On Being an Adoptive Sibling

by: Jana Hunsley 

Not one thing in this life has affected me so deeply or changed me so profoundly as the adoption of my seven siblings.  Before adoption, my home was filled with two older sisters, a younger brother, and two parents.  Life was simple, comfortable, and uncomplicated.  After adoption, everything about life was different.  Between the ages of sixteen and twenty, I gained seven siblings through adoption from different countries.  Seven.  Those of you who understand adoption can just imagine what life was like at that time.  It was difficult, uncomfortable, and every bit of complicated. 

Before I tell you any more of my story, I need to let you know that my story is not the story of every adoptive sibling, but it surprised me when I discovered it is very similar to so many of them.  No matter if the experience was dreamy or disastrous, adoption changes the life of every adoptive sibling.  Whether their view has made them never want to adopt or commit their lives to helping other vulnerable children, the adoption experience leaves a mark on every member of the adoptive family – adoptive parent, adopted child, and adoptive sibling.

When my first three brothers came home when I was sixteen, I was wholly unprepared for the changes that took place.  My two older sisters were in college, no longer living at home, which left my brother and I at home in this new world that was created for us.  From the moment we were face-to-face with those three boys halfway across the world, our whole life changed.  We all so naively believed that we were merely adding three boys to our family of six.  Not one of us was aware of the trauma, hurt, and baggage that these little boys would bring with them from their world of brokenness that they never deserved.

We never experienced any type of honeymoon period.  From the moment they were in our care, they began to destroy everything piece by piece in a way that allowed them to test all of our love for them.  The first few days of being an adoptive family involved more chaos, confusion, terror, aggression, and hysteria than we could have ever anticipated.  In a mere three days, they had exhausted every part of ourselves and left us with little hope of the days ahead.  Factor in the language barrier, and I was completely undone.

My brother, my parents, and I arrived home with my three new brothers, and we were already exhausted and overwhelmed.  After two weeks in another country with my new family, I came home to a world I did not recognize anymore.  My eyes had been opened to the realities of this world; the brokenness I experienced popped the bubble I had lived in for the first sixteen years of my life.  Important things in my teenage eyes did not matter anymore.  Friends no longer felt as close.  My family had forever changed.  I now had these three little brothers who became the center of our universe, whether we liked it or not.  I went from being the middle child and youngest girl to being the oldest child in the home and necessary third caretaker in this new family.  I no longer felt like a daughter but a helper.  Overnight, I went from being dependent on my parents to my parents being dependent on me.

I knew at the time that we all were just doing our best to survive our new normal, but that did not change the invisibility and isolation I felt.  Due to the immense needs of my new brothers, my parents were entangled in the mess of surviving the tantrums, violence, and aggression of each day.  They did not have a moment to breathe, let alone to notice their teenage daughter so immersed in this new family life with them.  I certainly was not about to share my emotions and struggles with my parents when they were doing the hard, worthy work of creating a family for these boys.  So I silenced myself.  In the meantime, I watched my stable, strong parents wither away in front of my eyes and become desperate, hopeless shells of themselves.  They became one more thing in my world that I did not recognize, and I unconsciously tried to do everything in my power to bring my once-steady parents back to life.  I dove into helping in any and every way I could to ease the burden of my parents, to remove some worry lines from their faces.  Unfortunately, my attempts did nothing, and the invisibility, loss, and loneliness I felt only grew.

People would comment on their awe and admiration at my parents and the adorableness of my new brothers, but they never once noticed the sibling.  They never knew to ask how I was doing or that this whole adoption thing affected me as much as the rest of my family simply because I was a member of this family.  Numerous times, I remember screaming in my head, “How do you not see me?”  What I know now is that no one sees.

We have done such a good job of learning to care well for children from hard places.  We have learned about trauma, attachment, sensory needs, and loss that many adopted children experienced, and families finally have the tools to care well for these children.  I have witnessed countless families know hope for the first time with these tools in their hands during my years as a clinician.  However, we are missing the mark if we think the adopted children and the adoptive parents are the only pieces necessary in piecing together the puzzle of an adoptive family.  Many of the families who choose to adopt have other children in their home, and these children are wholly affected by the entire adoption journey.  In my work as a clinician, when I witnessed families gain tools to help their adopted children, I also witnessed invisible adoptive siblings, struggling in it all but saying nothing, just like I was.  I realized then that we have no resources to support them because no one knows to notice them.

