Sibling relationships can last a lifetime, even more enduring than parent-child or marital relationships. Sibling relationships have a significant influence on children’s emotional and social development. Lessons about sharing, compromising, conflict-resolution, competition, and empathy are generally learned with siblings.
Adopting a sibling group is a controversial subject, with arguments on both sides of the issue. For example, the general rule in child welfare is that, whenever possible, siblings should be placed together. The belief is the familiarity of the sibling relationship increases a sense of permanency, helps children cope with loss, and reduces stress, and separating siblings leads to further traumatization. This is true under certain circumstances, including with children who have secure attachments.
A number of studies have identified circumstances when sibling placements are problematic. Serious emotional and behavioral problems were more common for children adopted from Romanian orphanages when two or more children were adopted simultaneously. Several studies found sibling placements were more likely to result in adoption disruption than single-child placements. Adoptive parents report adopting a sibling group is one of the risk factors that lead to disruption. Our own research on treatment effectiveness found children improved more when they were not adopted as a sibling group. See www.evergreenpsychotherapycenter.com.
There are four factors to consider when determining whether or not a sibling group placement is appropriate.
- Severity of emotional, behavioral, and attachment problems.
Parents reported significant stress related to their adoptee’s mood, level of demanding behavior, unwillingness to adapt, and lack of compliance to parental authority. Traits identified as particularly stressful were lying, stealing, verbal and physical aggression, tantrums, and hyperactivity. These are traits and symptoms common among children with compromised attachments. Sibling groups that display these symptoms are emotionally and financially taxing and increase the risk of negative outcomes for these families.
- Pathology of the sibling relationship.
Siblings with pathological patterns of relating (e.g., physical and sexual abuse) bring these unhealthy behaviors into the adoptive family. This is extremely disturbing and overwhelming for the family and prevents the development of secure attachment with the parents. It is common for one member of the sibling group to perform a parenting role with younger siblings. Sibling loyalties can create an “us against you” mentality and block new family relationships from forming. Separation of siblings is usually warranted when there is a history of sexual abuse. Even the most diligent parents cannot watch their children 24/7, and the abused sibling is at risk for further victimization.
- Strengths of the family.
A thorough assessment should be made of the parent’s strengths, resources, and deficits, including: parent’s attachment histories; quality of the marital relationship; family cohesion; parent’s ability to manage stress and adversity; and support systems available. Do the parents have supportive friends and extended family? Do they have a faith to sustain them? What is the extent of their parenting knowledge and skills? How open are they to learn new and constructive skills?
- Pre- and postadoption services.
Parents frequently do not receive sufficient information about the harm their children have suffered and how those problems will manifest in the adoptive family. Parents need to know what they are dealing with so that they can have realistic expectations and seek the right type of help. Families need ongoing support and counseling, especially in the first year following placement. What services are available to minimize stress, enhance parenting skills, promote family cohesion, and address the children’s psychosocial problems?