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People who are brother or sister to one another, either through a birth or an adoptive relationship (by sharing the same birthmother or through adoption). An adopted child who is unrelated to children already in a family or who follow him through birth or adoption does not refer to these children as his "half" brothers or sisters: they are his brothers or sisters.

A child who is adopted may be placed with his or her other full or half siblings or may be placed in a family that already has adopted children or children by birth. In addition, the parents may adopt more children in later years or may have additional children by birth. (It is a myth that a good way to cure infertility is to adopt children. See PREGNANCY AFTER ADOPTION.)

Many children who are adopted are only children because the adoptive parents do not already have children and do not adopt again. Consequently, these children will not have siblings in the adoptive family. They may, however, have full- or half-genetic siblings within their birth family. (See ONLY CHILD ADOPTIVE FAMILIES.)

In other cases, sibling groups are placed in an adoptive family, and the consensus among adoption professionals is that siblings should be adopted together whenever possible. In a paper on siblings, social worker Kathryn Donley has said, "Only under the most extraordinary circumstances should prospective parents consider the placement of just one of the children from a family group."

She also urges that existing sibling relationships should be considered and their meanings fully explored. Children's wishes should also be considered. Donley says it's important to remember that sibling relationships can be lifelong and often when adopted adults search, they search for a sibling.

Margaret Ward, an instructor at Cambrian College in Ontario, Canada, describes several key characteristics adoption workers should look for when fitting sibling groups into their new families. One is administrative ability and the capability of juggling Boy Scout meetings with dance classes, doctor appointments and so forth, along with the basics of running a home.

The ability to cope with emergencies was also seen as important, and the more children in the family, the greater the probability there will be emergencies. According to Ward, "Parents need to possess, or to develop, a relative unflappability. If they become too excited or panicky, the crisis will be escalated by an additional behavioral or emotional chain reaction in the rest of the family."

The ability to promote healthy family interaction and cope with sibling rivalry and group dynamics is also important when siblings are newly added to a family. Parents must be sensitized to existing relationships between children.

Other characteristics Ward identified as important included the "ability to survive in the community" and deal with the school system and other institutions; the availability of support systems, such as adoptive parent support groups, relatives, friends; the ability for the wife and husband to provide each other mutual support and not heap all parental tasks on one person; and the ability to adapt.

When children are adopted into an already existing family, the BIRTH ORDER is altered, and the former child who was the "baby" of the family may well find himself the "middle child," while the oldest child could lose his authority and become a middle child.

Adopting parents should prepare children already in the home as much as possible for the inevitable changes, whether the child to be adopted is an infant or an older child. The whole family needs to understand that there will be frustrations and stresses, particularly when adopting an older child.

Many people who adopt older children already do have children in the home, or they may have raised a family at a relatively young age and opted to parent another family through adoption.

When parents adopt a school-age child, siblings in the home may have unreasonable expectations placed on them; for example, they may be told of the deprived conditions the child lived under and are urged to be understanding.

This may be difficult when the new child moves out of the honeymoon stage of the initial phase of adoption, when she is on her best behavior, to the testing stage when misbehavior is very common.

In addition, the newly adopted child may not feel very grateful about her adoption, which can annoy the "old" siblings who are trying to feel sorry for her and expect her to appreciate it. When siblings or when one newly adopted child is placed in a home with children, there is a great deal of adjustment to be made by everyone.

Social worker Carole Depp says sometimes one or more of the siblings in an adoption of siblings may have severe problems. In such a case, she advises, "the best plan may be to stagger the placement of the children with the family . . . visits of a sibling with the child or children not yet placed should be arranged. If the most needful child is placed first, then some of the healing process can begin before the family assumes responsibility for additional siblings."


As with most other facets of adoption and indeed with life in general, adolescence appears to be the most difficult stage for both adopted persons and siblings of adopted persons. (See ADOLESCENT ADOPTED PERSONS for a further discussion of adopted teenagers.)

Margaret Ward and John H. Lewko studied families adopting school-age children after they already had existing adopted or biological children, concentrating on adolescents.

Using a questionnaire for adolescents who already lived in the home, the researchers identified several problem areas. According to Ward and Lewko, "Difficulties with all siblings were seen primarily as hassles. The adoptee was, however, reported as creating more problems than 'old' siblings."

The respondents complained the most about the newly adopted child's lying, interfering with privacy and failing to obey rules. "Old" siblings were also rated by other old siblings, and sisters were accused of using bad language while brothers were "more likely to practice inadequate hygiene" and not "pay attention to the rules" more than the new adopted child.

According to the researchers, "The appropriate behavior for a resident adolescent is to teach the new child the rules of the family game. Yet the behavior of the new child can upset the adolescent. The daily hassles can add up to severe stress, as indicated by the respondent who stated that she wanted no children at all as a result of the adoption . . . instead of establishing a helpful attitude toward the new child, the adolescent may become alienated."

