How adoption affects siblings

I was asked by Amber Haines from The RunAMuck to contribute to the Idea Camp, and talk about the effect of adoption on other children in the family.  This is an important issue, one that tends to be only briefly covered in most books about adoption.  I could give you a whole lot of generalities to consider, but it feels most meaningful to just tell you about our own experience.

When we first adopted back in 1998, our four biological kids were 10, 8, 6, and almost 4.  We expected that the adjustment would be much like adding any child to a family:  some displacement jealousy, especially with our youngest bio son, but not a whole lot else.

Looking back, we were both right and wrong.  We were all surprised at the amount of attention centered on our new little guy from Korea.  He was 4 months old when he came home, and cute, cute, cute.   The used-to-be baby, also pretty darned cute, was nonplussed by the attention shift. A lot of the attention was probably because our newest child was Asian.  Our Ethiopian girls experienced similar levels of intense attention when they first came home, uncomfortable for them, and strange for older siblings who as part of the Caucasian majority in Idaho felt suddenly invisible.

Our second Korean son came home a year and a half later, in 2000.  He was 20 months old, only 2 months younger than our first adopted child, which means we basically had twin toddlers.  It was a tough year helping him settle in while juggling the needs of all the other kids. We as mom and dad were busy, sometimes tired from being up at night, and expected more from older kids. They took in in stride and did well with the challenge.  But I am sure there were times when they wished we were more available.

We didn’t adopt again until 2004, this time a 20 month old girl from Ethiopia.   It was good timing for our family.  By then our youngest boys were 6, old enough to do some things on their own, and certainly old enough to wait when our new little girl needed mom.  She adjusted easily to our family and we all really enjoyed having another little one.  In 2005 when we adopted a 6 month old girl from Ethiopia, that adjustment also went well.   The older kids were used to adding siblings and helping mom and dad.  And they adored having a tiny sister.  I remember marveling at how naturally the bigger boys could show affection to this new little baby, even as they were growing up and wanting less hugging from me.

Babies add a wonderful dimension to family life for older children. I am the oldest of 8 kids, and have rich memories of carrying younger siblings around, doing their hair, dressing them, and enjoying the feeling of being a competent older sibling, complete with all the adoration that the little ones showered on me. Yeah, they get into your stuff and cause extra work.  But it’s pretty darned hard to be a cranky teenager when you’ve got a tiny sibling patting your face and unabashedly loving you.

Adopting older children brings a different set of adjustments to the family.  In 2007 we brought home 9 and 11 year old sisters from Ethiopia.  We were so eager to welcome them that John and I both went to Ethiopia for them, bringing our two littlest girls along too. The new girls were thrilled to meet their little sisters in Ethiopia, and began bonding to them even before they felt comfortable with us.  Once home, the girls also gained great comfort from having other kids close to them in age in the family.  (Our Korean boys were born the same year as the younger girl, and our older girl is about a year younger than our youngest biological child.)

It was more of a mixed bag for older kids.  Our newly arrived 11-year-old greatly resented sisterly advice and correction from our older bio daughter, age 17.  The 11-year-old had never been anyone’s little sister and our 17-year-old couldn’t remember being anything but a big sister.  They collided at times, with both girls feeling like I favored the other in my attempts to encourage harmony.

Also difficult for the older kids was the rule-testing by the new arrivals in our family.  Oh, we tried to help ease the transition, in every way possible.  For a time we gave our new daughters a lot of extra grace, conscious of the huge adjustment and all the grieving they were going through. We were hoping once they bonded with us better, they would be more concerned about pleasing us.  But three months in, everyone’s patience with the disruptive behavior was wearing thin, including the older siblings who sometimes felt aggravated that the newbies seemed to have a different set of rules.

