If you are reading this, I am guessing you are close to saying YES to adoption or have already done so. There is a great chance you are somewhere in the middle of the paperwork race or nearing the finish line. You have countless hours under your belt thinking about how you will love, parent and treasure your newest addition. Like a good mommy or daddy, you have been preparing your heart.
But this post isn’t about the preparations of your heart…or those of your soon-to-be son or daughter. This little ditty is about the hearts of those who are waiting to be called brother or sister to the one who waits. This post is about the child at home who lives life day to day as you shoulder the early, and not so glamorous, stages of adoption: paperwork, waiting, and the weeks that follow.
I’m an impatient person by nature so waiting isn’t my thing. Trust me when I say that I have been working on it for years and have made slow and minimal progress. Oddly though, when it came to the adoptions of our third and fourth child, I had the patience of Job. I knew that God was orchestrating an event so much grander than I could comprehend. My job was simply to pray and listen.
My worries and restless nights were eased the moment I accepted my position to trust, not question, His perfect timing. With that clarity and comfort, it became apparent that I needed to refocus my energy on the children at home to keep my one-track adoption brain in check.
As we delve into the world of preparing siblings for the adoption of a child, it is important to note that every situation is different. Varying factors including age, medical needs, birth order, trauma, language barriers, living situation, etc. will impact how the children react to each other and the newly changed living environment. Thus, it is important to adjust the following information for the developmental level of the children you are preparing… making sure it is age and content appropriate.
Now, let’s work together through the “5 Bs” of preparing children for the adoption of a sibling!
• Ladies and Gentlemen: Start your engines! You and your spouse are strongly considering adoption or have already decided to say YES! Now is the time to talk to your child/children about their thoughts and feelings regarding adoption, if you haven’t already done so. Take this time to be a good listener and answer questions thoughtfully. If you do not know the answer, be honest and ask for time to think about it. In my home, the word “orphan” raised questions that painfully squeezed my heart. Explaining to preschoolers how and why children are orphaned can be difficult even for the most seasoned parent.
• Validate your child’s concerns and address them carefully (even if they seem petty to you). Our youngest child was concerned where his baby sister would sit in the car while our oldest asked if it was possible that she could become orphaned. The two-year age difference between our kiddos at home resulted in different concerns… from being displaced as the baby to larger, more deeply rooted fears. Whatever the case, be reassuring but realistic.
• Finally, children may be resistant to the idea of adoption. Continue to keep communication lines open as you answer questions and address concerns. However, you must be prepared to let your child know adoption is an adult decision and that although you respect their opinions, the ultimate decision will be left to mom and dad. Children find safety and comfort knowing that their parents are in control.
• Up until the point of being matched with a child, conversations tend to be general and hypothetical. Once matched, you can shift your focus to something more concrete. Share the information that you have with your children, discussing any medical needs, personality traits, pictures and videos that you feel are important and appropriate. Discuss how the information you received may affect your family. For example, will the child need surgery or is there a physical difference that needs to be discussed? You now know the age and sex of your child. How will this information impact the family in regard to birth order, sleeping arrangements, schooling, etc.? Open up lines of communication and ask your children if they have questions or concerns about their new sibling and the information you received.
• Now that you have been matched with a child, it is time to start talking about the timeline of the adoption. Be careful not to give children exact dates unless you are certain. Instead, consider sharing the steps of the adoption process and/or creating a visual for those that are Pinterest-y at heart. With our younger children we would give them an estimated season. With our oldest child, we shared the steps of the process, letting her know how many steps we had left before travel.
• Call your newest addition by name and relation when given the chance. I took every opportunity with my children to say things like, “When your sister Kate comes home, she will need a place for her shoes. Can you help me label her crate?” Or, “I just read that your brother, William, likes to comb his own hair. Isn’t that funny? Let’s choose a special comb for him and have it waiting in his room.” Likewise, I would answer questions about my family always noting the children at home along with the name of the child who was waiting. “I have 4 children… Rosie, Jack, Kate and Will. We are so excited that William is coming home this summer.” By doing these things, you are sending a message that you are a family unit where everyone is important and included.
• When approved by your agency, work as a family to create a photo album for the newest addition. Choose photos that represent who you are and what you like to do. You may consider letting children draw a picture or write a note (preferably translated) to slip behind their photograph with a message to their new sibling. What a loving first gift to give and receive. Want to take it one step further? Include the siblings in the creation of the newest child’s room or sleeping area if it is a shared space!
• Take some time to explore the birth culture and customs of your newest addition. My youngest children are from China and we loved reading books about their birth country before they came home. We would visit Chinese art exhibits, tea houses and hit up an authentic dim-sum restaurant to feel connected to our waiting kiddo. Other family favorites included attending Chinese festivals and celebrating holidays!
