Adopting siblings

Adopting siblings is a lot of work. Is it possible to have fun as well?

We received the following question from one of our community. Read my thoughts then please share your own.

When I was facing infertility and dreaming about my someday family, your words were always an inspiration. I’m writing today because I could use some advice. My brother and his wife recently adopted a sibling group from abroad, ages 5, 7, 8. They’ve been with them since November. They live several states away and don’t have any family nearby—and they’ve been pretty adamant about keeping the rest of the family at a distance to give them some bonding time as a core family.

I met the kids for the first time last week, when my three-year-old son and I spent three days with them. My sister-in-law was out of town for a week and my brother called in reinforcements. My mom also came to help for the week.

The kids are lovely. They are sweet, affectionate–they’ve picked up English in record time. We were only there for three days, but I didn’t see any major behavioral issues. They just seemed like three really good kids happy to have a forever family. In comparison to my own wild child, they were downright angelic!

The problem is that my brother is running the household like a military installation. They’ve read parenting books, but have decided that the recommended methods aren’t severe enough. For example, the 1,2,3 Method is too lenient, so they go straight from 1 to 3 and in many cases straight to 3. A 3 gets kids a timeout AND loss of their bicycle for a day (my mom was there for a week and the kids weren’t allowed to touch their bikes all week). Infractions that lead to a three include such things as bringing a toy downstairs (they can only have toys in their bedroom and the upstairs playroom) or slouching when they are sitting at the table.

There are other examples of being overly strict. If they dally too much at the dinner table, my brother sets the timer and if they aren’t done in ten minutes, they have to go to bed without any evening playtime. He also goes upstairs with each of them to brush their teeth, setting a timer for each one to ensure that they brush for two full minutes. Everything is micromanaged. The kids aren’t allowed to open the fridge or cabinet to get a snack. Truly, the list goes on and on.

I can’t imagine bringing three children into the house simultaneously, and I am sure that there have to be rules to keep chaos at bay. I only have one miracle child—he’s three and a (delightful) handful, which I’m sure my brother sees as totally unruly and undisciplined, so I cannot say anything to my brother. My mom, who has four adopted children of her own and one long term foster son, did make an attempt to talk to my brother, but he shut her down and told her that structure and discipline have to be a priority in their household since they have to teach all the children new ways of doing things and “un-teach” the habits they picked up having spent years in an orphanage.

I think the house rules are incredibly harsh and a recipe for the children to act out in a few years if things don’t change (they are already acting out in daycare, which causes an even firmer hand at home), but my immediate concern is my brother. He’s miserable. He admits that he’s not enjoying parenting at all. A couple of weeks ago he read a study that stated that most Dads claim that playing with their kids is the best part of being a father. My brother admits that he doesn’t feel that way. He just feels stressed out and overwhelmed.

And he is overwhelmed. By micromanaging everything and monitoring their every movement, he doesn’t have a second to himself. And in the three days I was there and the week that my mom was there, we never saw him engaged and playing with the children. He did such things as take them to the Zoo, take them to the Science Center, take them to swimming lessons and the daughter to dance class –all great things for a parent to do, but he didn’t play with them. The rule about no toys downstairs pretty much eliminates most opportunities for family playtime—and his attitude is that there are three of them, they can play with each other.

My brother is exhausted and stressed out and he’s constantly raising his voice with the kids. I barely recognize him. Professionally, he’s a seventh grade teacher who works wonders with his students. But he’s not bringing any of that joy into his house. There’s just no laughter there. What resources are available for parents in his situation and how can we get those resources into their hands?

Getting Their Parenting Sea Legs

Let me get this straight: New to parenting, three at once, three school aged kids at once, three orphanage raised school aged kids at once. Whew, I’m exhausted just thinking about it. As we say in the south: Bless their hearts! Your brother and sister-in-law are in survival mode. Joy is a luxury when your highest aim is making it through to the end of the day.

Strictness Isn’t the Problem

Parenting style, to a certain extent, is just that—style. We need to adapt to what our kids need, but we parents also bring our needs and temperament to the experience. Some of us need a lot of structure because we wilt in chaos. Others of us chafe at rules, preferring spontaneity. And some of us might like to be organized, but don’t have the skills or energy to pull it off.

For the record, I think most kids flourish with structure, especially newly adopted older kids. I will also add that parents of larger families tend to have firmer rules than parents of one to two kids because what is “a delightful handful” when you have one becomes an unruly mob when you have three or four.

