Siblings and the Adopted Child

©By Renee Dubucs

The arrival of a new sibling can rock a child’s world. He may start to feel like a first wife whose husband brings home a second. Adding a new family member can be tough on a child born in the family – and tougher on an adopted. Biological children, unlike adopted children, know the security of being in the family from birth. In any event, no new sibling can fulfill an incumbent child’s fantasy of the perfect brother or sister.

To compound the problem, the newcomer, if adopted, may act "weird". (For example, a plump American girl hunted, after preschool meals, for crumbs under the table and food in the garbage can). Supposedly, every child adopted after infancy does at least one thing that seems bizarre to his new family. The weird acts often involve what two experts on children adopted internationally, Dr. Margaret Hostetter and Dr. Dana Johnson, call "survival" behavior. (The preschooler who ate crumbs and garbage had, prior to adoption, been neglected and hospitalized for malnutrition.)

A child may engage in survival behavior in response to neglect, abuse, or other traumatic conditions. The behavior, explainable under the original circumstances, may persist for a time after circumstances change. (For example, one girl, abused before adoption, slept, after adoption, on the floor with her back to the wall, armed with whatever weapon she could find.) The behavior may shock the adoptive family. (How many children who sleep with a teddy bear expect a new sister who sleeps with a weapon?) Perhaps because many adopted children experienced physical or emotional malnutrition prior to the adoption; survival behavior frequently involves food.

The adopted newcomer may present additional challenges. He may be of a different race, culture, or social class from an incumbent child. If the new comer experienced hard times before the adoption, he may be needy, violent, vulnerable, or unaccustomed to family life. His troubles may temporarily overwhelm the parents, leaving them little time for the other children. Yet a hardknocks child often brings joy to the family. The stories of Philip, Susie, Courtney, Sam and Katya address the arrival, by adoption of a new sibling.


Although the adoption of a child can temporarily rock the world of another child in the family, it can also make that world a gentler place. Many siblings, including siblings by adoption, help and love each other long after the death of their parents.

An example of sibling devotion involving an adopted child appears in "A Letter to Philip". Edith Coe wrote the letter, which was published in the spring 1998 issue of Jewel Among Jewels Adoption News. When Edith and her big brother were children, their parents adopted a sickly infant. They called him Philip. Decades passed, the children grew up, and some family members died. Finally Edith, the oldest surviving member of the family, was in her late seventies.

At that time Edith wrote a letter to her little brother. It expressed her feelings for his over their long life together. The letter said, "Philip, have you any idea how much I love and appreciate you? From the frail, five-month-old baby to the seventy-two-year-old man you are today, you have been my very special brother…Philip, what a wonder you were and have been for 72 years!"


Sometimes it seems that a child in the family and a newly adopted child will never care for each other. This was true for George and Susie.

Initially, George was an only child. His father, a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wanted his offspring to be good in science and to follow in his footsteps. Unfortunately, the boy was not science-minded.

Then George’s parents adopted Susie. The little girl came from Vietnam, where she had known hard times. Whatever George was expecting for a sister, it was not Susie.

Susie soon shocked her new family with her eating behavior. When the mother brought food to the table, the girl darted over, snatched food from a plate, and ran to a corner. There Susie devoured the food, with her back to the wall and one hand guarding her mouth.

To a middle-class American boy, this behavior must have seemed weird. However, it can be survival behavior for a child who has had to fend for herself on the street or to defend against bigger children prepared to grab food right out of her mouth.

For years George and Susie got along poorly. It did not help that Susie excelled in math and science. Eventually, both children grew up and left home, Susie to attend an institute of technology.

George and Susie were expected to go their separate ways. Instead, the two maintained contact and continued to meet. When their mother expressed surprise, they were surprised. George and Susie said they really like each other!


All children are different. Yet the differences between a newly adopted child and another child in the family may surprise the adoptive parents. This happened with Courtney.

Courtney was adopted from a Russian orphanage when she was about five years old. Her new family included a couple and their biological son, Tyler. The adoptive parents were happy to have a daughter. However, the adoptive mother had apparently expected Courtney to be the female version of Tyler.

The mother sometimes compared Courtney unfavorably to Tyler. In conversations with friends, the woman would mention, in a disapproving tone, something Courtney had done and observe that Tyler had not done that at the same age. Her principal complaint concerned Courtney’s "Weird" behavior. To the parent’s surprise, Courtney did not know when she was full. She occasionally ate so much that she vomited. As the mother pointed out, Tyler did not do that at Courtney’s age.