Our youngest girls were 2 and 5 when the older girls arrived, and after a few months were mimicking some of their behavior.  Nothing earth-shatteringly awful —  just arm-crossing, eye-rolling, avoidant, pouting behavior that we’d never allowed in our home before. That was one of the hardest things for me to see as mom.  Here we wanted our home to be a haven, and it seemed to be heading in the opposite direction instead..  Around the 6-month mark after a lot of prayer and pow-wows between John and me, we got serious about giving consequences for every unacceptable behavior.  Though bonding still wasn’t readily apparent, and I worried that we were slowing down bonding with all the consequences, the girls’ behavior gradually improved.  That made it easier for everyone (especially me) to feel gracious and loving towards them.  And though they still had plenty of times where they wished for nothing but their old life, they gradually began to feel like they really truly belonged.

In the spectrum of older-child adoption adjustment, our new girls were very much in the normal range.  Some kids adjust more quickly, and others have much more severe issues.   But for us it was hard enough.  Oh, that first year was slow and difficult! Many times I wondered if the price our other children were paying was just too high. I was thankful many times for the clear way that we’d been led to adopt these very kids.   Because when I remembered how God had led us to them, I also remembered to trust that He had a good plan and He would also lead us through the challenge.

Now that the older girls have been home 3.5 years, they are happy, usually respectful, and are so much better settled in.   It was a tough journey with many bumps and valleys and they’ll always have memories of loss.  But they have overcome so much, and I get the sense that in their hearts they’ve finally arrived home. We are so blessed to have each and every one of our children in our lives. Relationships all around have grown and flourished.  These days one of the delights of my life is watching our teenage sons teasing their Ethiopian sisters.  They thoroughly enjoy each other.

In looking back I can see how John and I have grown as parents through the challenges.  I can also glimpse some of the reasons why God might have allowed those challenges to touch all our children as well.   It could be that in the future they might need some extra compassion for the struggles of others, an understand of how grieving and trauma affects people.  It could be that the extra patience they developed through all this may help them with their own kids. Often God grows us spiritually through difficulty, and so I will trust that this adventure He led us on will be one that will benefit every member of our family.

We look forward to the future where we hope to have a houseful on weekends even after kids are grown.  I think of the friendships I treasure with my own siblings now as an adult.  Each of my siblings blesses me uniquely, and irreplaceably. I am thankful for their friendship and love and support, and I look forward to seeing those kinds of bonds grow among my children as they move into adulthood as well.  In a big family you’re never alone in the world. And that’s something to celebrate!


In writing this post, I tried to be honest while honoring my children and the journey they’ve taken to get to this point. I hope my love for my children also shines through. I feel vulnerable in a way, putting our struggles out there, and yet I do so because I fervently desire to play a part in helping potential adoptive parents be well prepared.  To see both the challenge and the joy, and to decide for adoption anyway.  Because these kids are so very worth it.

To better understand the reasons for a newly adopted child’s grief and pain, please read my friend Shaun’s post The List.

For another view into growing an adoptive family don’t miss this article by Melissa Fay Greene.  (Melissa is also the author of the amazing book There Is No Me Without You.)


  1. Thanks for sharing. Adopting older children is such a different journey. Which doesn’t mean it’s not a wonderful one. We have one daughter adopted at age 2. I’ve always felt that healthy, boisterous siblings is one of the greatest things we’ve had to offer foster and adopted children. I feel like the process has deepened our bio children’s compassion and understanding of family.

    Also, my oldest is almost 16 and we’re about to welcome a new baby (the old-fashioned biological way). I love your comment about the softening effect of a baby on a teenager. It really is beautiful to behold.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. As my husband and I struggle to decide if adoption is in our future, how it will affect our bio son is something that we struggle with and something that is not always covered in the many books about adoption that I have read. Thank you. It’s always obvious that you love all of your kids to the moon and back.

  3. What a beautiful post. I hope to welcome a child into our family through adoption someday.

  4. As we prepare for our second adoption referral, I am filled with excitement and trepidation about how our soon-to-be-seven-year-old will react to becoming a big sister. I never expected this much of an age gap between siblings, but it was His plan. Thanks for sharing your experiences – loved hearing it.

