An adopted adult speaks out about the complexity of his own placement in a sibling group. *Please note some details have been changed to protect identities.

What is so important about a sibling relationship?

It could be described as the longest relationship we will experience in our lives, outlasting parents and pre-existing future loved ones. In most cases, siblings will share life spans (give or take a few years), sharing parents, a first home and our earliest life experiences, both positive and negative, as well as expectations about how the world operates and our place in it. We will be each other’s first friends and first competitors, the ones on whom we will test our newly acquired social skills, the ones whom we will learn from and whom we will compare ourselves to. In the best case scenarios, siblings will be an irreplaceable source of support, friendship and affection – witnesses to each other’s lives.

Facts bear out the advantage of strong sibling relations: a long-term study of almost 300 men, stretching from the late 1930s to the present day, by the Harvard Study of Adult Development, shows that 93% of the men who were thriving at 65 had been close to a sibling in their early life. The study also showed a link between poorer relationships between siblings before the age of 20, as a predicator for depression in later life.

Where families are affected by issues of parental abuse and neglect, with involvement from social services, the sibling relationship can take on even greater significance; children seeking the emotional warmth from their brothers and sisters, which they struggle to access from their parents.

Studies on the experiences of cared-for children have consistently shown the importance of protecting sibling relationships. A Texas study of adults who grew up in care, found that those with greater access to their siblings and stronger relationships with them, reported ‘higher levels of support, self-esteem, and income, as well as stronger sibling relationships than those who did not’ (McCormick, 2009). Marjut Kosonen’s study of the support siblings provide, found that for isolated children (as in the case for many children in foster care), older siblings were often their only perceived source of help. Further studies have shown that a young child’s attachment to an older sibling can diminish the impact of adverse circumstances such as parental mental illness, substance abuse or loss, as siblings have a shared history and the maintenance of their relationship bolsters their sense of identity and belonging (Gass, Jenkins & Dunn 2007).

For Alex*, the maintenance of sibling relationships was invaluable. Born in 1983, he was placed with a foster care family with a view to being adopted. When it was discovered that his mother was pregnant with a second child, whom she was not healthy enough to look after, a decision was made to delay the adoption until his brother Carlo was born, at which point he was adopted too. Over the following eight years, his birth mother gave birth to another three children, all of whom except one were placed in open adoptions. A network was set up, with relationships between all the children and their adoptive families being carefully nurtured and maintained, until the children were old enough to so themselves.

“Each adoption is truly unique. It depends on both the circumstances of the adopting family, and the children. My parents opening their minds to an open adoption created a doorway towards a relationship with all my siblings and their wonderful families,” said Alex. “To me, it was like having a wonderfully large extended family.”

Alex’s adoptive father, a social worker, was aware of the challenges of sibling placements, but Alex argues that being adopted alongside his brother was a blessing.

“The greatest benefit of growing up with my brother was in sharing the experience of meeting our birth family. It was also wonderful helping him, or vice versa, and in being able to share worries and concerns, and help process complex thoughts and understand situations.”

The complicating factor in sibling placements is the long shadow that can be cast by early life, developmental trauma experienced by the children in question. Each child will be deeply affected by any abuse and neglect experienced in early years. Siblings may experience the same events at the same time, as they happen under the same roof, often perpetrated by the same people, but the way that they process and manifest this trauma will vary greatly from child to child, leading to highly individualised needs that require exploration before making far reaching placement decisions.

Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist Anna Plagerson, who does intensive therapeutic family work at PAC-UK, considers the value of placing siblings together to be a complex question, requiring careful investigation and a thorough therapeutic assessment. She states that the serious early life trauma inflicted on young siblings can sometimes make it impossible to allow them to heal and process their early experience if they remain together. They run the risk of triggering their shared traumatic past in each other and re-enacting these episodes, to the detriment of family life and their own recovery.

“In the case of young siblings, sometimes trauma can get re-enacted. It can even become dangerous for them to play, without that play becoming hugely violent, life-threateningly dangerous, or sexualised. Play can just tip over into something more trauma-bound, because that’s what binds them, that memory, that experience. In that case, it may be wiser to parent them apart, because that way, they are able to make far better use of therapeutic parenting. Placed together, there is a risk in cases like this, that they are pulled back into re-enacting early experiences and then, they can’t even make use of the good parenting they are given. The placing social worker’s hope often is that ‘Oh, they’re together, they have lost so much already let’s not separate them’. So, this is a case where the grown-up’s wishes and hopes are getting in the way of making sensible decisions.”

Anna also explained how, at times, one child’s needs run the risk of taking precedence over the others: “One child may take on the role of compliant and subservient of their needs to the other child, who is acting out. Then as soon as the child who is acting out calms down, suddenly the subservient child’s needs explode. So the one you think is doing ok, really isn’t.”

Gonce Ahmet, a therapist who also provides post-adoption therapeutic support for families at PAC-UK, said: “A strong sense of competition can emerge between the siblings, for their parents’ love and attention. It can feel as though one sibling (usually the youngest) receives all the attention, whilst the others are left to get on with things. There can be huge demands upon the parents to meet siblings’ needs, which already great due to their early life traumas and then become compounded by the territory wars. During my work with siblings, I am sometimes reminded of sibling groups of baby birds in the wild; often only the strongest survive, whilst the others are violently pushed out.”

“However, there is also another, more positive aspect of siblings placed together… Siblings can find a deep sense of belonging and understanding from one another, which they may not feel they get elsewhere. In this way, they become mirrors to one another which can help to build a stronger narrative about their early life history.”

Despite these challenges, with the support of strong family networks and access to therapeutic resources, traumatised siblings are sometimes able to overcome their painful early starts and thrive, as with the Leighton** family, who adopted two young sisters in 2003. Annie Leighton said that her youngest daughter stated (of her sister) that, “she was glad they were adopted together, and she was happy, and even though she’s a pain, she really loves her and she’s really glad that they were placed together.”

She laughs at this, saying: “There was a time, seven or eight years ago, where we were wondering if we had made a big mistake in adopting them together, because they didn’t seem to be able to grow as individuals; they seemed to be holding each other back. But now, I think they’ve benefitted more than they lost. They have benefitted more, even though it’s been harder for us. Hopefully going into adulthood they will still be able to be friends and enjoy each other’s company.”

It is in this context that we must acknowledge that adoptive families who take on the challenge of sibling placements are giving their children the extraordinary, acknowledged benefit of maintaining those family ties, but that they do so with a degree of risk.. To make sibling placements work, careful assessment and specialist adoption support will more often than not be needed.

This means that siblings should be comprehensively assessed prior to placement. Decisions to keep brothers and sisters together should not simply be based on their blood bond, but on their ability to relate, play, grow and thrive together.

Current Adoption Support Fund regulations allow for a certain amount for assessment and therapeutic interventions per child per year. This makes it possible to work for a longer period of time with a family who has adopted siblings. However, the ASF amount often only just about covers the therapeutic needs of each individual child and may not allow for sufficient sessions to address the sibling relationship.

When it is sadly not possible for siblings to be placed or remain in the same family, every effort should be made to make sure their relationships are nurtured and maintained, supporting the children’s right to remain connected to their sibling in a meaningful way.

* name changed for purposes of this interview

** name also changed for purposes of this interview