Lessons from Adoptive Siblings

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.



17 Responses to “Lessons from Adoptive Siblings”

  1. Jody Colt

    Thank you Jana, for your honesty and your wisdom. It is very convicting. This is something we are specifically seeking for 2 of our children as siblings and are hopeful to do this at Hope Connection 2.0 It scares me a little but I would curious if my 9 year old would like to give his input. Are you going to reach younger or only adult siblings?

  2. Sheila

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! for this! As the momma of ten, seven of whom came to our family through international adoption, the impact that our family’s stories and lives have had on our biological kiddos is not unseen. Our oldest is almost 16, she was 10 when her first adopted brother joined our family. I would love to see tangible ways to connect our oldest bios especially, ages 16 and 14, with other adoptive siblings … for support, encouragement, and understanding.

  3. Lori

    Yes very well said! We are over 8 years into our journey. Our 3 adoptive siblings were 9,6&4 and 4 adopted siblings were 8,6,5&3. They are now 11 – almost 18. It is a complete roller coaster of emotions as the past trauma and the drama related to growing up are colliding with full force. Out of the beauty and the ashes our oldest is seriously considering a path in counseling focusing on trauma and therapy using drama as one tool. It’s a journey that has affected and is affecting our entire family, but there is beauty in the midst of it all.

  4. Erin Sakryd

    My daughter (bio) would love to be a part of the study if possible. Her sister joined our family they adoption 13 years ago.

  5. Leslie Clark

    Jana- What a blessing your transparency has been to our family and especially my Isabella. For the first time since adoption your sibling groups made her thoughts and feelings feel validated and understood. We have learned how to better support and love her too. Thank you!

  6. Ashley West

    Hi Jody! At this point the study will be limited to adult siblings.

  7. Michelle Batten

    As an adult sibling to an adopted sister and many foster siblings, I must say, well said! Several times as I read this I thought, “Yes if they had known.”
    In the 70s there was no labels or help for the dissorganized attachment of a one year old and no understanding of the neurodiversity of an adopted teen. My sister in particular was as equally misunderstood as I may have been as her sibling.
    But I also want to add for adoptive and foster parents, these changes, the hard and the nearly impossible are also so good. I can’t imagine not having known there was such deep brokenness in the world and more importantly discovering there is also hope and healing. It is why I work with the families I work with.
    I love the comment, “Talking about the hard does not discount all the good.” Know too, that the hard itself (real and big and ugly at times) can be redeemed for good.

  8. Mary Beth Millward

    Not sure how to connect on this one. My 18 and 22yo daughters who have been part of the foster/adopt journey for 9 years are interested in participating.

  9. Ashley West

    Hi Mary Beth! Check in with our social media tomorrow, late afternoon. We will be posting more details on how they can help!

  10. Heidi Gauss

    We have three bio sons and three adopted daughters who are biological sisters. The boys were 7, 10, & 13 when the girls joined our family at 4, almost 3 & almost 2. We are almost six years into our journey. I would love to have our family share experiences and emotions.

  11. Laura Adam

    I am so broken by the affects of the two children who are now teenagers that we brought into our home. 14 years ago, we were blind to the horrible, raw, brutal things these children would bring into our home at only 2 and 3 years old. My bio daughter is 20 now and hates to come home. She is bitter and horribly sad about the way her parents are so broken and sad all of the time. She is still a beautiful part of their lives and we get away as often as we can to see her. When we get back after a few hours visit, we find tragedy even after locking up the doors and on and on. ( they are never unsupervised) Right now I do not see any beauty in the midst of any of this. Only heart ache and regret. I can only imagine what m bio daughter feels. I know God is in control but I think the truth needs to be addressed by what these kids can do to families. It is not fair to adopt these kids out without people knowing what they are getting into.

  12. Faith

    Interested to hear how the research is going and/or results. I heard you speak at the Hope for the Journey Conference and was significantly touched by how I relate.

  13. Hope

    Is there a way to connect with Jana? I am desperately looking for some counsel on how to help my teen bio daughter who was under our older two adopted kids’ trauma her entire life.

  14. Marie

    Thank you so much for this post.

    I have been searching for resources for adoptive siblings for what seems like years. I grew up in a house with 15 siblings and 8 foster kids in and out. My parents had 3 bio kids and I was the middle child. They started adopting when I was 4 and continued to adopt/foster till I was around 13. They adopted 12 children, 8 internationally and the rest within the country. The second hand trauma and abuse that I experienced has effected me into my young adult life. Hearing your story along with reading the comments is mind blowing to me because I haven’t come across anyone who’s story is remotely similar to mine.

    As an adoptive sibling I really struggle with anger/bitterness toward my adoptive siblings now as a young adult along with the same feelings towards my parents.

    Adoption did open my eyes to the suffering of the world at an early age and it did give me a lot of empathy for my siblings. But I always felt unable to talk about my hardships as a bio kid because all my siblings had been through much worse than me.

    I spent my entire childhood pushing my needs to the side in order to please my parents and whoever was the new sibling in the house at the time. I never got to develop healthy relationships with my bio siblings because of all the chaos.

    The yelling, things being thrown, slamming doors, boundaries never respected, stealing, bullying, lying, being gas lighted constantly by siblings who lie about everything, seeing my mother have nervous breakdowns everyday.

    Many of my siblings came from severe trauma back grounds and I grew up not knowing anything different. I believe adopting fewer children in a home makes a bigger difference in the long run. Especially if those children come from traumatic abusive back grounds.

    Thank you again for sharing your story and creating resources for adoptive siblings. All the articles I ever found as a teenager were by moms who were boasting about how great, empathetic and helpful their bio kids were. It’s so nice to get a real perspective from someone who’s actually experienced it.

    (Sorry for the long comment)

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