, so you need to discuss it. The social worker doing your home study will want to know what you are doing to set the stage for welcoming the new child, and if you have thought about the sibling conflicts that could possibly result. The more your child is involved, the more likely he or she will be invested in the outcome. Some good hints specifically about adopting a second time but that apply to any adoption are presented in Sharon Kaplan Roszia’s article, “Adopting Again: Talking to the Other Children in the Home.”

Answers to the other questions will be unique to you and your situation. They depend on what kind of dream you are completing. Are you remembering how special your older brother was for you and hoping to recreate that specialness for a child in your family? Adoption might achieve that, if you work at creating a family culture that encourages cooperation and respects all children’s unique and intrinsic value, no matter how they joined the family and what talents or special needs they may have. Is your dream to raise a bunch of athletes just like you and your siblings, to continue the family tradition of athletic achievement into the next generation? That won’t necessarily happen with adoption. If thator something like thatis your dream, you may need to hold back and reconsider. It is not fair to heap expectations upon a child who may have totally different abilities, either because of genetics, the child’s prenatal environment, the child’s early life experiences, or a combination of these.

Some Help From Research

If you are wondering how children raised in families with children by birth and adoption adjust, the research studies, while small in number, are encouraging. A study published in the June 1985 Journal of Genetic Psychology looked at 44 families with biological children only, 45 with adopted children only, and 44 with both biological and adopted children. The results indicate that adoptive placement of a child in a mixed family does not affect overall adjustment of the biological child and may, in fact, have positive effects on the adopted child.

David Brodzinsky and Anne Brodzinsky, well-known and widely read adoption researchers, published a study in the January-February 1992 issue of Child Welfare called “The Impact of Family Structure on the Adjustment of Adopted Children.” Psychological and academic adjustments were assessed in a group of 130 adopted children, 6 to 12 years of age, living in five different family constellations: only children, children with younger adopted siblings only, children with younger biological siblings only, children with older adopted siblings only, and children with older biological siblings only. Few differences were found from one cluster to another, suggesting that family structure, while complicating the dynamics of adoptive family life, plays a minor role in adoption adjustment.

A team of researchers in the Netherlands conducted a study entitled “International Adoption of Children with Siblings: Behavioral Outcomes” that was reported in the April 1994 issue of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. This study focused on the benefits to the children when biological siblings are adopted together, but one additional finding was that the presence of step- siblings or children already in the home did not appear to create problems for the children studied, nor did they run a higher risk of disrupted adoptions. Other studies on transracial adoption have similar results, such as Rita James Simon and Howard Altstein’s study, Adoption, Race, and Identity: From Infancy Through Adolescence.

After You Adopt: Similarities and Differences

Certain things are universal. It doesn’t take a research study to know that children of certain ages and in particular developmental stages act in certain ways and feel certain things. It doesn’t matter what social, genetic, legal, or biological ties children havethe people of their generation who share their house feel more like sisters and brothers than the people who don’t share their house. Children form sibling relationships before they know who was born to the parents and who was adopted.

Also, certain realities in child rearing apply no matter how children come to be part of a family. For instance, older kids generally are more competent, are held to a higher standard, and perhaps receive more privileges than younger children. No matter how children join a family, one is likely to be more talented in a particular field of endeavor than another. No matter how children join a family, girls are different from boys, and usually girls share rooms only with girls, and boys share with boys. And no matter how hard parents work at promoting cooperation, democracy, and fairness (which in reality is an impossibility), children in a family will vie for their parents’ attention and love. They will tease, fight, or take advantage of one another in order to provoke a reaction from their parents, but may also protect and defend one another or work as a team to please them. It seems we are all built craving the exclusive love and attention of our parents, and adding any more children to the mix just automatically means there is less for any one child. Thus, many issues of birth and adopted children are just sibling issues, plain and simple.

That said, there may be unique ways that biological and adopted siblings apply the basics of sibling relationships, using what is available to get what they unconsciously or consciously need at a given time. If adoption is available, and it’s a sensitive subject known to get a rise out of a sibling or parent, it could be used to tease the adopted child or cause guilt in the parent. One child might want to fit in with the crowd, and be upset that his family is perceived as “different” when they add a child of a different ethnicity to the family; another child might think it’s cool to be nonconformist and happily soak up the attention the family receives. One child may think it’s enriching to bring additional relatives into the family circle through an open adoption; another may feel it is threatening to include strangers within the family’s boundaries.

