Q: Thirteen years ago, we adopted two brothers from Eastern Europe. They are now 14 and 16. Last year we were contacted by their older sister, age 24, who is still in her native country. We did not know about this girl when we adopted our children because she was raised in a separate orphanage.
I would like to tell my children about her, but they are well-adjusted and I'm worried about it throwing them for a loop. Also, the story of their family and how they came to be taken away from their mother is a truly sordid one and, while we do not have to give them all the details now, I am concerned about that having a traumatic impact on them as well. Their sister appears to have turned out very well and is a college student. My children know they are adopted but neither has expressed any desire to know more about their birth family. I could use advice about what to do.
A: I don't think that knowledge of their family history poses an emotional risk for well-adjusted children who are 14 and 16 years old. In my estimation, your boys have a right to know their sister, as well as a right to knowledge of their family, and you have an obligation to open those doors for them.
Your anxiety is rooted in two notions: first, that a child is by nature psychologically fragile; second, that adoption greatly increases a child's psychological fragility. Because adoption professionals tend to reinforce these notions, adoptive parents tend to over-think and over-protect. The facts are that children are endowed with considerable emotional resilience, and "adoption issues" have been greatly exaggerated by both certain professionals and the media.
As a largely practical matter, I advise that you meet with the sister first, in order to bring her up to date. In the final analysis, this could turn out to be a very good thing for all concerned. A sibling reunion and an awareness of family history might even increase your sons' appreciation for the sacrifices you've made and the life you've given them.
If, however, you approach a reunion with their sister as if it might upset the delicate psychological balance you've worked to maintain, your boys will undoubtedly pick up on your misgivings and anxieties. Under those circumstances, there is a chance they might construct what I call a "psychological soap opera" around the circumstances of their adoption and begin acting like issue-ridden unfortunates. Avoiding that requires that you deal with this in a very straightforward and matter-of-fact manner.
As in: "We've discovered that you have an older sister who was raised in a separate orphanage. She has contacted us and wants to get to know you. (Share with them what you know about her and her current life situation.) She sounds like a nice enough individual, and the effort she has gone through to find out where you are certainly speaks of commitment and sincerity. Do you want us to put you in contact with her? Regardless of what you decide, her appearance has made it necessary for us to tell you some things that we were planning on telling you when you were older. We've decided, however, that you're actually old enough. So here goes . . ."
And tell them what you know about their family background, while at the same time leaving out details that are completely unnecessary (e.g., their mother was a prostitute).
The bottom line: If you treat your boys as if they are emotionally competent people, they will probably act like emotionally competent people.
John Rosemond is a family psychologist. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at Affirmative Parenting, 1020 East 86th St., Suite 26B, Indianapolis, Ind. 46240 and at his Web site: www.rosemond.com.