Adoption does not involve just the adopted child and adoptive parents.  It involves the siblings as well, and it is time to recognize their story – their role and experience – in the adoption journey.  The Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development is committed to improving the lives of the whole adoptive family in effort to empower every member during the process of creating a family in the midst of trauma and brokenness.

 

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.

13 Responses to “On Being an Adoptive Sibling”

  1. Jen Durbin

    This is such an important part of the adoption story. Thank you for sharing. Would love to more like this as well as ideas for additional resources.

  2. Sheila

    Thank you for sharing. I am the parent of ten children – three biological and seven adopted. When our first adopted son joined our family, our two oldest (daughters) were 8 and 10, and our bio son was 6. In the span of four years, they became siblings to seven internationally born brothers and sisters. Their part of the story is important and significant. As a parent, we strive to help them not be invisible but feel helpless sometimes amongst the challenges of trauma parenting. More resources and conversations about adoptive siblings would be such a gift!

  3. Lisa Miser

    Thank you so much for your thoughts. I can see my oldest daughter assuming that role of taking some of the burden as we raise her younger, adopted brother. I needed this reminder that she needs to be recognized, too.

  4. Maddox

    This is absolutely right on point of what it’s like of being in a family like this I had the same experience. Most of the time i feel bad because I talk about my parents not giving me enough attention and then your friends tell you about who there family is so great and I’m not saying my family is not great. It’s also hard not to blow up at the foster kids when they complain about your parents but then you don’t want to heart them because that have enough problems anyway thanks for writing this I’m 13 God bless you thanks

  5. Rachel Meurer

    Thank you for sharing your story. I have watched my eldest’s stress and weight of responsibility multiply as we adopted, though I didn’t connect the reasons. I’ve watched my second eldest change so deeply from the sparkly, cheerful girl she was. What would you say are the best ways to help siblings?

  6. Ann

    Amen!! You describe it well. We are 11 1/2 years in and still struggling after adopting an adorable 2 1/2 year old boy. Still doing the same behaviors your brothers did.
    Our biological daughter just turned 7. Absolutely turned her world upside down. I searched for any type of support for her and found none. She is now a freshman in college who couldn’t wait to get away from the ugliness. She is angry and not dealing well with it. So yes, please, please do more work on adoptive sibling support!!!

  7. Sue

    Thank you for sharing your story! I am 65 now but grew up in a family that fostered over 70 children in 30 years and have 12 siblings, 8 of them adopted. Your story rings true not only for adoptive families but foster families as well. Having grown up in our family was wonderful at times but also very difficult and painful. You’re right in that everyone thinks how wonderful the parents are for taking in other peoples’ children but not much consideration is given to children of foster/adoptive children. Keep doing what you’re doing and God bless you!

  8. Bethany Reese

    I appreciate this article so much! I work with adoptive families and would love more resources to offer for adoptive siblings. Any you can suggest or send links to would be amazing! Thank you!

  9. Jennifer Miller

    Siblings are often forgotten. My oldest son is adopted, and my younger son spends so many hours trying to entertain himself while we manage tantrums, etc with his older brother. I worry about the impact it will have on him & would love to see more resources.

  10. Heather

    Thank you for sharing. We have 3 biological children and one adopted child. The adopted child is my niece. My two biological sons struggled in some ways, yet they are grown and moved out and occasionally make comments about our adopted daughter, yet they are ok and love their sister very much. My oldest daughter struggles still even at 17, about our adopted daughter, she loves her sister, yet struggles every day. My oldest daughter was 9 1/2 yrs. old when we adopted our youngest daughter.

  11. Kim

    This is such a critical perspective to understand. I was in my 20’s and early 30’s as a foster care/adoption social worker. I spent time separately with the foster parents’ bio children, as well as the foster children I worked with. I learned so much about how hard it was for them, and I always strongly encourage families to give strong consideration to the ages and opinions of their children when they are in the foster/adoptive parent role. Thank you so much for sharing.

  12. Joy Haynes

    Do you have any additional resources we can read, watch or listen to on this topic?

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