‘In the Best Interest of the Resident Siblings’ Part One

Gaining a sibling through adoption isn’t something that kids really have much say in. Nevertheless, most kids are excited when their parents tell them the family is adopting. What most kids gaining an adopted sibling are not excited for, however, are the struggles that come to them when family dynamics shift, when they receive less attention from parents, and if their new brother or sister has trauma-related behaviors that scare them. A powerful source of information for parents looking to best prepare their children already in the home (called resident siblings) comes from other resident kids who speak about their experiences. I have interviewed several now-adult resident siblings who candidly told me what their experiences were like living with kids from trauma.

#1 Are You Going to Leave Me Too? 

It doesn’t matter how a child gains a new sibling or how excited they are about the idea, resident siblings are going to experience at least some stress when reality hits. But when a child enters the family through adoption, the resident siblings can really suffer when they don’t understand what led to their new brother or sister losing their first family. Resident kids may secretly wonder if they’ll lose theirs too. Research shows that resident children between 6 years old and puberty have a real fear of abandonment. All of the uncertainties surrounding how the new brother or sister became orphaned are the reason. One adult resident sibling told me, “I knew my sister’s biological parents were out of the picture, but in the beginning, I didn’t know why. I imagined maybe they died in a fiery car crash, and I was terrified for years whenever my parents left in the car together. I never told anyone. Eventually, I learned the real reason but not until after many sleepless nights.”

Parents have told me that they think they’re sparing their resident child distress by not sharing details of their new sibling’s early life, but in reality, resident kids fare much better by knowing something at a level they can understand and while still protecting the adopted child’s story. Even if your resident children don’t tell you they are worried, it’s good practice to periodically assure them that you are not going to leave. Give them plenty of opportunity to unburden themselves of any other fear they may have about their safety and security in the family. Talking about it helps to lower their insecurities. Other insecurities arise when the resident child doesn’t understand why their parent’s time is diverted from them to the new sibling.

#2 Why Won’t You Spend Time with Me Anymore?

Quite a few adult resident siblings told me that it was extremely difficult for them as a child to have their parents spent more time with the new sibling than with them. Those who were bothered the most didn’t understand that their new brother or sister had special needs that couldn’t be seen on the outside. One woman notes that she started feeling insecure even before her new sister joined the family. She recalls her mother was often “too busy doing paperwork to bring my new sister home to play with me like we used to do together. I didn’t understand why she needed to spend so much time on my sister-to-be when she wasn’t even here yet.”

It can be difficult for any sibling to share their parents, but even more so for resident siblings when their parents’ attention seems to always be focused on a child who is acting out. One young adult told me, “I learned later what reactive attachment disorder is, but when my brother joined the family, I had no idea what he suffered in the orphanage made him act out like he did. My parents were always doing things for him, and I didn’t know why. I resented my parents for favoring him when I was the one who always obeyed.”

Seeing parents spend more time with a sibling who’s acting out can be especially difficult for resident children when family rules seem to be one-sided in favor of the new kid.

#3 Why Doesn’t He Get in Trouble, But I Do?

Changes in family rules can be particularly tricky for siblings to navigate on their own. Every adult resident child I spoke to made up a story in their mind about why the rules changed, and the story ended up not being accurate. Some said they used to think the rule changes were because of something they’d done wrong. The younger the resident child was, the more likely he or she thought it was about them. Others suspected their parents liked the new child better than them because that child had more lenient rules. Either way, they all reported that it was really hard on them when they saw how the behaviors that result in punishment for them didn’t apply to their new siblings.

“I would never get away with talking to my parents the terrible way my brother did to them. He’d scream and cuss them out, and they’d do nothing to punish him. The first time I said one of those same cuss words in front of my mom and not even to her, I got in trouble. My brother got away with everything,” recalls one young woman. “I thought it was so unfair, until years later, I learned that he had fetal alcohol syndrome which gave him poor impulse control. I wish I knew that a lot earlier. It would have saved me a lot of resentment toward him and my parents. I hated myself for how I felt.” Resident siblings are often conflicted in their feelings for their brother or sister, and that inner battle with emotions causes them more stress than parents realize.

#4 I Feel Like the Worst Sibling in the World

Overwhelmingly, all adult resident siblings I interviewed shared that they thought they were the only person in the world who both loved their brother or sister but also resented them at times. The resident siblings all shared that they felt so terrible for not always having a positive attitude toward their brother or sister all the time. “One time, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I ranted to my best friend; we were in middle school. I confessed how hard it was on me because my twin brothers were always doing one thing or another to ruin everyone’s peaceful lives. All I needed was someone to listen to me, but what I got was a lecture from my friend that I should be more understanding since they went through so much. That was the last time I told anyone how much I was hurting, too.”

Not having someone to vent to who just listened with understanding was one of the major causes of stress for the resident siblings I talked to. “I couldn’t talk to my parents about my own issues; they were always having to deal with my sister’s problems. So, I stayed quiet and did everything I could to not get her mad. I would have liked to have talked to my parents, but the thought of causing them more trouble would have killed me.” Finding peers to talk to who ‘get it’ is something that everyone I interviewed said would have been a great help to them when they were younger.

#5 I Needed More Support Than Anyone Knew

In my conversations with adult resident siblings, all of them said they didn’t know it would be as hard on them as it was. They felt unprepared for the interpersonal challenges with their sibling and unprepared for how much their sibling’s trauma would spill out onto them. They wished they would have had some kind of training or even just family meetings where their parents could have let them know more what to expect. They realize now that their new sibling had a whole life before coming into their family, which impacted not only their sibling who lived it, but also them. Adult resident siblings looking back say that peer support or even counseling for themselves would have helped them when life got overwhelming because of the behaviors of their brother or sister.

“I thought there was something wrong with me for not being able to ‘handle it’ when my brother ran away all the time. But honestly, I was terrified for him all the time. I tried my best to keep him from running. I wish I learned how to take better care of myself during that time.”

Being equipped with the right information at the right time about trauma behaviors in some adopted children can help resident siblings manage the stress that comes to them through their brother or sister. Many that I interviewed told me that they didn’t understand that their new sibling’s behavior wasn’t ‘normal,’ and at the same time, they thought there was something wrong with them because they were stressed out by it. They thought they just had to accept the behavior and not ask for help for themselves.

#6 I’d Do It All Over Again

The two things every person I interviewed said in common was that they didn’t feel prepared for how the adoption would affect them personally, which caused them varying degrees of stress, and that they’d do it all over again. They all said adoption is worth it. They were happy to share their insights with me in hopes it would help parents better understand what resident kids need to thrive as siblings of children from trauma. They didn’t always speak up for their needs as children, but the ones I spoke to as adults were very vocal to suggest that parents should do everything they can to help their resident child understand the sibling issues that they’ll face. Adoption was an exciting time for them, the adult resident siblings said, but they needed honest conversations from their parents about how adoption would personally affect them. They needed to be prepared for tough situations.

For many resident siblings, adoption is a journey that they’re happy to be a part of. The sentiment is perfectly summed up by this adult sibling: “I wouldn’t trade my sister for anything, but at the same time, because of her, I needed a lot more from my parents than I or they realized, and I didn’t know how to ask for help.”

In part two of this three-part series on In the Best Interest of the Resident Siblings, I’ll talk about “4 Ways to Protect the Siblings from Secondary Trauma Stress.”