by: Jana Hunsley
I have sat down to write these words too many times. It’s hard because you do not know me or my heart. In complete transparency, I worry that you will think I am complaining or having a pity party or believing the plight of siblings is somehow worse than that of children from hard places. Even worse, I worry that through giving voice to some of the hard things, people will walk away from reading this post with a negative view of adoption and children from hard places. These fears make it difficult to write on this topic.
The truth is I can only share these words with you because of my adopted siblings. From the moment my siblings entered my life, they showed me the world in all its rawness—the beauty and devastation mixed so fully together. And I have learned to live in this world where beauty and devastation, good and bad, sorrow and joy co-exist so effortlessly.
I know not everyone can live in this dichotomized space as easily, and this knowledge kept me silent about my experience as an adoptive sibling for many years. My silence continued until I became a post-adoption therapist and had my first adoptive family on my caseload. What I saw in the adoptive sibling’s demeanor felt so familiar, so heartrending. And then I started seeing the same pattern in each of my families – the adoptive siblings who can go unnoticed in their silent hurt.
As a therapist, I had the opportunity to help many siblings and families heal from the brokenness that can seep into the adoptive family system. I still get this privilege through leading the adoptive sibling work at Hope Connection 2.0 – a therapeutic camp intervention that addresses the needs of every single member of the adoptive family.
Through this work with siblings and families, I have discovered themes and patterns emerge that, while not universal, are consistently found in adoptive families. Here is what I have learned:
1. Parents, you are not failing.I need you to hear this – you didn’t know what you didn’t know. Your guilt, shame, or stress over (unintentionally) exposing your kids to a whole lot of brokenness does not change or help anything. I encourage you to own the way it affected your children and apologize – do not dismiss it or become wrapped up in it. It was unintentional. You could not have known how deeply this whole process was going to affect you and your family.
2. Siblings can struggle with watching their once seemingly steadfast, stable parents be overwhelmed and burdened. Parents often think they are good at hiding their feelings and their worry and stress, but they typically are not. Children pay attention to everything that happens in the family system because it is their safe base; the parents’ demeanor is their thermometer for how secure the family is at any given time. Children can feel the tension, see the worry etched across their parents’ faces, and hear the whispered conversations about what to do. The worry and stress of the parents cause the children to feel worried and stressed because families are emotionally interdependent – the emotional state of one family member affects that of the others. When parents shift from being stable and secure to being stressed and overwhelmed this can feel unsafe and uneasy to the children in the family.
3. The siblings’ eyes are opened to the brokenness in this world through adoption.Siblings experience the brokenness of this world in two ways: one is through learning of the brokenness that brought their adopted siblings into their family and the second is through witnessing that brokenness manifest itself through emotional and behavioral struggles in their daily home life. Through adoption, siblings can be exposed to things they have never witnessed previously and possibly never even knew existed. This exposure can be a lot for siblings to experience all at once. Ultimately, the experience of adoption doesn’t just change the family make-up, it can change one’s entire worldview.
4. Siblings are yearning to be seen, to be valued for just being themselves.This is probably the most important lesson learned of all. The realities of adoption can sometimes lead to siblings being (unintentionally) cast aside when the needs of the adopted children become all-consuming. Not only do siblings then feel invisible, but they also often unconsciously jump in to a different role in the family in effort to be seen and valued. Most often this is the role of helper – trying to ease the burdens of their parents and help their adopted siblings. Sometimes this means they take on some of the trauma-related behavior of their adopted siblings, as they see that this behavior is successful at gaining their parents’ attention.
5. It can be hard for siblings to express their thoughts and feelings about adoption. The difficulty lies in fear: fear of being misunderstood, fear that talking about (or even acknowledging) the hard means they don’t love or want their adopted siblings, fear that other people will judge them for their words, or even fear in the lack of response they will receive. Many siblings struggle to voice their feelings because of the response they will get. It is hard to be vulnerable when there is a good chance the vulnerability will be met with dismissing, ignoring, blaming, or judging. But it is important to remember: talking about the hard doesn’t discount all the good that comes from adoption. The beauty and devastation, good and bad, sorrow and joy co-exist in adoption. You are not giving honor to the hard road every member of the adoptive family has walked if only joy is safe to verbalize.
Applying these lessons is really all about communication and connection. Here are a few ideas to get started:
- Create an environment in your family where it is safe to openly talk about feelings. This means that feelings are not dismissed, ignored, or judged, but, instead, are discussed, respected, and valid.
- Siblings need to hear they’re precious and valued for just being themselves, that they do not need to doanything to earn value in their family. State their worth again and again and again.
- Build in time for one-on-one connection. It can be as simple as 10 minutes of undivided attention. Remember that siblings often feel invisible so any time you focus solely on them, you are saying, “I see you.”
- Honor the sorrow and joy that co-exist in adoption.It can be difficult for parents to sit in the hurt their children are experiencing (see lesson #1), especially when it is a direct result of a parent’s decision to adopt. It can be much easier to just dismiss the hurt, but that only leads to more hurt in the long-term.
We are just beginning to understand the experience of adoptive siblings, how they impact the adoptive family, and how to best support the whole family. We are doing some of this work through Hope Connection 2.0, and this experience has already been more powerful than we could have planned. What we know to be true is that each adoptive sibling has a unique story, even though the themes may be similar. As we move toward providing hope and healing for the entire family, we want the adoptive sibling experience to be part of the discussion and we want to be able to discuss it well. For that, we will need your help. In the coming weeks, we will be reaching out to hear more stories from adoptive siblings as part of a research study and we would love for you to help us change the world for the entire adoptive family.
Jana Hunsley is a Graduate Research Assistant at the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development (KPICD), and she is pursuing her PhD in experimental psychology. Her main focus is how to help each member of the adoptive family heal and experience hope. Prior to coming to the KPICD, she earned her Masters in Social Work from the University of Chicago and then worked with adoptive families as a Post-Adoption Therapist in the Philadelphia, PA area. Jana has eleven brothers and sisters – seven of whom came to her family through international adoption. Being their older sister has been the greatest gift she never asked to receive.