Helping the Old Kids

By Margaret Ward

How can we help the kids already in our family adjust to the arrival of new children? Here are some shared insights on what to do before, during and after arrival.

Often when we adopt a special needs child, the "old" kids – the children we already have – are forgotten in the planning. Of course we talk to them about the adoption. Sometimes we consult them about the sort of new child to add to the family. Too often, that’s all we do. As a result, the kids suffer.

Parents usually go into adoption with high hopes. They are excited about the new family member and may expect the old kids to welcome him or her with the same enthusiasm.

The reality is that the child already in the family experiences anxiety and jealousy when the new kid arrives. He or she also experiences loss. This may be perceived – the old kid may feel the new kid interferes with his or her relationship with the parents – or actual: The old kid may lose some privacy if he or she has to share a room with the new kid, or may have a possession stolen or broken by a new sibling.

If the new child is physically handicapped or has behavioral problems, or if the new "child" is a sibling group, the entire family lifestyle, dynamics and standard of living may change drastically.

Parents usually take the long view of a placement. They trust that the new child will eventually become a true member of the family. Children, on the other hand, live in the here and now, with the present – sometime horrible – reality, not with the future hope.

The benefits of having a new sibling initially may seem to be very few to a child. But if the old child admits to feelings of hurt, anxiety, and anger, the child may feel he or she is falling short of parental expectations – and then guilt feelings get mixed in too.

Parents often operate with a double standard for old and new children. Understandably, they concentrate on the most important issues when setting rules for the new child, but the old children are usually expected to obey all the rules. Each sign of progress the new kid shows may be lavishly praised. For instance, for someone who has failed all his life, a passing mark is a major achievement. The old child, in contrast, may wonder why he is scarcely noticed when he receives straight A’s.

As adoptive parents, you may assume that the old child is highly motivated to help the new child settle in. Remember that the old child’s business is to be concerned about his won fulfillment – especially if no one else in the family seems concerned.

Before Placement

Helping the old kids starts before the new child is placed. One of the most important things you can do is look at the strengths and weaknesses of your current children. Consider birth order or other special status the child might have to give up when the new child arrives.

When we adopted five brothers, we really didn’t anticipate many difficulties with our biological son. If we’d thought about his special status, we’d have expected a lot of problems. Of course he was special: he was an only son with three sisters. I suspect he thought he’d have five allies against his sisters. Instead, he lost his special status and got five rivals.

Our youngest was adopted. She lost her status both as youngest and as our only adoptee.

If you see particular difficulties, you may want to consider avoiding a placement. But if you decide to go ahead, proceed armed with extra awareness of the problems you may face.

The old kids need preparation for the adoption. To do this properly, find out all you can about how the new child has interacted with children in previous placements. What are his or her special tactics and ways of manipulation?

Unfortunately, you’ll also have to ask, "Has this child been acting out sexually?" You can help children already in the family to plan strategies for dealing with such behavior. The least stressful situation is the one in which a child or parent expects a problem and feels he has some control over it.

Preparation has two benefits. First, it will help the child develop a sense of competence. If a child has strategies for coping, the child is less likely to act up and add to the stress on his or her parents, conserving your energy to better nurture all your children. Coping strategies are especially important for teenagers who will be expected to baby-sit. If the new child is acting up, the teen needs to know how best to handle the child.

The second benefit of preparation is the additional relationship that develops between the old kid and the adoption worker who is helping him anticipate difficulties. The preparation process opens the way for the kid to turn to the worker for support after placement, when there are problems – as there surely will be – between old and new kids. Some parents have difficulty raising the question of sexual behavior. The worker can step in and help the family explore sexual, and other, family rules.

Although parents must, of course make the final decision about whether to adopt or not to adopt, it is wise to involve children already in the family in the planning stage. They are more likely to care about the success of the adoption if they’ve been involved before placement.

Before the new child is placed, parents also should look at the support systems of the old kids. Is there someone outside the family they can turn to when things get too hot? This could be a relative who supports the adoption, a neighbor, or a friend – anyone who will listen to the old child’s problems.

After Placement

Once the new child is in the family, the most important thing parents can do for the old kids is to be available for them. Plan for one-on-one activities. Be open to problems the kid is having. No taboo subjects here! If the child feels he is understood, he will be under less stress and provide fewer hassles. Some parents have found that a good tome for private conversation occurs when they are driving their children, alone, to various activities. Obviously, some parents are going to need help making time for all their kids.

If it is impossible to defuse a situation, do so. For example, a new child who steals may make it unsafe for others to keep any money around. We set up a safety deposit system, in which we guarantee the return of money left in our care.

If fights break out over use of the television set or the stereo, is it possible to agree on a set of rules for fair use? Family meetings can help solve some of these nagging problems. Often, however, it is necessary to meet over and over again on some issues that keep hanging around.

Some children will not tell their parents their problems, either because they are afraid their parents will be angry at them or because they don’t want to cause more problems. So it is important for parents to watch for danger signs that the kids are suffering intolerable stress.

Is a previously good student failing? Is the old kid acting up a lot, or having trouble sleeping? Do you see drastic changes in your child’s eating habits? Any noticeable behavior changes? If so, your child may need help. Ask about problems.

If your child won’t talk to you, he or she may be willing to talk to some outside support groups either before or after placement for old kids. If one is available, it can help prepare your children for their siblings-to-be and can provide support after placement. The chief value of these groups is having someone not involved in the child’s own family who can understand what the child is going through. If there is no such group in your area, consider starting one.

The most important guide in helping your old kids adjust to a special needs adoption is your heart: Remember that they are your children too, and deserve attention just as much as the new kid joining the family.

Reprinted from OURS, March/April, 1988
  preparing for adoption : older child adoption
  preparing for adoption : sibling adoption
  preparing for adoption : preparing children for new siblings
  family : older child adoption
  family : impacts on siblings