  5. Thank you for your thoughts and the link to the article about large families and adoption. We are not a large family by any stretch, but we just completed our fourth international adoption, and at nearly 7 yrs old, he’s the oldest. I am struggling. There is only 4 years between my oldest and youngest. Only 18 months separate the youngest three. The newest son’s behavior is just about to drive me batty and the adjustment difficulties of the other three is almost too much to bear.

    Like you, it does help to remember that we felt incredibly certain and convicted that this child was set apart for our family by the Lord. That for some reason, God wanted us to parent this child and be his family. But I still find myself crying some nights, “Lord, what have we done? We had such a nice balance going in our house, we had routine, we had harmony, we had real relationship between the three, and now it’s all a mess.”

    Reading that article and your words, is a real source of encouragement.

  6. I just finished the article you linked to at the end. I really enjoyed it though it was very long! I liked reading about each child and was interested in the paragraph about the different ways people respond to the parents of big families vs. the children–the parents being seen as benevolent and altruistic while the kids are seen as part of a group, often known by the behavior of the one whose behavior is the worst. I thought about it and realized how easily I see an entire family’s kids as “misbehaved” or “loud” when really it is likely only true of one or two of the children–and usually the younger ones, at that. This is something I will be more conscientious of in the future.

    We have six kids in our family, 3 bio girls, 3 adopted boys (at the same time). We also are expecting a baby (bio) in a couple of weeks. I remember bringing our boys home and how well the girls welcomed them. I remember thinking beforehand, “How will this affect our girls?” Somewhere along the way I realized that it was a bit selfish and one-dimensional of me to think that way. I am glad that I also started to consider, “How will this affect these three children who need parents?” And also, now I realize how making room and welcoming these three boys has decidedly affected our girls! For the better!

    Yes, it’s been hard, but most of the truly good things we learn out of life are things we learn by struggling and are easily missed when we are never challenged to grow.

    Anyway, this is an incredibly long comment all to say that I have really enjoyed not only your post, but the article by Melissa Greene as well. Thank you!

  7. awww…look at the pic when your kids were all little! So cute! 🙂
    I appreciated this post, Mary, as it’s something I’ve wondered about.

  8. I’m a fellow AAI AP who has been lurking for a while! Particularly able to relate to this post — and shared similar thoughts on my blog recently in these two posts:
    My youngest child (now 3) has had a very hard time being displaced as the baby in the family and has significantly regressed. Never has she taken her frustration out on Tariku (17 months), but she clearly has been stressed by his homecoming. On the other hand, my two older kids ( 7 and 5) have taken it in stride and have savored their new roles and responsibilities. They shower T with love and affection and are proud and informed about Ethiopia, adoption, etc. They have a broader world-view and are kinder and more generous as a result….

    Thanks for always sharing with honesty and love.


  9. Thanks for your honesty and openness. This post is exactly what I needed to encourage me right now. We are six months into the adoption process of an 8 year old through foster care. He falls in line as 2nd oldest of 5(almost 6). Our struggles are not huge but the adjustment has been challenging for the whole family. Sometimes I do have to remind myself in the mirror or in prayer that this is the child God undeniably called us to parent. I am so blessed by your blog. Keep it up and God bless!

  10. Hi Mary,

    I have to tell you ordered 2 of your books and got them last night. I have just starting reading “Sane Woman’s Guide. . .” and I feel like it is exactly what i need right now. I have 2 bio kids and 1 adopted and feel the “pull” on my heart to adopt again, but am scared to death of managing 4 kids, work, marriage and all of it. I feel God speaking to me through the pages of your book and I”m thankful. I”m excited to see what He teaches me. Thank you.

  11. May I ask why a preferential adopters such as yourself – adopting not as a result of infertility but a desire to do good in the world – and able to accept older children…did not adopt one of the more than 120,000 children from US foster care? You are able to accept children of other races, so why not children from foster care?

    I am always curious why someone with such a big heart makes the choices they do and turn their back on so many needy children right here at home to go overseas for adoption. I have heard that some people believe IA children are less “damaged” even though any child being adopted at 11 years of age is surely hurting! I have also heard that many people prefer IA so as to avoid possible “intrusions” from birth family.

    I would so appreciate your views and decsion-making process.

