Janey, age seven, was not raised in an orphanage, but her adopted brother was. Janey came from a loving, compassionate family who met all of her early needs. But for the past six months, Janey holds a secret which leads to many sleepless nights. She often imagines that her parents will one day leave her. When she closes her eyes at bedtime, she sometimes envisions multiple children in cramped sleeping quarters, feels hunger in her belly, and imagines cries from nearby cribs.
Janey’s adoptive brother, Brian, is age 8. Brian lived in a Ukrainian orphanage since before he could remember. He suffers from PTSD and often has violent outbursts that frighten Janey. Brian has been Janey’s brother for 12 months (2).
The pain and helplessness felt by Brian all those years in the orphanage has been passed on to Janey in what is called secondary traumatic stress disorder (STSD). Foster parents, adoptive parents, and even social work professionals are at risk for secondary traumatic stress (STS) because of their close proximity to traumatized children. But the most vulnerable are the siblings like Janey who are living in the home with a traumatized child (3). We’re only just beginning to recognize that being a brother or sister to a child from a trauma background affects that sibling. For Janie, the stress was too much, and she developed symptoms similar to PTSD.
Secondary Traumatic Stress
As the “secondary” in the name suggests, the cause of secondary traumatic stress is indirect. It is the stress that results from exposure to someone else’s trauma or to their trauma reactions. Janey listened to her adoptive brother Brian’s stories from the orphanage. She witnessed his temper tantrums and angry outbursts; some of which were directed at her. The children already in a home when a family adopts (called resident children) are exposed to their adopted sibling’s trauma through…
- What their sibling tells them or what they hear their sibling say
- Their sibling’s play, drawings, or stories
- The sibling’s reactions to trauma reminders
- The sibling’s reactions due to compromised emotion regulation as a result of past abuse, neglect, and trauma
Resident children’s reactions to these things can vary greatly depending on the child’s resilience. Some resident kids are troubled by what they hear and see, but their level of stress resilience enables them to bounce back. Other resident kids like Janey have lower levels of stress resilience; they may begin to experience signs of STS. These signs can include the following:
- Intrusive images or nightmares
- Nervousness or irritability
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
- Feeling disconnected from family and friends.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Even in families where the adopted child suffers from PTSD or reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and exhibits many challenging behaviors, it is possible for the resident kids to be protected against damage due to secondary traumatic stress. The good news is that there are some simple things that parents can do to reduce the level of STS in their resident child’s environment and, at the same time, can build up their child’s stress resilience. Parents can…
- Identify the external and internal stressors placed on their resident child.
- Create an open communication environment.
- Encourage emotional awareness.
- Allow their resident child to participate in peer support groups.
1. Identify external and internal stresses
There are both external and internal stresses that can weigh resident siblings down. I know this from research as well as from experiences in my family. I am a parent to five biological children and two children adopted from Russia. My biological children experienced secondary traumatic stress common to resident siblings. I researched this topic during my master’s program from 2016-2018 and have uncovered common stresses that resident siblings face. Other examples in addition to the ones already shared in Janey’s story above are having different rules for each child and not knowing why; less time with parents now; unrealistic expectations about how to be a “good sibling”; not wanting to tell their parents they need support because the sibling has had a worse or hard life; increased insecurity that their parents will leave them; too many changes to the schedule due to the sibling; being uncomfortable around the sibling’s big feelings and behaviors.
2. Open communication environment
One of the greatest inoculations against STS for resident siblings experiencing it is a parent who listens well. Sound simple? It is, but there are also many obstacles that get in the way of even the most committed listener.
Although it’s not possible or realistic to give your full attention all the time when your resident child is seeking it, there are certain times when it’s vitally important to listen well if you want to support your resident child through the challenging times. When your child talks about his feelings or the struggles he has related to being the sibling of a special needs brother or sister from a trauma background, this is the time to listen well.
I don’t think the problem is that parents don’t want to listen well; I think there are common impediments that make it harder for us. Some of them include the following: interrupting, becoming triggered by what your child says, not thinking it’s really that important, and trying to fix it for your child (4).
Interrupting. When we think of a response to our resident child before she’s even done talking, this can cause us to blurt out a solution instead of truly listening to her. Instead of interrupting, watch her demeanor and tone—focus on what your child is saying and how she is saying it. Take a second or a few breaths before you respond. This can be enough time for you to decide if the problem needs a solution or if you just need to listen more. It may feel awkward to you, but waiting until your child is done speaking before you comment sends the message that what he or she has to say is important and that you care.
Becoming triggered by what your child says. This can happen when you hear things that make you uncomfortable, and the discomfort triggers a reaction in you. This reaction may no longer have much to do with your resident child’s situation.
When my children were younger and squabbling like siblings do, I would immediately go to a dark place of remembering that I don’t have a good relationship with two of my three siblings. I’d get triggered and reactive; I wanted to fix all sibling fights for my kids and get it dealt with quickly. I’d think that if they didn’t stop fighting right now, they’d end up never speaking to one another or doing anything together when they were older. I often overreacted and wanted a solution instead of just listening when they came to me with complaints; my own history got in the way of listening well.
