Ask AF: How to Tell My Son That I Can’t Adopt His Biological Sister?

An adoptive mother explores adopting her son's biological sister, but realizes she wouldn't be able to meet the child's medical needs. She seeks advice on how to tell her son.

Q: I adopted a six-year-old boy internationally as a single parent. Soon after he came home, he started talking about his younger sister and asking if she could live in our family too. I hadn’t known about her, but excitedly contacted my agency and started the process to find her. It took time, but, lo and behold, they finally did! When I looked through the information they sent, however, it became clear that she has extremely serious health problems. My salary doesn’t go that far, I live about two hours from the closest city (and it doesn’t even seem like it has the right specialist to help her), and know that it would take a lot of time to manage her care. It took a lot of soul-searching (and I’m still not certain it’s the right decision), but I do not feel equipped to be the parent she needs. But now—how do I tell him? Not telling him anything is not an option because he knows we were looking for her (and asks about her often). He’s too young to understand all the reasoning I went through to arrive at this decision. How can I explain to him so that he’ll understand now? When he’s older? I’m fearful that, one day when he can truly comprehend what happened, he’ll be furious or deeply saddened or guilty that I adopted him but “refused” his sister….

A: What a difficult position to be in. I understand that her medical needs are severe and you can’t care for her, but that will make no sense to him as, at six, he sees you as pretty powerful. Also, he may offer to help, without any true understanding that he can’t and that this is not his fault.

I think you have to be truthful. Say that you found her (can you get pictures to give him?), but she is very sick and probably will be sick her whole life. (You don’t want him to think that you won’t be able to care for him if he gets sick, like with the flu.) She needs a special family that has the time, money, and can get the best doctors to help her. You and he are not that family. Acknowledge that it is very sad that they can’t be together. You might mention that it is very common for adopted children to have a sibling they can’t live with. I wrote a workbook, The Confusing World of Brothers, Sisters and Adoption: The Adoption Club Therapeutic Workbook on Siblings, that could help him express his feelings.

Even if he had not been adopted, they would probably not be living together; in many countries, healthy children in institutional care often live in different facilities than children who have medical needs. If you know this to be true of their birth country, you might let him know this if he expresses a desire to “go back to live with her.”

Adoption losses are real and sad. Let him express his sadness without trying to make it all better. The heartbreaking truth is this little girl may never be adopted and receive the care she needs, but at six, I think that should be left out of the discussion. You might light a candle or perform another little ceremony on her birthday to remember her and wish her well and healthy


is a co-author of Parenting the Hurt Child: Helping Adoptive Families Heal and Grow, Adopting the Hurt Child: Hope for Families with Special-Needs Kids – A Guide for Parents and Professionals, and therapeutic workbook series The Adoption Club. Kupecky also co-authored The Mystery of the Multiple Mothers: A Cub County Caper, a mystery novel with an adoption theme, with her brother. She has been working with adoptive families and children for more than 35 years, and recently retired as a therapist at Adoption & Attachment Therapy Partners, in Broadview Heights, Ohio.

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