The emphasis on adoption from the perspective of the adopted child is both obvious and appropriate. The trauma of separation, the difficulty of attachment, the self-doubt inflicted by ignorant society, the crisis of identity and belonging, and the legions of problems from difficult early years all contribute significantly to the obstacles an adopted child must face. Adoptive parents should do all they can to educate themselves and assist their child in confronting and overcoming these obstacles, for that is the task they assume along with the other parental duties of adoption.
However, for each difficulty an adopted child faces or for every special treatment they receive, there is an opposite and sometimes equal reaction in the adopted childís sibling, especially if that sibling is a biological child of the adoptive parents. In all the emphasis on parenting the adopted child, the biological child is too often assumed to be a constant. The compensatory nature of parenting an adopted child may leave the biological sibling a second-class citizen, left to deal with his or her own real difficulties without parental support which is conscious of the existence or origins of these problems.
I have written before on the very real positives of living in an adoptive family, and I do not waver from my belief that the positives far outweighed the negatives. The experience of growing up in my family has made me who I am today. My brothers and sisters have given me a breadth of understanding I could not have possessed otherwise. My intention here is not to criticize adoption in any way, but rather to draw attention to the specific and real concerns of the siblings of adopted children.
The identity crisis adopted children often experience has an analogous counterpart with their biological siblings. Adopted children may question their sense of "belonging" to their adoptive parents and families. The biological bond shared with birth parents and their children is unfortunately over emphasized by society as a whole. Tragically, even some adoptive parents may reinforce this belief that the biological bond is primary, either consciously or unconsciously. However, as most adoptive parents understand and teach to their children, the parent-child bond is not based on prenatal bonding or genetic heritage, but rather love and dedication. The adoption process is a promise from which the belonging is derived. By reiterating and reminding the adopted child of this promise, the parent reminds the child that he has come home to his "forever family." This process is necessary, if only to compensate for the callous teasing and thoughtless questions which the adopted child experiences in a society which differentiates between "real" and "adopted" children.
The biological childís crisis originates in this necessary refocusing and counter-weighting towards the promise as the primary bond between parent and child. While the adopted child has been chosen, often from among thousands of waiting children, the biological child was merely born into the family. While the adopted child is constantly reminded of the promise his parents made to love and raise him, the biological child has no adoption process to remind him of the same promise his parents made to him. Parents of adopted and biological children may be reluctant to remind their biological children of the pregnancy and talk about the biological child growing inside the mother for fear of leaving the adopted child shorthanded. In the end, it may be the biological child who feels the absence of a bond with her parents.
While the adopted child is encouraged to discuss these feelings of doubt and insecurity in his sense of belonging, the biological child runs into barriers to discussing his own crisis. Usually these barriers are not tangible, but more subtle and difficult to recognize. Primary among these is a fear of being selfish. The biological child, whose problems are caused by the emphasis placed on the real or potential problems his adopted sibling might have in belonging, may fear being seen as selfish for voicing his own concerns. The sense of belonging for the biological child may seem so self-evident that the parent may subtly discount his legitimate problems. Adoptive parents ask their biological child to be understanding and accommodating of the problems their adopted child might have because of his past or because of the difficulties of being adopted. In doing so, they indirectly discount the concerns their biological child has of his own, making them seem trifling or at least secondary to those of her adopted sibling. It is important for the parent, while asking for the biological childís understanding, to give him an equal opportunity to voice his own concerns and be listened to.
From these concerns, it is very easy for the biological child to become jealous of her adopted sibling. Without a forum for her concerns, and especially when the adopted sibling takes an unequal proportion of the parentsí attention, normal sibling rivalry can become bitterness directed at the sibling and at adoption itself.
These concerns, though they might seem trite, exacerbate every stressful family situation. Though they emerge most obviously during a biological siblingís younger years, the danger of leaving them unsettled lasts longer, even through the childís entire life. The relationship between an adopted child and her biological sibling has natural disadvantages, and parents who ignore the biological siblingís concerns may turn his frustration towards the adopted sibling. Some relationships may survive this, growing above these concerns, but some may be permanently lost.
One of the major concerns confronted by adoptive families is the ignorance they must face daily, especially when the adopted child is of a different race than the parents and biological children. Society refuses to recognize "family" beyond the narrow confines of genetic relationships, preventing them from seeing me and my Thai brother as siblings. Rochelle Johnson, a biological child of her Northern European parents, had difficulty bringing her sister, who is half black and half white, into a health club which admitted siblings. Though the stress this causes the adopted child is obvious, there is a significant affect on the biological sibling, too, which emerges in a more circuitous and hidden manner. The adopted child must confront those who deny his belonging to the family, but the biological child must deal with a sense of guilt over her sense of belonging which is reinforced by society. This guilt is added to the responsibility often given to the biological child to explain and legitimize her adopted siblingís belonging. Ignorant strangers, friends or even relatives have no qualms about asking biological siblings the rude questions they avoid asking adopted children. The biological sibling becomes expert at answering such questions as, "Arenít you mad at your parents for taking in a kid thatís not their own?" and "Whatís his problem, anyways?"
These problems become even more severe when the adopted sibling suffers from the emotional and behavioral problems which often accompany adoption. While it is the adopted child himself who must suffer the direct results of these traumas, the biological sibling is too often the ignored victim in their wake. The troubles of Rochelle Johnsonís younger adopted sister were often brought to bear on the elder biological sibling. Her lack of problems were resented by her sister, which combined with an expectation that she would be the stable family member, became a strain and a problem in itself. In the middle of her most difficult times, Johnsonís sister told her, "No wonder your hair is so white. Youíre an angel, a f---ing angel." Adoptive parents appropriately expect that their adopted childís problems are usually due to the childís past or adoptive traumas. By reversing this, however, and expecting that their biological child, raised in a loving family environment, will not have any problems, they set impossible expectations for him. The biological child this confronts a dual front: high expectations from the parents and resentment from their adopted sibling. When Rochelle Johnsonís sister ran away from home, Rochelle was sent off to look for her. This unreasonable pressure on biological siblings is the source of their own problems, which may be created to draw attention to themselves or may arise from the stress of meeting those expectations.
Children, even adolescents, are not adults. They should not be expected to be altruistic and unselfish. Parents who create the illusion that another siblingís problems are being rewarded with attention should not expect a child to possess the maturity to recognize the illusion as such. Those who create another illusion of the biological sibling as the "perfect child" encourage resentment from and towards the adopted sibling.
The greatest potential loss in this whole process is the relationship between the two siblings, who have so much to offer each other. Once the obstacles are overcome, siblings by adoption can transform difference into mutual benefit. In the long run, Rochelle Johnson and her sister have become close friends, but only after the establishment of a relationship long frustrated by circumstance and its resulting emotional barriers. More can be learned in childhood from confronting problems and overcoming them. Adoptionís challenges can be the greatest education a child can receive.