Let’s look at the situations from two common perspectives: either the adopted child feels displaced and that the biological child is preferred, or the biological child feels displaced and that the adopted child is preferred. Perhaps the biological child thinks that in his parents’ efforts to make the adopted child feel welcome and part of the family, they have totally ignored his genetic connections. He looks just like Daddy and everybody used to talk about that all the time; and now, because the new brother doesn’t look like either parent, no one ever talks about the similaritiesto avoid hurting the new brother’s feelings. He’s experienced the loss of all those warm and fuzzy feelings that looking like Daddy provided. In the second case, maybe the adopted child feels left out because she knows she was the only kid in the family who did not come out of Mommy’s womb. She has two other parents out in the world and maybe some other sisters and brothers that she doesn’t know anything about. The brothers and sisters that she lives with can do their schoolwork better because none of that stuff is ever on their minds. Their grades are better, and Mommy and Daddy like that. It’s not fair.

You must acknowledge the difference between your children by birth and adoption. Children know if you are artificially making two different things the same. They know they are different, and if you pretend that they are not they know you are lying. You must emphatically send the message that though they joined the family in different ways, each way is a good, valid way, and you treasure and love them all. You need to address the adoption issues with your children through the years as is developmentally appropriate (see, for instance, the Clearinghouse factsheets “Adoption and the Stages of Development” or “Explaining Adoption to Your Child“), but not at the expense of your children by birth.

In no family is it possible to portion out the love, time, attention, gifts, clothes, toys, and so on to each child exactly fairly. You will experience continual frustration and failure if you try. Sibling rivalry does have some positive functions. The family is a safe arena in which children can practice social skills, work out problems, handle anger and hurt, and work on the art of compromise. It is a place for children to learn appropriate responses in difficult situations before they venture out into the larger community. However, your ideal vision of “family” probably is a peaceful, happy one, not a war zone. Even though you have taken on an extra challenge in giving your particular children some additional ways to express their sibling rivalry, there are some techniques that you can use to minimize it.

Minimizing Sibling Rivalry

Faber and Mazlish’s book Siblings Without Rivalry is an excellent resource. If you are dealing with preschool, school-age, adolescent, or even adult children who are constantly teasing, bickering, and fighting, get your hands on this book at a bookstore or library and read it. It will empower you enormously. The ideas in this section all come directly from Faber and Mazlish’s book.

Faber and Mazlish believe that parents can create an atmosphere that fosters cooperation, mutual respect, and caring between siblings. Parents’ reactions can reduce competition and allow hostile feelings to be vented safely. Parents’ attitudes and words do have power, and they can lead the adversaries toward peace and perhaps to one day seeing one another as a source of pleasure and support. Your children may not ever be the best of friends, even if that is what you are secretly hoping for. But at least you can do your best to help them become adults who will listen to another person, respect the person’s point of view, respect the differences between them, and resolve the differences peacefully, even if the only solution is to agree to disagree.

The content of the boxes on the following page is from material presented in Faber and Mazlish’s book. The boxes summarize extensive discussions that we cannot repeat here and that you can read for yourself. These boxes at least give you an idea of the authors’ basic principles.

Nurturing a Shared Family Culture

Adoption educator Patricia Irwin Johnston, in her article “Sibling Attachment,” suggests a number of ways to promote a feeling of closeness among siblings of any kind. One of these is to “do all that you can to nurture a sense of shared family culture.” Two other adoption educators, Lois Melina and Holly Van Gulden, also speak about this concept. When there are natural opportunities, find ways to emphasize and comment on things that the family enjoys together, such as silly songs, rituals, funny stories, or favorite places. Remark on similarities among family members. For example, when you go out for pizza to the family’s favorite pizza restaurant, say “Boy, we sure all love pizza!” When everyone bundles up and you assign the various jobs involved in stringing up the Christmas lights on the house, and the neighbors pass by and say how nice they are, say, “Yep, that’s the Jones family tradition…we always string the lights on December 15th.” Celebrate religious observances, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and other special days in your family’s particular way that will create lasting memories for your children.