Not thinking it’s really that important. Parents have years of experience, and we know that things often blow over and get better on their own. But our children just haven’t had sufficient examples of their own that things often get better, so they won’t have the mature judgments that we do. Consequently, everything that goes on in their life is BIG to them.
It’s natural for us to want to talk children out of things and tell them it’s not really that important (we know that—due to our years of experience), but this can have a silencing effect on them and feel dismissive to them. Let them have their big feelings and be empathetic of their struggles, even if their struggles seem so petty to you.
Trying to fix it for them. As you begin to ‘give permission’ to your resident children to express their own needs to you, you’ll hear more of their concerns—some of which you may not have realized were present. Know that this can send you right back to being triggered and wanting to fix it.
Many times, what siblings need is just to be heard, to express their concerns or frustrations, and experience you being there for them. I see you. I’m here. Often, your child will feel better just by getting something off his chest; children don’t always want a solution.
3. Encourage emotional awareness
One of the best gifts you can give to your resident child is a strong start in managing his or her own emotions. This begins with giving children a sound understanding that their feelings should not be a source of shame and they are not less than perfect because of their strong emotional thought reactions. A child who feels shamed for her feelings becomes an adult who shames others. Children who feel comfortable with their own emotions learn to act on them appropriately and emerge mature with the tools necessary to have loving relationships in their family and with others.
Kids can be hard to figure out sometimes. If we are confused by them, can you imagine how they feel about themselves? This is where the parent can come in as a sort of feelings coach for them. We can help them build what experts call social intelligence—a term defined as the ability to manage one’s own emotions and relate well with others.
Social intelligence is the rudder necessary to navigate interpersonal relationships. It’s the breeding ground for empathy, and empathy requires a strong understanding of one’s own emotions. Before we can be attuned to the emotions of those around us, we need to be attuned to our own emotions. Our resident kids need to be comfortable with their own feelings which come to them in response to their relationship with their new sibling. They need to learn that they are not a bad person for their feelings; they need to learn how to manage their emotions in healthy ways.
4. Allow your resident child to participate in peer support groups
What is the value of knowing you are not alone with the things you are experiencing and feeling? Priceless. That’s also true for our kids. Let’s face it, our resident children are dealing with some pretty big feelings when it comes to the adopted sibling in their life. Being around others who understand those feelings can give them that boost to keep going on those days they feel like giving up on ever having a normal life again.
Peer groups can benefit you, too. While you don’t have to be super creative to support your resident child, it sure helps to have a steady source of innovative ideas for those days when your usual methods to help them cope are just not working or if you are fresh out of ideas. With peer support, your children can get suggestions from kids like them to help them not only feel understood, but also learn coping skills that their peers have used successfully. Your kids might also find it easier to talk to someone who isn’t their parent. That’s sometimes hard to hear, but the fear of judgment, even when it’s unwarranted, can make it difficult for your children to share their issues with you.
An understanding and sympathetic ear.
Who doesn’t need to vent, cry, scream, or wail when things are not going according to plan? Who else but fellow resident siblings can understand that just because today they say they hate their sibling that they don’t REALLY mean it? Not just anyone is equipped to suspend judgments and allow them to verbally release their frustrations in a safe space; those who once said it before about their own siblings can. Resident child support groups can be filled with those who understand the unique challenges of being the sibling to a child with special needs.
A time to get silly and have fun together.
All resident kids can get caught up in the day-to-day struggle of life with siblings from trauma backgrounds and can lose sight that this adoption life can be FUN, too. We’ve all been there, and it is good for them to hear firsthand from others how the harder seasons pass, and things get fun again. Sometimes, your resident children just need to go have some silliness with their peers—the ones who get them, who know their secret struggles and love them anyway.
Don’t have a formal group in your area? You can begin now to collect email addresses and phone numbers from those you meet at your own adoption support group who also have resident siblings. Keep these contacts handy so that you can arrange informal play dates or even join together to form a more structured support group for them.
Oftentimes, parents are not aware that their resident kids have been struggling with STS; a lot of this stress is behind the scenes. What’s a parent to do when she suddenly realizes that her resident kids need a lot more care and attention than she originally thought to avoid secondary traumatic stresses? In our final part of this three-part series on the needs of resident siblings, I’ll share “The Art of the Adult ‘Re-Do’: How second chances aren’t just for our kids.” It’s never too late to support the kids already in the home!
1 – Rachel Naomi Remen: “Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal” Penguin, New York,1996.
2 – Taken from the upcoming book “In their Best Interest” by this author, projected to publish in 2020.
3 – Figley, C. R. (1998). Burnout in families: the systemic costs of caring. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
4 – Taken from the upcoming book “In their Best Interest” by this author, projected to publish in 2020.