The Sibling Bond

The bond between siblings is unique. It is the longest lasting relationship most people have, in many instances longer than the parent/child or husband/wife relationship. While the strength of the bond may wax or wane, a person’s lifetime quest for personal identity is undeniably interwoven with his or her siblings.

In early childhood, siblings are constant companions and playmates. Through games and conversations with each other, they learn to interact with the larger community. During adolescence, the ties between once-close siblings may temporarily weaken as the siblings establish their individuality and independence. In adulthood, the needs of immediate families usually take precedence over the relationships with siblings, but the sibling ties often emerge stronger from this period. Siblings generally share their adult struggles and triumphs with each other.

The cycle of the sibling bond comes full circle when the siblings become much older. After their parents and spouses may be gone and their children are raising children of their own, the bond between siblings often intensifies, as they once again become each other’s closest companions, sometimes living together for the remainder of their lives.

The sibling bond develops in children raised in well-adjusted families, but it may be even stronger for brothers and sisters from dysfunctional families who must learn very early to depend on and cooperate with each other to cope with their common problems.
Sometimes, it is only through their siblings that children gain positive self-esteem. When they see good qualities in a brother or sister they are less likely to see themselves as “a bad kid from a bad family.” Siblings are often able to reveal to each other parts of themselves they are reluctant to share with anyone else, thus strengthening the bond between them.

These early ties remain even when siblings are separated in out-of-home care or through adoption. Claudia Jewett wrote:

Children separated from brothers and sisters may never resolve their feelings of loss, even if there are new brothers and sisters whom they grow to love. There may be more drive in adopted adults to track down their remembered biological siblings than there is to locate their birth parents, so great a hole does the loss of a sibling leave in one’s personal history. Many adopted adults desperately want to meet a person who they think might look like them. Seeing similarities between themselves and their biological siblings helps to provide the elusive answers to questions they may have about their heritage (Adopting the Older Child, 1979).

The media often reports stories about brothers and sisters who have been separated through adoption, and as adults, begin a tireless search for each other. One such story involved Eleanor, 39, who searched for her older brother Jim, 41. They had been separated from each other when they were young children. These two children had been extremely close. It was Jim who, when they were first adopted, showed their new parents how to get his sister to eat her vegetables and brush her teeth. It was Jim who had made the transition into their new family easier for Eleanor. But when Jim showed signs of emotional problems, the adoptive parents returned him to the adoption agency. It was believed to be in everyone’s best interest. Thirty-six years later, the only information Eleanor has been able to learn in regards to Jim is that he had been in a shelter for the homeless. It was believed he had also been in and out of mental institutions. Unfortunately, the decision to separate the children proved damaging to both of them. Jim’s emotional problems worsened, following him through his life, and Eleanor was traumatized by the loss of her brother.

Research Findings

Although reasons for separating siblings may have merit, numerous studies invalidate them. They indicate that separating siblings often delivers inappropriate messages and results in greater problems for children over time. Research on siblings reveals the following five points:

  1. When children are separated because of sibling rivalry, it teaches them the way to deal with conflict is to walk away from it, not to work it out. Siblings who remain together learn how to resolve their differences and develop stronger relationships.
  2. The responsibilities felt by an older child for a younger sibling is not necessarily a negative. It can be used
    constructively by adoptive parents to help both children develop appropriate roles with each other. The care-giving
    child can be helped to become a child again and the younger child can learn that adults can be trusted.
  3. Even a needy child does not necessarily benefit from being the only child in the family. According to Margaret Ward’s study, Sibling Ties in Foster Care and Adoption Planning, an only child may receive a great deal of attention, but the child may also become the embodiment of all the parents’ hopes and aspirations. The child may be expected to change troublesome behavior sooner than he or she is able and to accomplish or achieve far beyond his or her actual potential.
  4. When a sibling is removed from a home because of behavior problems, remaining children get the message that the same thing can happen to them. It reduces their sense of trust in adults.
  5. Removing a sibling from an out-of-home placement or adoptive home because he or she has abused his or her brother or sister does not guarantee that the abuse will not continue in another environment with another victim. Therapy may be a more appropriate intervention.

Issues of Sibling Relationships

Despite the growing recognition that it is healthier for brothers and sisters to remain together, child welfare specialists charged with the responsibility of placing sibling groups still struggle with the difficult reality of finding families willing to accept sibling pairs or groups. If the purpose of the child welfare system is to protect and help children, everyone involved should be intent on carrying out that mission whether dealing with one child or siblings.

Child welfare specialists who are dedicated to keeping siblings together and who are willing to be flexible about prospective adoptive families can be successful. For example, large families are often willing to adopt a sibling group of three or four, but these families make some specialists uneasy. They worry that parents may be overburdened and will not be able to give each child enough attention. They wonder whether the household will be too chaotic and at what point the family will be strained beyond its capacity to give quality care. On the other hand, research shows that living in a large family has many benefits. Large families teach everybody how to work together; the older children help the younger children and they learn to share.

Parents in large families are less likely to overreact to minor problems. Large families also tend to operate with more structure – set guidelines and consequences that are known to everyone. For many children who experienced inconsistency and even abuse and neglect, this will be a welcome change from the chaos they faced in their earlier lives.

Children in large families learn to cooperate with people of different personalities and temperments which helps them become more flexible about changes in their world and prepares them for interaction with the wider community.

An agency’s determination to keep siblings together must be reflected in its recruitment messages. When recruitment highlights sibling groups in a positive manner, families willing to adopt them respond.

Most people are distressed when they hear there is a chance siblings will have to be separated. It seems against the natural order of things. Even a family considering the adoption of only one child will almost always want to adopt his or her siblings once they are made aware of them. Sibling relationships are sometimes the only semblance of normalcy these children have. Taking away someone’s siblings, strips him or her of important relationships that make him or her feel okay about himself or herself.

Why Siblings are Separated

Although it is generally accepted that separating siblings should be the exception, many brothers and sisters are living apart. Unfortunately the decision to split the family is often left to the discretion of the child’s child welfare specialist and may be determined largely by resources available for placement.

Today, with more children entering the child welfare system, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find families willing to accept a sibling group.

Often these sibling groups have come from troubled backgrounds, having suffered abuse and neglect by their biological parents. It is thought that, placed separately, the children will each receive the undivided attention of their new parents, and this will help each develop to his or her highest potential.

Child welfare specialists may decide to separate siblings if one of them is victimizing the other.

Separation is also common when one child has difficulty giving up his or her role as caregiver to the other children. Removing the care-giving child may appear to be in his or her best interests, so he or she can learn to become a child again without the constant reminder of past responsibilities. As a resource parent, you can advocate for the siblings being placed together and assist in ensuring frequent visitation when they are not.

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