Giving Voice to Siblings Part 1

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In a recent comment, a reader asked if I’ve written much about siblings and I realized that, although I’ve spoken on the topic, I haven’t published much about the impact of adopting children from “hard places” on children already in the family. This article was originally published on another site, which explains the more formal tone, and it’s quite long, so I’m breaking it into two parts.

She was four years old.  Each night she woke with a tummy ache and most often went to her parents’ bed hoping for some relief.  Lying next to her mother gave her comfort, but the pain didn’t stop.  A doctor finally determined she had a stomach ulcer and treated her.  The pain went away, but her mother worried about the stress she was enduring at this young age.

She was nine years old.  Her parents were exhausted and always seemed stressed.  There was so much shouting and drama at home that she escaped to her friend’s house, where life was calm.  It seemed that she practically lived there for a year.  Life had changed so much, but she couldn’t talk to her mom who always seemed worried.

He remembered a time when dinner was a happy event.  Now, at twelve years old, he dreaded coming to the table.  Everyone was on high alert waiting for the screaming and raging to begin.  Mom barely had the energy to cook anymore, so dinner wasn’t likely to be that good.  It was probably easier to stay away from home.

He was two and had only joined the family recently.  He came from a “hard place” and feared loud noises that reminded him of traumas from his own history.  When the screaming started, he curled himself up tightly, rocking back and forth, eyes glazed over, as he escaped inside his mind.  His little heart beat so quickly, but nobody could comfort him, they were all busy with another child.

What could have happened to these children?  I can tell you, because they are my children and this is their story.

Dr. Karyn Purvis speaks about the importance of giving children “voice,” and we’ve embraced this as we’ve loved and cared for our children from “hard places.”  But what about the children that were already in our family?  Did we neglect to give them voice?  Did we fail to meet their needs as we desperately worked to help our most traumatized children?

Sadly, the answer to those questions is “yes,” and it breaks my heart to acknowledge it.  In March 2007, we brought three children home from Ethiopia; the following year we added one more.  Some of them brought severe challenges that turned our family upside down.  Our home, which had once been a very happy place, was now in constant tumult. The children already in our family suffered more than we could have imagined.

In many ways, we failed them.  In our effort to bring healing to our children from hard places we created a “hard place” for our other children.  In our effort to give our children from hard places voice, we neglected to give our other children “voice.”  This is the hard truth.

We couldn’t have imagined the chaos that infused our home, and we struggled to find our footing.  I’m afraid we expected our other children to somehow simply adjust and cope.  Instead, they lost their way and they lost the ability to reach us.  When we weren’t in the throes of coping with our wounded children, we were talking, praying, making calls, and sinking lower every day.

Giving Voice to Siblings Part 2

Book #2 Giving Voice to Siblings, and How You Can Help

An earlier version of this post was published on Empowered to Connect.

Please leave a comment and share your thoughts and experiences. This topic is very tender and near to my heart.

Lisa

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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.

17 Comments

  1. KHill
    September 3, 2015

    This is my experience….we adopted 5…a sibling group. While they are precious children, we struggle with lying, not answering when they think they're in trouble, very strong-willed behavior, some theft (which has thankfully come to a halt), all VERY needy. It has been as if we have 2-year-old quintuplets (ages range at this time from 4-11). While we thankfully do not have disruptive, violent behavior, our family as we've known it has changed dramatically. My bio's also suffered loss of a previous foster group of 5 they loved very much prior to our adopted group arriving. It's been 2 years and my oldest daughter still can't stand to hear them call us mom and dad, it pains her deeply when they curl up next to her daddy, or myself. My other 2 bio children waffle back and forth depending on the day and how things are going. All 8 of our children play well together and get along, most people don't understand why we struggle. It almost makes me feel quite guilty to complain or feel stressed when I hear other's stories that are MUCH more traumatic. It's been a struggle as a momma not to feel torn between two groups of children in my own home. Feeling as if I'm abandoning one to help another and visa versa. There is so much information on helping your adopted children….but there doesn't seem to be much on helping bio children adjust. They seem to be the ones who fall through the cracks sometimes. How do we help both groups adjust to living and loving together? How do we divide ourselves equally among the neediness of all the beautiful children (8 in my case) who need my attention? My children range in ages 4-15…… I don't want to lose any of them because they haven't felt "loved enough"; "cared for enough". Honestly, the attitude in the house stems from momma!! I know a lot depends on me and how I handle each situation that arises, sometimes it seems like every minute of the day. Please don't get me wrong, if I had to do it over again, I would. However, I would love to start fresh and utilize from the beginning the training I received recently from Empowered to Connect. I really look forward to reading how you've helped your bio's adjust…at the same time loving and helping your new ones. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Elizabeth
      September 3, 2015

