How to Handle Bio Kids’ Breaking Hearts

This post was written by Audrey Simmons. It’s part of the Totally Broke Tuesday series, even though this particular post is actually being posted on a Wednesday. Hey, even schedules are broken sometimes!

Last week, I talked about the fact that adoption will probably break your bio kids’ hearts. This week, I’m talking about ways to reach your bio kid if you know their heart is breaking. I conducted some extremely formal interviews (okay, so I sent texts to siblings) to ask one very big, very loaded question: What do you feel like mom and dad could have done differently for you in regards to emotional or mental well-being?

Here is a truth that sometimes feels selfish or gets overlooked in adoption, because adopted kids come from legitimately hard places: Adoption costs your bio kids something. That doesn’t mean it’s not a price worth paying. It doesn’t mean it diminishes the heartbreak and tragedy of backstories in adoption. But to pretend it doesn’t cost bio kids some kind of sacrifice is just as dangerous as being muted by guilt that it did. It’s not bad for them to “share” parents or toys or space, but their stable background does not make their “now” any less real.

Of course, you should not adopt and then make everything about your bio children. Of course, you should not demand that an adopted child bend over backward in gratitude to a sibling who opened their home and their room and their life. Of course, the goal is to integrate siblings so “bio” and “adopted” aren’t everyday terms and just “siblings” suffices. But in the grit of everyday life, bio kids who are “functional” and have the benefit of a stable background might get lost in the flurry of actual special needs that adopted siblings and the parents are dealing with, and that flurry is the childhood they have that’s happening for them, for real. On some level, their stability has vanished.

When I asked the question of my extensive polling group (okay, two people), the response was unanimous and non-collaborated (they gave me answers without consulting each other first). And I can include my own opinion in here, too. The number one thing we all wished had been different was just that the bio kids wished we’d been equipped with more information.

The answers I got included things like, “I didn’t know why [the adopted siblings] were so angry all the time. When I was little, I thought they didn’t like us,” and “I wish there had been more communication about why there was so little communication.” We didn’t understand why siblings were acting out and, as children, could only see behavior being affected by stuff in the present moment. We didn’t understand why consequences were so different (bio kids might feel like adopted kids are “getting away with” some things because they don’t see how much progress a sibling has actually made, compared to how much trouble they’d be in for acting in an identical way).

We don’t blame or resent our parents; as adult children we recognize that they were learning, too. And in the aftermath of childhood, we’ve had some of these conversations. But now we can equip you to handle this a bit more smoothly, perhaps, or at least sooner.

Here’s what we didn’t need: We didn’t need more details about our siblings’ past. We didn’t need horror stories about “failed adoptions.” We didn’t need professional help from the get-go (though that is a very wise route if you’re dealing with more serious issues).

What we needed and wanted was to be informed about what was happening, emotionally, in our daily lives. We needed to have brief but honest information about why siblings were acting a certain way, how to recognize that it wasn’t our fault, and what behavior we might continue to see. We needed the sacrifice of our time and energy and sometimes even safety not to be swept away or highly praised, but to be acknowledged.

The truth is, your biological six-year-old might outstrip your adopted eight-year-old in terms of emotional and mental maturity. That eight-year-old has been too busy just surviving to grow in some areas, and he’s gotta keep growing, but in an eight-year-old’s body. Other adults outside the home are automatically going to treat him as an older and more responsible child. The opposite might actually be true at home– he might be punching the wall and screaming about picking a shirt up off the floor while the six-year-old is willing to load the dishwasher. (Side note: Do not openly praise and compare the kids. Just don’t.)

Take your bio aside and say things like:

“This is hard for you, but I want you to know that I notice that. I’m praying for you and we can always talk or pray together.”
“You know your brother is very hurt inside. It doesn’t make this behavior right, but I do have to handle it a different way. He needs some grace right now. When he’s yelling, he might feel angry at you but it’s not really your fault.”
“Dad and I are just as mad about this being destroyed, but your sister has trouble connecting her behavior to other’s emotions. We have to help her make those connections without anger or she won’t really hear any of what we say. It’s okay for you to be upset, too.”

And be proactive. Equip your bios with information as you get it. Give consequences for bio kids using that information against their siblings– this is an area for learning empathy and understanding, not for developing manipulation tactics. If you have young children, they may actually be imitating the behavior of older, adopted siblings– give them some grace but don’t skip correction.

Do you know that your child has FAS? RAD? ADHD? Tell your bio. You don’t want to over-confide in them and communicate your own doubts or indecision– that’s not empathy, that’s burden-sharing, and best done with a spouse or friend or counselor. Your bio children need to feel like you are capable and confident in the midst of what might feel like chaos to them just as much as your adopted children need to know they can’t push all your buttons and control you. That might be a lot of weight for you, which is why you need a trusted outlet and Christ. But when it comes to communicating to your bio kids, be matter-of-fact and in charge.

“Your brother has trouble managing his own emotions. That’s why he tries to make everyone mad when we’re getting ready to do something fun. It’s super hard, but let’s do our best to be excited anyway. Just hang out with me if it’s getting hard for you.”
“Your sister feels like she isn’t safe if she’s not with me. It’s actually really scary for her, in her whole body. Let’s make sure we get some time together when she’s taking a nap.”

Your silent guilt that your bio is having a hard time does nothing good. Your honesty and acknowledgment of their difficult day might make a world of difference.

Adoption is worth it. It’s worth the struggle, the sacrifice, the obedience unto a kind of death. But if you know your adopted kid(s) are going to meltdown because you’re going on a picnic, prepare your bio kids, too. “They still like you, they still like our family, it’s hard for them to see that right now, it’s hard for them to accept good things, we just have to keep offering.”

And offer your bio kids Christ. Offer prayer, offer His story, offer the value of sacrifice instead of self-pity. Offer all those things in honesty, not as simplified answers to real pain or struggle. And open the door with just a question:

“When we adopted, I knew it would be hard for you. It’s okay if it is. It’s okay if you don’t like it some days. But today, how are you doing?”
“It’s been really loud here today. How are you doing with all the anger?”
“We’ve been dealing with a lot this week. Let’s get something to drink and sit down and then, can you tell me how you’re feeling about all of it?”

And as always, pray!

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