Splitting Up Siblings – Emotions and Explanations

This my second post about sibling groups who are split up for adoption. You can read the first one, which is about why a sibling group might need to be split up in the first place, here.

This post is about what happens after adoption – specifically, it’s about explaining the decision to your child/ren (part of their lifestory work) and talking about their siblings, and also about the emotions a child might go through because they have been seperated from their siblings. There will be a third post about contact with siblings, so check back on the blog for that in a couple of days.

Again, with her permission I am using my daughter Rhea’s story for this. I will say that how it has been for Rhea, and how she has felt and dealt with the situation, is certainly not how it has been for other children, including my younger two. Every child and sibling group is unique after all. But I will only be using Rhea’s story because both she and all of her siblings are adults and she is mature enough to make a decision about me writing about her past and birth family on here. Kestrel, Parrot and some of their siblings are still under 18 and Parrot keeps adoption matters very private so it wouldn’t be right to write too much about his and Kestrel’s story and birth family even if Kestrel was happy for that to happen (she is actually fine with that now, but I’m not convinced she won’t change her mind at some point, and as I’ve said before, what goes onto the internet stays there!)


Explaining the Decision

Once your child or children are old enough to be talking about their birth family (and if they want to talk about it), part of your adoption conversations will probably be about their siblings, especially if they remember the time in their lives when they all lived together. Even if they don’t remember living with their siblings (I’m focussing my posts on siblings who have lived together and were then split) the adoptive parent has to explain not only that their birth parents couldn’t look after them, but also that they couldn’t live with their siblings.

The explanation given obviously will vary according to the childs age. Just like a 3 year old can usually be told only “your birth parents could not look after you” but an 8 year old probably needs to know more about what that means – a young child can be told that they couldn’t live with their siblings but as they get older the adoptive parent will probably have to start filling in the why.

If you adopt an older child who was seperated from their siblings at an older age then the social workers or somebody appropriate should have talked to them a bit about being split up and why it happened. But sadly you can’t assume that this has happened – no one ever told Rhea why the split happened, she was left to guess.

Every adoptive family will handle the life story work in their own way so I will only give more general advice and say how it has worked with Rhea. My general advice is

  • Be as honest as possible. Don’t sugar coat too much. Some things do need to be left until your child is older, but some things can be said earlier.
  • I found that (and so some adoptive parents may find) that it can be hard to find a way to do it without your child/ren blaming themselves. We have to tell them ‘it wasn’t your fault’. This is one area where I have found it better to focus on some reasons more than others ie. I focussed on the fact that as she has certain needs and her siblings also have a lot of needs, the courts/SW’s thought they should be in seperate homes so they can all get what they need. I didn’t focus too much on the fact that no one could cope with her level of needing control over her siblings lives. I was frightened of her hating herself and blaming herself. Although we did talk about that eventually, it was one of her therapisst who kickstarted that conversation, not me.
  • You can also emphasise the role that the professionals had – reality is, regardlesss of the circumstances, the decision to split siblings, for right or wrong, is taken by social workers and the courts. You didn’t make this decision. I told Rhea that when she got angry with me. She has directed a lot of anger towards those who made the decisions, although as an adult she agrees with them.
  • As a general rule, let your child lead your conversations. Sometimes they just don’t want to talk, sometimes they do. If your child seems reluctant to talk or is just disinterested in their siblings, then we can put their photographs and life story book aside for the moment. As long as they know the basic facts, it’s up to them when they feel ready to ask about the details

As she was 10 when placed, and as she started demanding to know about her siblings soon after moving in, Rhea and I started having these conversations early on. I tried to be honest without saying anything which made it sound like I was putting blame on her. Her understanding of the situation changed slowly, over a period of years, so did the way she felt about it.