      Hello,
      I am a sibling, though I did not have to deal with what your bio children are because of a large age gap. Something that stuck out in your post though was when you mentioned guilt. I to have felt this. My younger siblings never displayed violent behaviors, RAD was never on the spectrum that was dangerous. Yet, I still would struggle at times, my family definitely struggled. At times I thought I was a terrible big sister and at times I truly was. The thing my did well all throughout was listening, she was mom in a different way to me, she was supporting a budding woman. A lot of what she would do for me is just talk with me. But the point is I thought I needed a good reason to struggle, and most of the time I didn't feel like we had one. You have your own journey, and it is hard. I hear your struggles, they are real and unique. May God give you wisdom and grace as you express a unique flavor of Him day after day!

      Reply
  2. KSJ
    September 3, 2015

    This aspect of fostering has been The. Most. Gut. wrenching, guilt inducing, losing sleep over it part ever. I had no idea how bringing other kiddos into our home would affect or 8yo boy. My husband and I did s many things wrong at the beginning of this process and set a totally chaotic tone in our house that now a year later when he and I are starting to figure things out our son is still exploding at every turn and wishing all our foster daughters away…

    Reply
  3. Cheryl
    September 3, 2015

    I am thankful for this post and eager to read the second half. We brought home newborn triplets almost a year and a half ago as our Foster daughters. They joined our two bio children who are 8 and 11. For the most part I think our big kids have done amazing but this is something I have given thought to and tried to work on. I would love any advice you have to offer on how to balance the demands of high needs children with the emotional health and well being of our other children. We love all five kids so much and desire to have a home filled with joy, even in the chaos!

    Reply
  4. Corina
    September 3, 2015

    I am in great need of your advice on what worked for your bio kids and/or what you wished you had done. Our two daughters (adopting from foster care) just moved in 3 months ago and are destroying our family. I feel like my boys are being tossed aside and left alone. I know they have needs and I know all this trauma in our previously mostly calm home is messing them up. I just don't know how to fix it. Thank you for sharing your story.

    Reply
    1. Emily B
      September 3, 2015

      Corina, three years ago we adopted three girls–a sibling group–from foster care. We already had a biological son and daughter. I totally understand what you mean about how it feels like the new kids are destroying your family. Out three girls came from a very horrible, extreme home, and they were basically feral children. Life in our home was pretty much a nightmare for the first year. We continue to have very rough days every now and then, though it is nothing like it was in the beginning. When you have a larger family, it is hard to give everyone the attention they need. Matt and I have found that the easiest way to get that one-on-one is to always take a child with us when we go on an errand. Just one child. When we're out, we always get some sort of treat. It could be as simple as a candy bar at the gas station, or a slushie from Sonic, or picking a donut or a package of cookies at the grocery store. We sit together and share our treats. Another thing that has really helped is to allow my bio kids to use my bedroom as a safe haven when when they need it. Though my son rarely used it, my daughter did almost daily. She would take a book or her iPod in for a while and just chill. Often, one of the bios would need to talk. Most often, that happened after bedtime. When that need came to the surface, I ignored bedtime. We would curl up on my bed and snuggle and talk. It went a long way toward soothing rumpled spirits and maintaining our connection. Three years in, two of my adopted girls are fitting in as smoothly as if they'd always been with us. One is still struggling. We've worked to give all the kids coping strategies for when L is raging. We have a bucket of craft supplies, cd players with calming music, a tumbling mat for the back patio, a punching bag in the yard, soft blankets and big pillows in bedrooms, and essential oils to smell. Our fruit bowl and veggie drawer are always open if they need a snack. We've settled in nicely, and the kids aren't nearly as bothered by L's rages as they were in the first couple of years. Take heart that things will most likely get better with time. Keep on keeping on. The first year was definitely the hardest.

