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Is That Your Real Sister?

Creating a blended family–combining races, cultures, biology, and adoption–generates a special kind of joy. by Barbara Meltz

Deidre and Brad Sassaman often tell their children, “We are an Irish-German-Chinese family.” The Irish comes from Deirdre’s heritage, the German from Brad’s, and the Chinese from two-year-old May, adopted a year ago. It’s not unusual to see May in a green T-shirt that reads, “I’m an Irish princess,” or for Kevin, who is five, to proudly wear his Chinese outfit, especially when the family celebrates Chinese New Year. This time around, however, Ryan wants no part of Chinese outfits. That’s O.K., too. He’s 16.

How it works for us:

We call our two, "twins growing up from halfway around the world." Jaclyn is 8 1/2, Christopher is 8. They like to tease each other: She'll say, "I'll always be older," to which he'll reply, "I'll always be bigger." But they also look out for one another, and don't mind people asking, "Is that your sister?" In fact, they have fun meeting new people that way. –Kathleen Sloe

In families where children arrive both by birth and by cross-cultural adoption, there’s not just a new person in the family, there’s also a new culture. That means there are adjustments to be made, both inside the family and in the community. Here’s how to help kids face the world—and each other:


1. Be ready to lose some privacy. “When you’re in public, you don’t get to pick and choose what you want to reveal to others,” says Kim Stevens, a former director of Massachusetts for Families, an adoption and foster-care training program in Roxbury. “I knew we would draw attention after adopting May,” says Deidre Sassaman. “But I wasn’t at all prepared for how much.”

2. Prepare kids for comments. Talk about what your children are likely to hear when a sibling of a different race arrives, says Deborah Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Adoption Resource Network and a specialist in transracial adoption. Don’t let your children be taken by surprise. Be open about the choices you have made and the values your family espouses.

Gretchen and Paul Felopulos of Natick, Massachusetts, began having simple conversations about differences with Chloe long before they adopted Phoebe. Good thing, too. Soon after Phoebe arrived, when a playmate insisted, “She’s not your real sister!” Chloe was incensed, but prepared. “She is so my real sister!” she said. “She’s my forever sister!”

The Kindness of Strangers...

  • The youngest of my three daughters is always singled out, “Oh, isn’t your ‘little one’ so cute,” as if the other two don’t exist. I always answer, “Christine is 5, Erica is 3 and Janine is 1,” in order to acknowledge all of them. –Carrie

  • When asked “Are they REALLY brother and sister?” (about our two from India), I always answer, “YES! But they are not biologically related.” By age 2 1⁄2, my daughter had heard this so often that she chimed in, “Yes! But we are not bio-woj-ik-wee wee-waited.” —Erin
  • “Are they brothers?” “They are NOW!” is my favorite answer. –Stephanie Mullins
  • Our daughter, Brenda, arrived from Guatemala at 8 months of age, joining our two bio sons, ages 6 and 9. Soon thereafter a boy yelled out to my younger son, “Hey, do you know your sister is brown?” My son simply said, “Yes, she is.” Later I asked how he felt about the question. He said “Her skin IS brown. She is Guatemalan. Maybe I should have told him that.” I told him he did fine. –Beverly Oakman
  • Outsiders commented, relentlessly, about Anya’s beauty and personality, never noticing Alex in his supporting role as shy, non-attention-seeking big brother. He sighed resignedly, “All they talk about is Anya.” –Diana Crowley

  • ONLINE:You'll find many more insightful comments by members of AF's Reader Panel about the adjustments, challenges, and joys of siblings and blended families, along with more articles on this topic here. Add your own experiences and advice!

    3. Tell kids the truth. “As uncomfortable as it may be for you, don’t sugar-coat,” says Johnson. “It’s classic for parents to say, ‘Those people were staring because you and your sister are so cute.’ No, they were staring because you’re different. Say so: ‘They were staring because our family is different. We see each other every day, so we don’t notice our differences so much. But other people do.'"

    4. Demonstrate good responses. Children in transracial families fare best when parents illustrate a range of reactions, depending on the circumstances. If someone asks, “Is she adopted?” it may be a genuine, albeit stupid, question. Part of your job is to teach a life skill: How to evaluate people’s motives. Is this person sincere or merely rude, clueless or prejudiced? What is the tone? What is the body language? If someone is rude, it may be appropriate to turn your back, walk away, and then talk to your child. If a question is sincere, but misguided or inappropriate, you might say, “This isn’t a good place to talk. If you’re interested in adoption, I’m happy to have you call me.”