In fact, this food gorging can be survival behavior. Gorging sometimes stems from food or non-food deprivation. If a child did not get enough to eat before the adoption (which is true for many children from orphanages), he may not know his food limits or believe that food will always be available. Similarly, if a child suffered maternal deprivation, he may later attempt through gorging to fill the emptiness he feels inside. In other words, physical or emotional malnutrition leads some children to gorge when food is plentiful.

Tyler and Courtney were indeed different. The key difference was not what they did at age five, but what they had experienced by then. At five, Tyler, a child of privilege, had enjoyed five years of security in his living family, free from hunger and want. Never having gone hungry, he had learned his food limits and expected food to arrive as needed. At five, Courtney, an orphanage child, was just starting over after losing virtually everything. Her losses included her original home, her homeland, her culture, her language, both her birth parents, any birth siblings, all of her other blood relatives, and all of her friends. In short, the little girl had survived a five-year period that would have devastated many adults.

Sam and Katya

Sometimes the adoption of a child can jeopardize the adjustment of another adopted child already in the family. This happened to Sam.

Sam is a child who needs to know the whereabouts of his parents and who has problems with good-byes. There are reasons for his insecurity. Sam was born in Korea. When he was small, his birth mother repeatedly slipped out with no warning and left him home alone for hours. Then, when he was five, she explained that she had arranged for him to visit his birth father in the United States. In reality, she had arranged for Sam to be adopted by a childless American couple. The boy said good-bye to his birth other believing that he would soon return home. Thus, Sam at an early age had learned that a parent could suddenly disappear without warning, that a parent could not be trusted, and that a parent’s "au revoir" could mean "good-bye".

When Sam arrived in America, his adoptive parents had to deal with the lies. Eventually Sam began to believe that his parents would not walk out on him.

After Sam had been in his adoptive home for about four years, his parents decided to adopt again. The couple, who no longer qualified for a Korean adoption, applied to Russia for a doughtier.

Sam’s mother was to travel alone to Russia. Before saying good-bye, she promised Sam that she would return. Unfortunately, complications in Russia extended the trip. For more than a month Sam was without his mother. He spoke occasionally with her by telephone. As time passed Sam began to deny that it was her voice on the phone, and he announced that his mother had died. Despite the phone conversations, he persisted in calling her dead.

Finally Sam’s mother came home, accompanied by four-year-old Katya. Sam was handsome, black-haired, and tall. Katya was pretty, blonde and tiny.

From the start, Sam wanted to get rid of little sister, and Katya was crazy about her big brother. To his anger, she tagged along after him. He beheaded her beloved Barbie doll. She cried but continued to follow him around. Over and over he said the same mean things to her. Grateful for any attention from him and not understanding his English, she would respond adoringly, "Sam! Sam!"

Sam would say to his sister, "I hate you, Katya. Dad hates you. Mom hates you. Everybody here hates you, Katya. Go back to Russia."

Katya would reply adoringly, "Sam! Sam!"

The trip to Russia damaged the relationship between Sam and his family. The boy rejected his parents, apparently no longer believing in their love for him. Though he was in emotional pain, he refused to let himself be loved by anyone. Sam’s mother was heartstricken. She feared that by adopting a second child she had lost her first.

After a wretched period of about eight months, the situation improved greatly. Sam accepted his sister and the continuation of his parents’ love. Except for normal sibling disagreements, Sam is now a caring and protective brother to Katya. However, one thing did not change. Little Katya still adores big Sam.


While the arrival of a new sibling can rock a child’s world, it also enriches that world. There are major disadvantages in life to being an only child. Problems may arise when the parents of one child adopt another. Nonetheless, one of the best gifts parents of an only child can give that child may be a sibling.

A sibling may be especially important for an adopted child. Many adopted youngsters were or felt abandoned by a birth parent. Some were actual or virtual orphans before the adoption. These children know what it is to feel unwanted, to come from an orphanage, or to be alone in the world. Not surprisingly, many adopted children, like Sam, fear a second abandonment (including via death or divorce) by a parent. Yet in this era of increasing life expectancies, babies who are adopted by thirty-year-old parents may well outlive their parents by more than three decades. That is a long time to be an orphan with no siblings.

For most people, the longest relationship of their life is a sibling relationship. As discussed above, the love between Edith and Philip lasted for more than seven decades.

Adopted children, Edith sent her brother the letter expressing love and appreciation for their many years together. Here's hoping that a brother or sister will write a letter like that to you!

  family : sibling relationships
  family : impacts on siblings
  family : older child adoption
  behavior : survival behavior