One couple with a daughter by birth who subsequently adopted a daughter established a day they call “Sisters Day.” They celebrate the day the two girls became sisters with a cake after dinner and the exchange of homemade gifts the girls make for one another. This celebration is held instead of an “Adoption Day” celebration that calls attention only to the child by adoption, and it is in addition to each girl’s birthday celebration.

Support and encourage any wholesome activity you see your children engaging in together. Even if they are conspiring against you, it’s a good sign that the sibling bond is going in the direction you want.

One parent encouraged communication between two college- age sons attending different schools at opposite ends of the State by giving them access to the parents’ long distance phone card. Of course they were lectured a number of times about using the card only for calls to one another and to the parents!

Conclusion

No matter how a child enters a family, each must be loved and valued for who he or she is. Loving each child exactly the same is an impossibility. Children come into the world with different talents, abilities, and characteristics. Parents are bound to feel differently about different children in a family for any number of reasons, not just because they joined the family one way or another. Parents can never eliminate

ACKNOWLEDGE CHILDREN’S FEELINGS

Brothers and sisters need to have their feelings about one another acknowledged.

Give the child words that identify the feeling. For example, to an angry brother whose sister took something that belonged to him: “You sound furious!”

Give the child words that might identify his wishes. “You wish she’d ask before using your things.”

AND HELP THEM HANDLE THEM

Children need to have their hurtful actions stopped. You might say: “People are not for hurting.”

Children need to be shown how to discharge angry feelings acceptably. For example, “Tell her with words how angry you are. Tell her, ‘I don’t want you to take my things without my permission.’”

Suggest a symbolic or creative activity to help him cope. “Would you like to make a sign that says ‘Private Property’ and put it on your closet door?”

Insisting on good feelings between children can lead to bad feelings and behavior. Allowing for bad feelings between children lets the good feelings come in.

AVOID COMPARISONS

Make a commitment to avoid all comparisons.

If a child has done something you do not like, there is no need to compare the behavior to that of a sibling who behaves in a more pleasing way. Simply describe the problemwhat you see or what you feeland what needs to be done.

If a child behaves in a way that you like, there is no need to let it be known that another child does not behave that way. Simply describe the good behaviorwhat you see and what you feel.

Make a commitment not to let anyone lock a child into a role, not the parents, not the child himself, and not brothers or sisters. For example, no one is “the bully” and no one is “the victim.” No one is “the messy one” or “the organized one.” All children are capable of all kinds of behaviors, and though some may be more talented in certain areas, all have the right to develop whatever talent they have and are interested in to the best of their ability.

GIVING UNEQUALLY IS OKAY

Instead of trying to give equally to each child, focus on each child’s individual needs.

Show children how they are loved uniquely.

Equal time can feel like less. Give in terms of need. However, a self-reliant child should not be shortchanged. Work at spending quality time with each child.

Children with problems do not have to be viewed as problem children. They need acceptance of their frustration; appreciation for what they have accomplished, however imperfect; and help in focusing on solutions.

WHEN CHILDREN FIGHT

Acknowledge children’s anger towards one another.

Listen to each child’s side with respect.

Show appreciation for the difficulty of the problem.

Express faith in their ability to work out a mutually agreeable solution.

If they seem stumped, offer one simple suggestion.

Leave the room.

WHEN FIGHTING HEADS TOWARD HURTING

If an injury has happened before you get to where the fight occurred, attend to the injured party rather than the aggressor.

Describe what you see.

Establish limits.

Inquire if this is a “play fight”like wrestlingor a real fight. Play fighting is allowed only by mutual consent.

Separate the kids.

WHEN CHILDREN CAN’T WORK OUT A PROBLEM BY THEMSELVES

Call a meeting of the antagonists. Explain the purpose and the ground rules.

Write down each child’s feelings and concerns, and read them aloud.

Allow time for rebuttal.

Invite everyone to come up with solutions. Write down all ideas without evaluating.

Decide upon the solutions you all can live with.

Follow up.

sibling rivalry, but they can minimize it. They can try to create an atmosphere in which each child’s contribution to the family is valued and nurtured, each child’s needs are met, and each child is encouraged to reach his or her full potential. Parents can work to create a shared family culture that encompasses all family members and surrounds them with love, respect, and security. All parents can do is their best, and hope that positive, satisfying sibling relationships will result.

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