Ask AF: Rivalry with a Newly Adopted Sibling

"Our son had been excited about the idea of a 'little brother,' but, from the day our younger son came home, they have had intense rivalry; there was no 'honeymoon' period. What can we do?"

Q: We have a six-year-old son (adopted as a toddler from foster care) and have been fostering a four-year-old for the last three months. We hope to be able to adopt him (and it looks like we’ll be able to). Our son had been excited about the idea of a “little brother,” but they have had intense sibling rivalry from the day the younger boy got home; there was no “honeymoon” period. They do have moments when they get along, but they also fight quite a bit. Our older son has been asking me if his younger brother has to stay, or if we can “give him to another family.” What can I say to him? To both boys?

A: I imagine both boys have a lot of anxiety about the future. Right now, since you don’t know whether or not you’ll be able to adopt the younger boy, you can’t reassure either child. Do not lie to them, however. I would simply say, “We don’t know if he will be staying with us. We hope so, and I will tell you when we know.”

The four-year-old hasn’t been there long; I wouldn’t expect him to settle in for at least a year or more. Where was he before coming to your family (with his birth family or another foster family?)? Does he have visits with his birth family? Is he grieving? That could cause some questions and feelings in your first child.

Your older son’s asking if the new brother can be “given to another family” is not unusual. Many birth children suggest that a newborn sibling be sent away. Reassure your son that, no matter what happens to the younger boy, he will be staying because you adopted him. He will be with you until he is 100. (That is a big, concrete number for a child and better than “forever,” which is too ambiguous for a child.) You may want to make a timeline for him showing when he came into your family, when he was adopted, and how long he will be part of your family. Do not assume he feels totally permanent in your family. Since he was a toddler when you adopted him, the current situation might be triggering some old memories or trauma in his past. Go over his story.

Finally, make opportunities for each boy to spend time alone with a parent—take a trip to the grocery store with one while the other is with your spouse (if you have one), spend time with the toddler when the older one is at school, drop in at school to share lunch with your oldest, let the older one stay up a little later for a story. The Lapsnatcher, by Bruce Coville, is about a new baby and sibling rivalry. Hang in there.


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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