      Reply
      1. Corina
        September 4, 2015

        Thank you soooo much for understanding…….and for sharing what worked for you! Those are great ideas! Thank you for the encouragement, too – we will keep putting one foot in front of the other!

        Reply
  5. Gwen
    September 3, 2015

    The line "dinner wasn’t likely to be that good" really took me back to our early days.

    When we adopted two traumatized children (about 5 and 8), our biological kids were 10 and 12. I made the absolutely wrong decision that my older kids were big enough to make their own breakfast and school lunches…. I was always busy dealing with rages and meltdowns in the mornings, and I thought that 10 and 12 year olds could more than handle that responsibility.

    Unfortunately, I was so exhausted and burned out that I rarely had enough lunch-appropriate food in the house. (Dried pinto beans, anyone? How about some spelt flour?) As well, our new children had such enormous food issues that there was little food leftover for our bio. kids. For example, by the time my bio. kids got up in the morning, our newest kids had already eaten three or four loaves of bread, so there was none left for toast or sandwiches. My bio. girls pretty much survived on granola bars that year.

    I didn't realize until far too late that I had deprived my older girls of a hugely important part of mothering: providing food and comfort. Yes, they were old enough to slap together a sandwich (if only there'd been bread) but with all the trauma and chaos in our home, they needed me to show that they would still be cared for. Everyone whose kids have food issues can tell you that food equates love, and I had blithely taken that away from my oldest kids.

    When I realized what I'd done, I spoke to them about it and apologized, and began making their lunches again. But it still pains me…. and although I'm still making their school lunches 4 years later, I still deeply regret that thoughtless decision.

    Reply
  6. April
    September 3, 2015

    We thought that since we waited until our bio kids were older, 15, 16, 17, and 20, that fostering children would not have an impact on them. We took placement of 2 young sisters and were surprised that our older children did struggle with some issues around the disruption to our home and family life. Since that time, 5.5 years ago, we have added children and lost children in our home but we try to always check in with the kids in the home on how they are doing. When you know better, you do better.

    Reply
  7. sciencedino
    September 3, 2015

    We adopted an 11 year old from foster care, and he is our only child. He had a very traumatic history and significant mental health issues, and his file stated he was only to be placed as an only child or as the youngest by at least 5 years. We struggled to take care of ourselves that first year, because we he was so needy. I have no idea what we would have done if we'd had another kid at home. I think it was great that his caseworkers were up front about the kind of home that would be needed for him to succeed.

    A little over a year after getting him, things are better. We're wondering if we want to adopt again, and it's so hard to know what's right. We've always said we'll prioritize our forever kids when we make choices about adding to our family. We know we can't adopt a child as needy as our first one, we want to stay in birth order, and we're going to have to be so much pickier about the needs we can accept. It feels horrible to say "nope, that kid is too needy for our family." But with our J already home, we're going to have to. We feel so much trepidation about whether we're going to derail his progress if we adopt again.

    All that to say – THANKS! Siblings are on my mind. J's birth siblings, and his maybe-future adoptive siblings.

    Reply
  8. Angela Arnett Stone
    September 3, 2015

    Thank you for posting this. That is what happened to us when we fostered. I still feel guilty.