Adopting Sibling Groups

Although once it was considered acceptable or necessary to separate siblings and to place them into different adoptive families, agencies make strenuous attempts to place sibling groups together into the same family so they will not undergo a further trauma of separation.

When sibling groups are small, with two siblings of a relatively young age, placement is far easier than when sibling groups of three or more need to be placed. (Groups may be as large as seven or more!)

Sometimes siblings are separated when one wishes to be adopted and the other does not wish to be adopted or is unready to make a commitment. If it is felt by the social worker to be in the child's best interests, then the children may be physically separated. Of course if siblings are abusive to one another, they will be separated.


In the past, particularly during the Depression era (the early 1930s), it was deemed acceptable to separate twins into different adopting families. Usually this was done because the couple could not handle the stress and financial cost of raising twins.

Social workers today believe it is cruel and unreasonable to separate twins and actively seek to identify adoptive families willing and able to rear both children.

Birth and Adopted Children

(Also known as BLENDED FAMILIES.)

Some people have hypothesized that when adopted children join birth children already in the family, the adopted child is the "odd man out," while the birth children are the favored ones.

Studies of such families have not borne out this fear, and instead, adopted children in families with birth children seem to have a higher self-esteem than adopted children whose siblings in the family are also adopted.

According to a study by Janet Hoopes and Leslie Stein, adopted children may feel more positive. They said, "The presence of biological siblings was viewed advantageously, i.e., as confirmation of own self-worth enhanced by the realization of their egalitarian treatment within the family."

In other words, if the adopted child felt as well-treated as the biological child(ren), self-esteem was high. Conversely, the adopted child in a family with only other adopted children doesn't know how his adoptive parents would treat biological children and may imagine that they would treat them better.

When the adopted child precedes the birth child, people may make disturbing remarks, such as "At last! Now you have a child of your own!" If the child is old enough to understand, this is a painful message, indicating the other child is more important, when in most cases the adoptive parent loves both children very much.

Disabled New Siblings

If the newly adopted child is disabled, the stress on the "old" children may be even greater than otherwise because there's more than just a new child to get used to.

Susan Maczka, director of Project S.T.A.R., a licensed adoption agency for children with developmental disabilities in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, wrote "A Head Start" for OURS magazine on how to prepare a sibling already in the home for the new child who is disabled.

According to Maczka, it is important to provide "old" siblings with information about the disability. As a result, the child will be more for new needs that must be met or for disturbing behavior that may occur. Maczka also recommends adopting parents take the child to a Special Olympics or visit with a family whose child is disabled.

In addition, she advises discussing with the child ahead of time any changes that may need to be made. "Figure out ways that your children can signal you about frustrations they may feel over those changes. Ask for your children's help in making adjustments," she advises.

Maczka says parents must not place too heavy a burden on their children when the newly adopted child arrives.

"Girls notoriously 'overdo it' in the helping area, and sometimes feel angry about it later," she says.

Sibling Rivalry

Whether siblings are genetically related or are related by adoption, it is virtually inevitable that they will disagree and argue.

Sometimes the sibling rivalry can be very intense, and although caseworkers generally strive to place biological siblings together, if the rivalry is very strong, the children may be separated.

The authors of Large Sibling Groups argue with this policy and believe such separation teaches a child that the way to resolve conflict is to leave or to separate the individuals involved rather than actually dealing with the problems surrounding the conflict. (See also SPECIAL NEEDS.)

Carole H. Depp, M.S.W., "Placing Siblings Together," Children Today 12 (March-April 1983): 14-19.

Kathryn Donley, M.S.W., "Sibling Attachments and Adoption," paper available from the National Resource Center for Special Needs Adoption, Chelsea, Michigan.

Gwen Fodge, "Bringing Home Joy," OURS, January/February 1989, 14-15.

Pam Havel, "The Geometric Component of Two," OURS, January/February 1989, 12-13.

Dorothy W. LePere, A.C.S.W., Lloyd E. Davis, A.C.S.W., Janus Couve, A.C.S.W. and Mona McDonald, A.C.S.W., Large Sibling Groups: Adoption Experiences (Washington, D.C.: Child Welfare League of America, 1986).

Susan Maczka, "A Head Start," OURS, January/February 1989, 10-11.

National Council For Adoption, "Adolescent Adoptees' 'Identity Formation' is Normal, Study Says," National Adoption Reports 6 (March-April 1985): 6.

Michael Rutter, Patrick Bolton, Richard Harrington, Ann Le Couteur, Hope Macdonald and Emily Smirnoff, "Genetic Factors in Child Psychiatric Disorders-I. A Review of Research Strategies," The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, January 1990, 3-37.

Margaret Ward, "Choosing Adoptive Families for Large Sibling Groups," Child Welfare 66 (May-June 1987): 259-268.

Margaret Ward and John H. Lewko, "Problems Experienced by Adolescents Already in Families that Adopt Older Children," Adolescence 23 (spring 1988): 221-228.

Find more information on siblings

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