Children can have very different feelings about seperation from siblings. Handling these emotions can be tough. If you consider the placement of a child who has been split from their siblings, some possible emotions (I’ve put Rhea or her siblings in brackets where this applies to them. Other emotions are ones I’ve heard of other adoptees experiencing) a child might experience are:

  • Anger because they want to live with their siblings (Rhea)
  • Grief/sadness because they miss their siblings or sadness that the situation ended this way (Rhea)
  • Confusion because they don’t understand why this has happened (Rhea)
  • Confused feelings, beause they don’t know how they really feel about their siblings in the first place
  • Self blame – it’s all my fault we were split up (Rhea)
  • Indifference because despite living together no attachment ever developed (Rhea’s next-in-age sibling, who has attachment disorder and thus despite living with Rhea and being parented by her, never developed any bond for her)
  • Disinterest because they don’t really remember living together and therefore have no strong emotional link to their siblings
  • Relief, if they had a sibling who was abusive or just extremely hard to live with
  • Worry for their siblings welfare or even an obsession with their safety (Rhea)
  • Curiosity about their siblings lives and what they are doing (Rhea but this might also be the kind of curiosity a child might feel if they don’t remember living with their siblings but are interested in their past)
  • An acceptance of the situation (eventually Rhea)
  • Pleased that they do not live together (sometimes Rhea would actually be happy that she had me all to herself)
  • A desire to reunite and live together/see each other again (Rhea)
  • Or conversely a desire to not ever see their sibling/s again and an avoidance of anything to do with them

And probably other emotions that didn’t immediately spring to mind! These emotions can be changed or amplified or brought to the fore by contact (my third post).

Why they feel certain emotions will be very dependent on the situation they came from – Rhea felt worry, concern, grief and anger because she loved her siblings, missed them and felt that she was responsible for keeping them safe (she tried to do so when they lived in their original home, she has always seen herself as a protector). On the other hand, her next-in-age sibling was indifferent (although sometimes does visit as an adult), and the only other sibling who ever lived with her barely remembered her at all, but does happily visit her today as an adult and they have a good relationship.

Whatever their emotions, adoptive parents need to have a home environment which encourages the child to talk if they want to ie. we must validate their feelings and not be hostile to discussion of their lives before they lived with us. Our children should not feel scared to talk about their feelings to us.

How we handle those feelings totally depends on the individul child and situation. There aren’t any magic words we can use to make everything better, God knows I’ve searched for them.

What did I do, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so?…well, tried to increase her understanding of why everything had happened, tried to validate her feelings, made it very clear it wasn’t up to her whether they were split up or not, facilitated contact where possible, and honestly fought very hard for therapy because I didn’t feel the strength of her emotions was something she and I should be dealing with alone. I suggested she try writing letters to her siblings (not to send, but just when she wanted to talk to them) so she could let her feelings out, but that definitely did not help, she just obsessed over her siblings even more. And I do mean obsession, not just grief.

I would be interested to hear how others have dealt with their children’s emotions

Therapy helped Rhea. Time helped her. Maturity helped her. Contact helped her. I don’t know how much I helped her, but she says I did help her because I was willing to just be there and be a listening ear and say ‘it’s okay to feel that way’.

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4 thoughts on “Splitting Up Siblings – Emotions and Explanations

    • Thank you very much :) Glad you found it interesting

      I don’t think you sound naive or stupid at all – realistically, if you’ve never come cross (modern) adoption or fostering, then how would you know what it involves? Adoption has changed a lot in a couple of decades as well.

      Can I ask if you found me via mumsnet – I’m actually pleasantly surprised that I’m picking up a couple of readers that aren’t involved in adoption, because I think this is quite a niche topic. I wonder if the recent media focus on adoption has made people more interested in it? Or maybe it’s just the splitting up siblings topic – it can be pretty controversial after all.

      Either way, part of the reason I started this blog is to raise awareness of modern adoption issues, so if I’ve managed that, I’m very happy :)

  1. Pingback: Comparison: Negative emotions experienced by children | Dew Drops

  2. Pingback: Splitting up Siblings – Contact | Last Mother

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