by Laura Godwin
Are you like your siblings? Or do you think that your birth order played more of role in who you are? Or does your genetic make-up determine more of your personality and qualities? Because siblings are raised essentially in the same environment, it stands to reason that we would be more like our brothers and sisters. Yet, reportedly the same home environment makes up only 5-10% of our personality, while genetic factors may have more impact—perhaps up to 50%. This then leaves birth order as another factor that could affect personality. In fact, much research has been done on this subject and quite a few books have been written on the topic of birth order. Most of us have heard that the oldest child is more assertive, conscientious, in addition to being more neurotic, envious, and nervous. Younger siblings are noted to be more creative, open to new ideas as well as rebellious.
So how does birth order affect the adopted child? Does it matter if children are adopted out of the “birth order”? In 1990, researchers wanted to find this out as no study had looked at the impact that an adopted child’s position in the family has on the child’s personality.  These researchers studied first-born children placed into the younger child position in the adoptive families. Many such adopted children could fall into this category—the first born child of a birth mother–placed into a family with one or more children. Of course, the reverse is also possible: children could be the second, third, fourth child of a birth mother and the first child of an adoptive couple. In an analysis by these researchers, the rearing order of the children had little impact on personality except for conscientiousness, which was higher for children who were raised as first-born. The child’s sex had more impact than did rearing order.
Although the cited study may be of interest, most adoptive families are not asking what impact rearing order will have on infants who are first born to their biological parents if they enter a home as the second or third child. If a child is an infant, then it is assumed that such a child will have the characteristics associated with the order placed into the adoptive family. What families want to know is what impact adopting children out of age order has on the children already there— especially on the oldest child in the home.
This subject is not found in scientific literature, but common sense and attention to each child’s needs can help in making the decision to adopt out of the rearing order as well as help in the adjustment of the children after the adoption.
First, consider your children’s present ages. If your children are young, adopting out of order most likely will have less impact on them, than if they are older.
Next, consider sibling rivalry and the need for attention. If you have two young children and are thinking of adopting an 8-year old child, who most likely will need lots of nurturing and attention–especially if the child has more profound attachment issues–you need to consider how a school -age child, who may be more like a 4-year-old emotionally, will affect your life and those of the other children in the home. Although a child may be 8 years old, the child may be physically smaller and much less mature than a 4-year-old child in your home. If the newly adopted child looks like an 8-year-old, it can be easy to see this child as being much older than the other children and expecting more than the child is capable of doing. In fact, most children entering a home are going to have lots of needs and most likely will not be emotionally on par with other children of the same age. You will have to adjust your expectations for such a child. If an 11-year old from an orphanage is an only child, it is easier to treat the child like an 8-year old or younger. However, if you have a 6-year-old in your home, you may find yourself requiring more of the older child.
Some families have larger age gaps in their children and adopt a child who can fill in the age difference. This means that neither the oldest nor the youngest child’s position in the family is displaced. Again, the chronological age of the child entering the family can be quite different from the child’s emotional age; you may find that this new “middle” child is more like the youngest child in the family. As stated, it is all about expectations. If you adopt a child who fits nicely into the age range where your children are right now, this newly adopted child may not blend as well as you had anticipated.
Children, who are older, can also have attachment issues and may have been sexually abused. This means that it can be difficult for such a child to be around younger children. Such children may try to harm the younger children—even if in subtle ways. It is natural for adults to be protective of younger children. Behavior that parents may tolerate if there are no other children or only older children in the home becomes intolerable when younger children may become victims.
Some therapists indicate that a large percentage of older children coming from orphanages have been sexually abused on some level. (This is also true for children coming from the foster care system.) Precautions need to be put into place, and this will further change the family’s dynamics. The integration of such a child into the family should be done cautiously. An older child should not be left alone with younger children until a pattern of behavior is well-established. Children should sleep in separate bedrooms and chimes may need to go also on these doors.
In fact, it is better if a child who has newly arrived sleeps in the room on a cot in the parents’ bedroom for a while so that the child can feel secure. If the child is too old for this, then it would be better if the child has a room adjacent to the parents’ bedroom.
The same precautions that are taken when adopting an older child need to also be taken when adopting a sibling group. Sometimes the older child can harm the younger child. Often, however, the older child is very protective of the younger sibling, as the older child may have “parented” the younger sibling(s) while in an orphange.
If an older child or sibling group is adopted, and you later plan to adopt younger children, you also need to consider the same issues of having an older child with a younger child in the home.
Experience as parents can also help you decide what age child you feel you can parent. If you are raising pre-school children, jumping to meet the needs of a middle school child can be quite an adjustment. However, if you are around meddle-school age children and feel comfortable with this group, then adopting an older child may be right for your family.
If your children are older, and you will be adopting a child (younger or older), you will want your children’s input on the matter. Although children do not make the ultimate decision on how parents grow their family (what would any “baby” in the family say about being displaced by a younger sibling?), having your children’s input can make them feel more secure and more welcoming of a new sibling. If your children do object to a new sibling, you can discuss with them their concerns and ways that the adjustment can be made better for all.
Asking the question, “Is adopting out the birth order OK?” and seeking advice means that you are seeking ways to make an adoption as successful as possible. Many families have thrived after adopting out of the birth order. It is a matter of preparation, commitment, and, if problems arise, taking appropriate steps to seek support and make adjustments.
For a discussion on adopting out of the birth order and getting advice from other experienced parents go to When Adoptive Parents Adopt Out of Birth Order by Lois Melina in Adoptive Families magazine.
 Beer, J. M., & Horn, J. M. (2000). The influence of rearing order on personality development within two adoption cohorts. Journal of Personality, 68(4), 689-819.
Thanks for your great blog Emily. My family and I are rellay struggling with some major upheavals and it is all boiling down to temper tantrums and acting out from our daughter who is 2 years and 10 months old. I’m gravely ill and bedridden (which I have been for 4 weeks), to top it off, we have moved overseas back home to Canada to get help from family and medical care for me, but my husband had to stay behind in France for another month. We’re living with my mother with my daughter and I sharing a bed, she has no room, some of her toys in suitcases, different caregivers day-to-day (grandparents, aunts, friends, etc.). I have been a stay-at-home mum for her so she has never been in anyone else’s care, plus everything else that’s going on. She is not a tantrum thrower typically (she’s only had 2 in her whole life), until now. We’ve been back home in Canada for 2 weeks and almost every day she has had a major breakdown, acting up, tantrum with me. Lately I have felt a tad better and have been able to spend a bit more time with her, but it seems the more time I spend with her, the more she acts up with me. My intuition tells me it’s because she has to unleash her stress somewhere and she feels most comfortable with me and trusts me. I try to just comfort her and acknowledge her feelings. I know it’s all very difficult for her, but I’m hoping that you might have some strategies for me to help her ease her stress in a more controlled way with mummy’s help perhaps. I hate seeing her so scared and mad and sad and all of it. We talk about Daddy a lot and how we miss him and he’ll be home in a few weeks and then we’ll move into our own home again and be all together. I try to explain that Mummy’s sick now, but I will be better soon too and will be able to play again just like before. I will likely be this sick for another 5 weeks, so I know this stressful situation will be continuing for her, so any help will be most appreciated. Thanks so much.Melanie
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