Adopting when you already have a child is quite different than adopting when you don’t have any children. When it’s just you, or you and your partner, you simply need to consider yourself(ves). What can you handle? How are you going to prepare yourselves to adopt?
But when you’ve already added a child to your family, either by birth or adoption, you have to consider that child. The idea that a match can fall through or a country can close is hard enough for an adult to understand, but try explaining that to a child. The idea that a child is coming, but you don’t know exactly when, is also harder for a child to grasp, as young children live in the here and now, and you’re talking about maybe, someday, in the future. So how do you prepare your child for an adopted sibling?
1. Read! My go-to is always to read a book. While there are dozens of books about becoming a big brother or big sister through biology, there just aren’t a lot of books about becoming a big brother or big sister through adoption. We found Waiting for May, by Janet Morgan Stoeke, at our local library. Although it specifically discusses adoption from China, it does a great job of explaining the waiting that is common to all adoptions. There are a few other books on the topic as well:
- How I Became a Big Brother, by Dave Moore
- Bringing Asha Home, by Uma Krishnaswami
- All About Adoption: How Families Are Made and How Kids Feel About It by Marc A. Nemiroff and Jane Anunziata
- Rebecca’s Journey Home, by Brynn Olenberg Sugarman and Michelle Shapiro
- A Sister for Matthew, by Pamela Kennedy
2. Explain the process honestly. I believe that children can handle and understand a great deal more than most adults think they can. I’ve seen advice out there to simply not tell your child you’re adopting again until you have travel plans in hand. I really can’t imagine doing that. Children with siblings by biology have the opportunity to see mom’s belly grow and prepare accordingly. I believe children expecting siblings through adoption deserve the same courtesy. Explain what the process is like, what’s going to happen, and give the child a rough idea of when.
For example, we started our second adoption process when our son was 4. We explained that a social worker was coming to our house, and that he would ask some questions. We made sure our son knew to answer them honestly. We explained that we had to do a lot of paperwork and create a scrapbook so a pregnant lady might choose us. Then, when we were matched, we made sure to tell him that she could change her mind at any time. Indeed, we were matched three times—the first match failed and the second was a scam. That’s a lot of fun to explain to a 5-year-old. But we felt that we had to be as honest as possible, so he was always aware of what was going on.
3. Be realistic. A pre-birth match is never a sure thing. A referral may not happen if a country closes suddenly. Biological family can pop out of the woodwork in a foster/adopt case. Make sure you’re not proclaiming that a particular child will definitely be your child’s brother or sister until you know for certain this is true. If you’re adopting from foster care, you can explain that you are taking care of the child until the social workers decide if she can go back to her family or not. If you’re waiting for an infant to be born, you can explain that the new mom thinks she wants to place her child with your family, but she has to make that choice after the baby is actually born. If you have an international adoption referral, you can explain that you think this child will be yours, but you have to do a lot of paperwork before the child comes home. This is a great time to explain the old adage, “It ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings.” Or, if you’re a Yogi Berra fan, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
4. Involve your child. As you’re getting ready for a new brother or sister, allow your child to help. Maybe he can pick out a couple of toys. Even better, maybe she can go through her own toys and decide which ones are better for a younger brother or sister. My son loved to draw and paint pictures for his baby sister, some of which we put up in her room.
5. Point out how things will be different, but also how they will be the same. If your child is an only child, going from one to two can be a big deal. You’ll want to note that you may have less time to do fun things together, that your schedule is going to depend on the other child sometimes, and that your attention will be divided. However, you should also point out that you will always love your first child, no matter what. If your child joined your family through adoption, make sure she understands that adoption is forever, and she is not being replaced by a new child.
6. Make sure you’re not all about adoption, all the time. Although the adoption process will likely consume your time and thoughts, make sure that you’re not always talking about or working on it. Continue your family activities and make time to do special things with your child. Take advantage of the time you have as a family now, before adding a sibling changes the dynamic.
7. Help your child learn to be more independent. This is one we wished we had done before we brought home a baby sister. If your child is a neurotypical child age three or older, you can absolutely start giving him some responsibilities. For younger children, you might make sure they can pick up their own toys and put them away properly, get a basic snack, and fetch objects for you when you ask. You don’t want to be trapped under a sleeping baby, unable to reach your glass of water, and then try explaining for a young child what you need him to do. Older children can learn to load the dishwasher, put away folded laundry, and do some basic, helpful household chores. You’re going to need a lot of help when the new child comes into the family, so it’s good to start implementing some chores beforehand.
Waiting is a roller coaster. Having a child at home already doesn’t really change that. Just make sure your child knows you’re all in it together.