I would hope that as your brother and his wife get more comfortable and move out of survival mode that they would tweak their parenting style. We all do as our kids age, and as we have time to see what works and what doesn’t. If kids are always being punished then something needs to change. Also, I should add that “structure” can be excessive and cross the line to abuse. It doesn’t sound like that here, but if you think that’s the case then clearly you need to intervene.

The Key Ingredient

The key to successful parenting isn’t the level of “strictness”, it’s whether there is an underlying current of love. Kids can sense this. We have friends who had what seemed, to my looser form of parenting, unreasonable restrictions when their kids were teens, but they also adored their kids and their pride and love was evident. The kids grumbled about the strictness, but not much. In fact, in a teen group I was leading their son said that he thought his family rules were reasonable and that he would have the same type of rules when he was a parent. Go figure.

Don’t worry about rebellion in the future. Your brother and sister-in-law may loosen up a bit once they aren’t in pure survival mode. Even if they don’t, I haven’t necessarily seen that kids from strict homes rebel more than kids from less strict homes, as long as there is love and respect between the parent and child.

Envelope The Parents with Love

You brother doesn’t need or want parenting advice, and honestly, you’re not really in a good position to give it. You have not been in his position of adopting three school age kids from another country. Heck, you haven’t even parented a child beyond age three. And while your mom may have adopted and fostered in the past, did she adopt three school age kids at once?

While they don’t need your advice, they do need your love and support.

Two Pieces of Advice

I know I just said to not give your brother advice, but if I could, I would only suggest two things right now.

1. Once a day play.

The very last thing your brother wants to hear right now is to add just one more damn “should” to his already stuffed day. (I’ve already got to feed them, bathe them, provide educational activities for them, and now you want me to play with them?!?) I know, I know, just one more damn thing to do. But this one thing, I promise, pays off in spades for both the kids and especially for the parents.

Given the ages of the kids, the activity can be more what the parents like to do, since 5-8 year olds generally will have fun as long as it involves interaction and the parent is having fun. It doesn’t have to last for hours. You simply need to have fun with your kids once a day. A quick game of basketball before or after dinner. Charades. Even playing Candyland, for heaven sakes. OK, that might be going a bit too far, but maybe a video game or Go Fish.

In addition to playing with the children once a day, once a week, do something fun as a family. In our house we call it Family Night, but when they were younger it was Family Sunday Afternoon. The rules are simple: it needs to be something that the parents and kids look forward to and it needs to not take a lot of preparation or work. Watch a movie that everyone likes (maybe a classic from your childhood), go out to eat, go on a hike, bike to a nearby coffee or ice cream shop.

2. Let the Grandparents In

Your brother and his wife need help. Not because they aren’t doing a good job, in fact it sounds like they are doing a great job, but because the job they are doing is hard, and they need and deserve a periodic break. One of my concerns with the current interpretation of attachment parenting for newly adopted kids is that it tends to isolate parents and exclude grandparents.

It’s hard to ask for help, and for some it’s hard to accept help. In order to feel safe to accept help your brother and sister-in-law will want to know that their method of parenting is accepted and that their rules will be followed, at least up to a point. Grandparents can and often do have slightly looser rules—it’s not called spoiling for nothing.

In order for grandparents to spoil and give breaks, they have to be let inside the circle. In order to be let the circle they have to be non-judgmental.

Your mom might approach your brother and his wife with the offer of coming and staying for a weekend so the parents can get away. They need to brainstorm together what would need to happen for them to feel comfortable taking off for a night or two. This comfort will probably include your mom going to their house rather than the kids coming to her house and starting with just one or two nights.

Post Adoption Support

Your brother and sister-in-law probably don’t have anyone else in their life going through the same thing. That is a lonely place to be. There isn’t a miracle or speedy “cure” for what they are going through. They just need to work their way towards becoming a family, but it really helps to know that other have experienced what you are going through and have survived and found joy and laughter again.

Encourage them to join an adoption support group if one exists in their area. Call nearby adoption agencies or foster care agencies and ask about availability. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of the groups around, and they are often limited to larger metropolitan areas. I am a big believer in online support. It’s not perfect, but it is available 24/7 and you can almost always find someone in a similar position. Encourage them to join the Creating a Family Facebook Support Group.

What do you think? Is the brother too strict? What would you suggest?

P.S. If you are considering older child adoption, or in the thick of it, you should listen to this great panel of experts on this Creating a Family show: Preparing Yourself and Your Children for the Adoption of an Older Child with an adoption and attachment therapist, and two moms who adopted older kids. Yu can read the highlights of listen to the 1 hr show on your phone, tablet, iPod, or computer.

Image credit: Sean Ganann

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