• Plan for a little extra snuggle time during the wait! Grab a few adoption related books and read! One of our favorites is “A Mother for Choco” by Keiko Kasza. It allowed for a very natural conversation with my children about adoption. Do a quick online search for “adoption books for children” and you will floored by the number of choices now available for all age groups. This preparation step packs a 1-2 punch! Snuggle time + good conversation = healthy relationships.
• Now that you have been matched, travel is almost certain if you are adopting overseas! If you decide that all or some of the siblings will be staying home while you travel, prepare their hearts for the separation. Let them know who they will be staying with, how many days you will be gone, along with a rough outline of what you will be doing each day. I did this with a countdown calendar. The smaller children colored a box on the calendar each evening. It was reassuring for them to see that each day colored represented one day closer to us coming home. Our oldest daughter enjoyed reading where we were each day and found delight in seeing things like, “Mom, Dad and Brother William will be on a high-speed train while you brush your teeth for bed.” We sent videos from China and even ordered a small gift from Amazon and had it delivered while in Guangzhou to get them over the hump! Plus a few special surprises were planned while we were gone to help them pass the time.
• It’s important that you are honest with your children about the needs that their newly adopted sibling may have. Children who have been adopted have experienced trauma. Plain and simple: Amid the excitement it’s easy to forget that it is likely, very likely, that struggles lie ahead. One of the most important things you can do to prepare siblings for these struggles is to share common behaviors linked to adoption trauma or any specific special needs your newly adopted child has. Tantruming, biting, food issues, etc., are par for the course. When preparing my children, the conversation sounded something like this, “When your sister comes home, there is a good chance she will be afraid. She may scream, bite or try to hit you. If that happens, let’s make a plan to make sure every family member feels safe and loved in our home. Can you help me do that?” Once home, you will have a better idea of what issues will need to be discussed with the other children and if an action plan is necessary.
• Be honest about the projected time commitment you will need to make for your soon-to-be son or daughter. If therapies or surgery lie ahead, let your children know. In the case of my children, we expected and prepared for an open-heart surgery and a few weeks in the hospital that never happened. We were surprised by some much-needed therapies and those discussions with our children came a few weeks after we traveled.
• It is only once you are home, that you will be able to see the group dynamics in action. Partner up with a spouse or grandparent to give children some much needed one-on-one time. Pay special attention to the emotional cues of each child. Is someone weepy? Uncharacteristically angry? When words fail, children will communicate with their emotions. Hold that child a little tighter. Make their favorite meal and ask them to help. Sneak away for a bike ride in the neighborhood. Curl up and watch a movie together. If it has been an especially trying day, give this child a chance to decompress with a warm bath or a little time alone. Because I was the preferred parent to our newly adopted children and attempted co-sleeping (that’s another post), my husband took turns sleeping with our other children to ensure they felt the reassuring connection of a parent.
• During those first few weeks home with adoption number 1, I felt that I needed a black and white shirt and whistle. Case in point: the first interactions at the airport. Just as practiced, my 3 year-old son approached his newly adopted sister with such tenderness tears formed in my eyes. As he got on his knees to introduce himself, he said, “My name is Jack and I love you.” His new sister, in return, thumped him on the head. I had been on U.S. soil for just minutes before I had to be responsive to the actions/interactions of my children. Within a few days, I learned that my newest little one was not fond of sharing… her toys or her mother. It became a battle over mama and it took several weeks of consistent (gentle, yet firm) parenting to make progress in that area. P.S. In case you were wondering, adoption number two was easy peasy!
• Sometimes being responsive means asking for help. You will know you are “there” when you say things like, “I don’t know what else to do.” With one of our adoptions I was “there.” I needed help finding the root of a problem… a big, loud problem: tantruming. When I’d used every tool in my parenting toolbox, I asked for help in the form on an adoption therapist. Her expertise has helped us tremendously, all while restoring the peace to our home.
• Last but not least, be real! There is an excellent chance that this path won’t be lined with roses. You will hit the wall at some point. Maybe it will be the jet lag. Or a newly adopted teen that is homesick. Perhaps a toddler that is unable to understand why his world has been turned upside down. It’s going to happen and when it does: take the help! I was too proud on my first go-round. I accepted meals and visits from closest friends but never told a soul I was struggling or my children were struggling. Not until I was at my wit’s end did I reach out to the adoption community. There I found solace that what my family was experiencing was not “abnormal” in the world of adoption. With their encouragement, I set up play dates for kiddos who needed a break from the cocooning at home or simply needed time apart from their siblings. I also benefited from the chance to hang up my ref shirt and whistle… even if it was just a few hours a week.
If you are still with me, kudos to you! This type of dedication will serve you well as you navigate the waters ahead. As you go about preparing the hearts of those who wait to be called brother or sister, know that you are teaching each of them by example. By saying YES to becoming the parents of a parentless child, you have just said yes to being a teacher of compassion, determination, dedication, bravery and love. You have said YES to defending the fatherless and YES to doing good in this world.
I am asked often if I would adopt again and my answer is unwavering.
IN. A. HEARTBEAT.