    Thank you.

    • Hi Mirah,
      Great question. Lots of things factored in:

      –initially wanting to adopt babies because of concern over older-child issues

      –experiencing a failed adoption through the US in 2003. I totally respect that birth-mom’s choice, and find it the most natural thing in the world, but it gave us the desire to adopt kids who were truly orphaned and already relinquished before we ever entered the picture. We hated the thought that we were pressuring a family in any way.

      –knowing well-qualified friends who pursued kids in foster care for 2 years who were stonewalled and delayed by the US foster care system, and eventually gave up on their adoption dreams.

      –wanting to adopt where there was the very most need, where kids would literally die if not provided with a family

      We ended up being most peaceful with Ethiopia for all these reasons. Since adopting older kids it has been driven home to me more and more that the very best solution for the kids would be to provide better support to birth families, so that kids could be raised by their first families. Because of that, we support organizations like Compassion International that strive to do that very thing. We also support the work of my sister who is a medical missionary in Ethiopia. As part of her work she does short term care for motherless infants until they can eat solid food and go back to their first families.

  12. Extremely interesting how a bio & adoptive family grows close with the love of God & great parents. Thank you for answers to my never ending questions of how families blend when adopting. I feel that God has definitely blessed you, while your family has impressed so many others. Thank you!

  13. Always so nice written. When my husband and I decided to go the foster/adopt route, my older kids were 8,8, and 7. (the older two were a private adoption, so although we had adopted, there was no adjustment then) I was so worried about what the older kiddos would feel. My then 7 year old daughter was begging for a baby sister, so I wasn’t too worried about her. When we receieved the call that there was a boy/girl twin set just released from the hospital, I was terrified of the adjustment, but my big kids took to it beautifully. 2 years later and the shorties just about burst when the big kids get home from school and they are the closest kids. It has been such a joy at our house, but I know that I kinda picked an easier route by bringing home infants. 🙂

  14. Mary, this is a great post. I have been mulling this topic over myself and I’m a bit torn about how to express the joys and sorrows our children have experienced as we added children from “hard places” to our family. We are learning to shield them better from the “trauma drama” and make their home safe for all again. At the same time, we’re working to raise the bar on our more challenging children’s behavior, which unfortunately, increases the drama more! It is the most challenging parenting I have ever experienced, but I can honestly say that we are seeing sweet rewards on a regular basis. Thanks again for a great post.


  15. Mary,
    I really appreciated your post about siblings being effected by adoption!! We have just accepted a referral for 2 children from ET (nonrelated) 5 yr old girl & 14 mo old boy & we currently have 4 bio kids – 13 yr boy, 11 yr girl, 9 yr old girl, & almost 3 yr girl (& lost one daughter to cancer, who wd have been almost 7yr now). Our family has been through much & while I expect there to be a lot of adjustment when we get our 2 ET children home, I found your post encouraging. I think it will be hardest for our 3 yr old daughter who gets a lot of attention. I love reading your blog & have thoroghly enjoyed you $75 / week Feasts Book!!

  16. Mary, this blows me away – how it’s such a transition for everyone. I would be interested to hear how the church came along side you to support you during these times of transition, or how might the church have better supported you?

    Thank you for sharing with us!

  17. Mary, you are inspiring!
    I have relatives that adopted a little boy from Ethiopia as well. He came home when he was around 2 years old. When they got him, he was quite sick with a bad parasite, and ended up to be deaf because of the ear infections he suffered while in the Ethiopian orphanage. This made the transition for the family extremely difficult. (Not hard for the rest of the family, we fell in love with him & found it easy, but we weren’t the ones immediately affected.)
    I was wondering, did you have many health-related issues that you would be willing to share, and if so, how did you keep it from hindering your bonding experience with your kids?

  18. Hi! This is the first time I’ve read your blog and I have really appreciated what you have written. I have seven children, two of which are adopted from Liberia. My oldest children are close to 30, married and have their own children. I’ve also homeschooled all of our children. Our two adopted (9 and 7)are approaching their 3 year gotcha anniversary.