    Reply
  9. Tom Vanderwell
    September 3, 2015

    Lisa Qualls – I applaud you for raising the issue and raising awareness. Naming the fear and naming the concern helps many and will do so much good. In many ways our 3 bios have had a much harder life because of their two younger siblings – but in many ways it has changed them for the better (well at least two of them) and made them deeper and emotionally more aware of the world than they were. One of them is pursuing her doctorate in Nurse Practitioning (or something like that) with a focus on pediatric third world medicine – because of the experiences she has had in Haiti (where her siblings are from). So it is hard, it is challenging, it rarely happens the way we want it – but our kids learn a lot about grace, about frailty, about passion and about humility. Don't beat yourself up. You and Russ have followed God's call and you're human, just like the rest of us. Praying for peace for you guys – you need it, you deserve it and you bless us all with it.

    Reply
  10. Chris
    September 3, 2015

    I think we have missed the mark with our first 3-they are such typical, healthy, responsible members of the family-and I LOVE THEM TO PIECES-and then we have 4 cognitively challenged, adhd, ocd, chromosome issues, language disabilities, and all 4 with speech issues too-and 1 major behavioral/emotional/shut every one out and just do her thing older daughter who have all combined to destroy any peace and grace we previously had in the home.
    NOISE-all the time-I found out I have sensory issues when it comes to noise-WOW, it never ends!
    Thanks fo rsharing
    we don't know how to fix this so looking forward to what you and Russ did

    Reply
  11. wannabe1987
    September 3, 2015

    As the oldest of 5, 2 adopted, i was 15?16? when they were brought home from haiti – this is important. I was all of a sudden thrust from a sister to 2 to a sister to 4, two whom were needy, ragey, and taking up a lot of mom and dads time. I rarely talk about it, but i love my siblings, i'm just not sure what my feelings were back then when they first came home.

    Reply
  12. Anonymous
    September 4, 2015

    I was 18 when my family adopted two girls (7 and 13) from Ethiopia. Even as an "almost adult" it was so hard for me to see my sister's rages. Even harder though has been seeing my parents be traumatized. I remember one time calling home from college and then hearing screaming from the background. I felt so helpless being so far away and guilty that I couldn't do anything to help. My parents did a good job at this, but my word of advice for those with older bio siblings would be to make sure they know that it's not their responsibility to be a third parent or somehow fix the situation. Also, keeping yourself healthy is so important, not only for you but for all of your kids as well.

    Reply
  13. ahhodgman
    September 7, 2015

    I have nothing that comes even close to comparing with this, but I remember very well my mindset when my church sponsored a refugee family who moved to our small town. For months I gave more attention to the family's children than to my own. I couldn't shed the notion that since they had suffered so much than my own kids, I HAD to ignore my kids in their favor and that my children would somehow intuitively believe I was doing the right thing. I wish how that I had at least articulated that feeling, wrong as it was. My kids would have pushed back and it would have been a good starting point for more honest communication. Or if I'd at least said, "I know this is horrible for you, but it won't last forever…" Instead, I was obscurely angry at my kids for not getting it, when they were full-out angry at me for putting them second.

    I know that things are totally different when the new children ARE actually now members of your family. Still, I'm convinced that for kids, a straightforward "Yes, this sucks for all of us, and I'm so sorry we're in this place right now" is better than angry, frustrated, unexpressed feelings of "Can't you understand that it's wonderful we have the chance to help and that these children have been through so much that your own concerns seem less important to me?" Of course my kids couldn't have understood that, and I shouldn't have asked them to. What's more, my relationship with the refugee family set up expectations that I couldn't meet in the long run, so that relationship ended up suffering as well.

    Reply
  14. Tricia
    September 8, 2015

    Lisa, thank you for being honest and real. I remember sitting at an ETC conference and hearing Dr. Purvis say as gently as she could (because so many of us had not done this and had to live it) that in her experience with children from hard places, it is best to adopt one at a time and at least 3 years apart. We totally busted on the second point. Everyone paid a price. Yet God is redemptive. "The pit" led us as parents and family to get the help we needed. Healing still flows out to all of our children to this day. I hope that the children in our family who have been affected as bystanders can voice this without guilt and find safe places to get the healing help that they need. Hugs.

    Reply

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