Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Same Family...Different Stories

Families with more than one adopted child obviously have children with different stories about how they joined the family. There are families who have of both biological children in the family and children who became part of the family through adoption. And of course, all families have children adopted through different adoption processes – domestic, international, perhaps all international but from different countries, public or private domestic adoption, and the list goes on and on. Even children who are adopted through the same process, e.g. private domestic (agency or independent adoptions) will certainly have their own unique story.  

The various differences create both enriching experiences as well as some interesting challenges.

One of the most important challenges for parents usually relates to concerns about siblings relationships and the perception each child has of his place in the family: “Was it better to be born or adopted into my family?” “Are we real sisters?” or “Do Mom (or Dad)  like you the most because you are the same color as they are?” In addition, they may worry about how outsiders’ comments about the family.  Most parents hope for wonderful, peaceful, and close relationships between their children, but as parents, we know that realistically this is not always be the case. No matter how we all grew up, parents can't predict how sibling relationships turn out....so it becomes important for adoptive parents to understand that when there is sibling friction or rivalry, it is not likely that it is due to how the child(ren) joined the family.  In fact, it's probably just very normal!  We must remember that sibling relationships are so complex – so much is dependent on each child’s unique personality and temperament ... so sibling relationships are not always easy to influence--or control.
That being said, there are many ways for parents to help to influence sibling relationships in a positive way.

Comparisons (ick!)
For adoptive parents with more than one child, an important task is to diminish comparisons that might imply there's a difference in children’s role or "status" in the family because of the route they joined the family. For example: parents need to be free to express their positive feelings about giving birth to a child as well as the joy they have experienced through the adoption of another child. We can't deny our feelings in an attempt to protect children from the realities of these wonderful differences. A family who was there for one child’s birth can be glad for that experience as well as the excitement of flying to Texas to pick up their daughter. Through both indirect and direct ways, parents must continually send the message to their children that how each child joined the family is different - and wonderful - not better or worse.

Unfortunately, despite our repeated attempts at sending this message, children may reach their own conclusions about the differences and decide that their story was the "best" way or the "worst" way compared to a sibling’s. Sometimes a biological child may think it’s better to have been born to parents than adopted, but he just might also think that his sibling’s adoption story is so interesting and exciting that maybe adoption is better. (I'm pretty sure my biological children think adoption is the "best".  We gotta work on that!) When adopted children compare their stories, they may decide that one is “better” than the other - “He came as a baby so Mom and Dad love him more.” or  “She’s the luckiest. She gets presents from her birth mother and gets to visit her, and I don’t know my birth mother at all.”) Sometimes one child may have more information about his birth family than his sibling(s); one child has a picture, another doesn’t; one knows about both birth parents, another only about his birthmother, etc., all of which can potentially create feelings of confusion and jealousy.

Some parents try to minimize their children’s pain by denying one child something to try to protect another. For example, they may want to limit contact with one child’s birthmother because there is no possibility of contact for another child. This would be a big mistake because the child without contact could benefit enormously from contact with his siblings’ birth parent despite the possible jealousy or pain it may cause. We have no contact with our 10 year old's birthmother (the birthmother wanted a closed adoption once she placed). We have an open adoption with our 3 year old's birthmother. When her birthmother came to town several months ago, having her visit with our family, even though our 3 year old didn't understand that this was her birthmother, I feel our 10 year old really enjoyed visiting with this birthmother and asking her questions.

In another example, I heard a story heard recently of an adoptive mother of two children who are now adults.  The adoptive mother never gave her first child a blanket that had been knitted for him by his birthmother because she didn't have anything to give the other adopted child. It seems it would be better to not deprive one child of something meaningful and special, and instead, try to help the other child develop coping skills for sadness, disappointment, and even anger.

Comparisons are rarely a good thing, especially in adoption.  Parents may want to consider making a family policy that differences are not to be used to hurt each other... but again, as parents, we know we can't control what goes on all the time. If parents try pick up on hurt feelings from their child, they can be more ready to provide reassurance and comfort to the child. They will be able to offer reassurance that what the child has heard (or maybe feels) from a sibling does not match the parents’ feelings and attitude. It is crucial, however, to never discount the feelings of the child. Perhaps the parent could say, “I know you wish you had been with us when you were a baby, like your sister was. It seems that you're worried we might favor him because of that, but that’s not at all how Dad and I feel. We love you. But I certainly understand how you might feel this way.” Providing reassurance and validating feelings leaves the door of communication wide open for a child to express more feelings...ahh...every parent's goal!

Regardless of the route in which children entered the family, it is crucial for them to have a clear understanding of the reasons the family decided to adopt each child. As Holly van Gulden points out in Real Parents, Real Children, "it is important for children to believe the parents’ motivation was based on love for a child, not a cause or some need the child would fulfill. Adopted children do not want to grow up believing that they were, in effect, a project for the parents. In bio/adopt families, if a child was adopted first into the family, they may also think they are no longer needed when the parents become pregnant. Birth children may think their parents adopted because they were not the right gender (or race). These thoughts may seem absurd or irrational to adoptive parents, but they may make perfect sense to their children. With this realization, parents can proactively make statements to help defuse the power of these musings." Read that again.  It's beautiful.

Promote Your Children’s Individual Strengths
A great way to ensure that children feel equally valued is to be very clear about the each unique and special characteristics each child brings to the family. As parents, we often connect to our children for different reasons, and sometimes it's easier to connect with one child than to another. (And siblings, too, may connect for reasons having nothing to do with how they came into the family.) When families embrace a shared family culture that is based on differences as well as similarities that are valued by everyone, they are able to weather doubts about their connections to their parents. For example, a family who has been more geared toward academics can celebrate the uniqueness of a child who is athletic and recognize in a positive way that this talent is definitely a gift from the child's birth parents!

Providing Children With Individual Attention
Can we ever do this enough? It seems so obvious, but it's is not always easy for parents to give each child in the family individual quality time. Different amounts of attention may be based on the child’s particular needs (a child who has learning disabilities certainly needs more help with homework) or stage of development – (a toddler definitely requires more help.) But children can perceive these differences incorrectly, and despite our reasonable and lengthy explanations, they still worry that attention differences are favoritism. Given this reality, as parents, let's be aware of our children’s feelings and acknowledge them. And of course, children can also try to manipulate parents into paying attention- or even get certain privileges– by charging that they are being treated unfairly: “You let him go with his friends, why can’t I?”) Try to not overreact when children try to use adoption as a hook - like, “You aren’t my real mother!” or “You love him more because he’s white like you!"and the list goes on and on...again...'normal' childhood behavior.

If we are consistent with our love and reassurance, and open and honest when questions come up, we are creating a family that is able to celebrate differences - and similarities - appropriately, and hopefully create love and harmony in our homes.  And isn't that ultimately the goal of all parents...adoptive or otherwise? 


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