    Thank you for your honesty in writing this post. Our adopted children are extremely sweet children, and whereas we are in a really good place now, it has been the hardest three years of my life. I so appreciated the advice early on from a women close to my situation that said similar things as you have said and encouraged me to hang in there (and even mentioned the 3 year bench mark). Even with this advice, it was difficult thinking that everyone else that had adopted had it figured out and I was disliking so much about my life. God is faithful and there was so much he was teaching me as we walked through this time. I am so grateful that I am feeling a normalcy return, or perhaps I finally accepted a different definition of normal. Our family is blessed by these children and we love them dearly, but it has been hard.

    A small thing that happened this last weekend while in Galveston on business showed us the depth of understanding our 7 yr old son (who is adopted) has been given. My husband took a homeless man into a McDonalds to buy him breakfast and our son followed him in. Once we were in the car our son said, “mom, we need to adopt that man”. I asked him why he thought that and his reply was, “because he needs a family”. He understood that whereas the man was hungry, his need was much greater. As you said, this adventure has benefited everyone in our family.

  19. Mary,
    I so enjoyed and needed to read this post. We have 2 bio dtrs and 5 all younger adopted for a total of 7. Our ages range 2-14. I sometimes worry about the effect all the “littles” have on our two teenage bio dtrs and wonder if we are asking too much of them (or
    Maybe I’m reading this question in others’ eyes?) but I too feel God has set us apart as a family and called us and made out path straight to these children. You reminded me of that. I also see the beauty in my 14 yo who loves her new 2 yo brother probably more than I even know!
    Thanks for the honesty and openess!

  20. This line touched me: “Because when I remembered how God had led us to them, I also remembered to trust that He had a good plan and He would also lead us through the challenge.”

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. The more I seek out advice on the sibling aspects of adoption I hear over and over again the importance of trusting God and being patient.

    We brought home our youngest (now 3) nearly nine months ago. She is adopted. As the fifth and youngest the adjustments have been varied, to say the least.

    I am so grateful to be able to peak into the lives of strong, faithful parents, like yourself, who have walked a similar path. You have encouraged me today.

  21. My husband and I are at the beginning of our fost-adopt journey. We have a 5 and 2 year old (both biological). I’m new to your site (but am loving it already)…and this was a helpful post. You mentioned the Caucasian majority in Idaho-we are very open to bi-racial adoption, but also live in a predominately (like 98%) White area. Do you have recommended resources (or other posts of yours) you recommend for me to gain as much understanding as I can on this issue? Thanks for your faithfulness to God’s plan in your life.

  22. Thank you for this post! There is shockingly little on siblings in adoption/fostering literature so this post is so valuable.

    I am a single (widowed) mom of 2 bio kids and in Jan of 2010 brought home my new son, then 9, from Hong Kong. He has Down syndrome and I was concerned about the sibling adjustment. It took a bit of time (especially for my daughter who was displaced as the “youngest” even though she was 6 at the time), but now all 3 kids are just crazy about each other. My newest adventure (that I KNOW God led me to–so thankful for that confidence) is foster care. I’d have to say that this has been MUCH harder than our adoption on all 3 of my kids. I have actually questioned why I am doing this, and if I didn’t have God’s assurance I would be tempted to quit, BUT I am starting to see Godly concepts develop in my kids that they wouldn’t have been faced with otherwise. I am truly starting to see the good. I am excited to see what God will do next.

    P.S. I am looking forward to seeing you at the Tulsa convention.

  23. Christy says:

    Thank you for writing this. I am amazed how this is not taked about much. We just adopted 3 children ages 5, 3, 1 thru the foster care system. We have 3 bio children 14, 13, 11. Boy has it been an interesting journey. The most issues we have are with our 14 year old and the 5 year old. They butt heads a lot. Our 14 girl is trying hard, but has a short issue with some of the 5 years behaviors. The 5 year old girl doesn’t like being told what to do and will do things just to have the attention only on her. Thank you so I know I am not the only one out there! God is so faithful and every time I get down He is there and reminding me of His faithfulness!