    Children also need to know that their mood counts. Sometimes, a question isn’t an invasion of privacy, it’s just poorly timed. “‘I’m not in the mood to talk about it’ is a perfectly fine answer,” Johnson says.

    If children five or older start to hate the attention, humor may the best antidote—when someone asks a silly question, roll your eyes at each other, or make a joke.

    5. Stand up for the ignored sibling.When someone oohs and aahs over May, Deidre Sassaman is quick to say, “My daughter, May is very beautiful and smart. So is my son, Kevin.” But the comments are constant, and she can see that they get to Kevin. Once, when a stranger approached the family and asked May, “What’s your name?” Kevin gave his name, only to realize, from the person’s reaction, that she wasn’t interested in him. Deidre felt as if he were shrinking.


    1. Address favoritism concerns. With all siblings, feelings of filial loyalty come and go. For kids in blended families, there are added layers. If your child who was adopted came into the family first, she may think, “They’ll love this baby more because it looks like them.” Address fears even if they don’t get verbalized, advises Johnson. Say, “Some people may wonder if we’ll love a biological child more because she looks like us. We love each other because we are a family, not because of how we look.” If your biological child came into the family first, he may resent the attention the new child gets. You might want to reassure him, “Some people may make a bigger fuss over your sister because she’s from another country. We value everybody in this family, no matter where they’re from.”

    2. Celebrate everyone’s heritage. You want everyone to feel proud of their background. Just remember to keep things in balance, and be aware that siblings can reach a saturation point: “I’m not Korean. Why do I have to care about Korean history and culture?”

    Flexibility and balance are key, counsels Ellen Glazer, a social worker in Newton, Massachusetts, who specializes in infertility and adoption. She suggests treating Chinese New Year the same way you would Thanksgiving. Say, for example: “This is something we do as a family.”

    On the other hand, a nine-year-old shouldn’t be made to feel like she’s a terrible person because she’d rather spend the day at a friend’s birthday party than on a family outing for dim sum in Chinatown.

    How it works for us:

    Our son Shaun (adopted in Colombia) was almost three when all of us traveled to China to adopt Paulina. Shaun has fair skin and blue eyes, so everyone assumes that he's a biological child.

    At times he's open about being born in Colombia and other times he's happy to have friends assume that Paulina is the only adopted one. And Paulina sometimes wishes that she looked like the rest of the family. Paulina's Chinese heritage is easy for us to embrace; Colombia's is tougher. Shaun reads the paper every day and is very aware of the negative press about Colombia. –Marcyanne Goldman.

    While some older children are enthusiastic about activities to celebrate a younger child’s heritage, others are resentful. In a twist on this theme, reader Susan Goodrich reports telling her daughter, Grace (adopted from China), that the family was planning a heritage trip to Ireland. “But I’m not Irish,” Grace said. Susan resonded, “Ireland is part of our family’s heritage, the same way that China is.”

    3. Nip mean behavior in the bud. “When siblings fight, they sometimes hit below the belt,” says Johnson. If you overhear a racist comment, take the offender aside and say: “Those words are not part of our family’s values.” Tell the offended party, “Your brother says he was joking, but it’s no joke to me. I’m going to be paying more careful attention.”

    If you’re afraid the behavior continues in your absence, you may say to each of your children, separately, “Brothers and sisters sometimes say mean things to each other when Mom and Dad are not around. I’m not aware of that happening in our family. Is it? Am I out of touch?”

    By the same token, don’t allow an aggressive younger sibling to physically hurt an older child who may not feel entitled to defend herself. And be vigilant in protecting an older child from relatives who may favor the younger, adopted sibling.

    Deirdre Sassaman knows of only one blowup so far. After May had been in the family four months, she and Kevin were fighting over a toy. Kevin shouted, “I wish you would go back to China!” After Deirdre put Kevin in a time-out, she told him, “I would be very upset if either of you went away. No matter how you came into this family, you’re loved just the same.”

    Barbara F. Meltz, a columnist with The Boston Globe, often writes about child care and family. This article is adapted from “In adoptive families, siblings sometimes struggle,” reprinted courtesy of The Boston Globe.

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    Hi, I'm now a pre-teen and have two older (we are all 2 years apart from each other) adopted sisters. My parents thought thay couldn't have children so they adopted A from China at a weeks old and 2 years later C at about the same. Then two years later my mum became pregnant with me. My sisters ARE my real sisters, we act like sisters because we are sisters not by blood or backround, but by everything else. Sometimes I dread meeting new people because they always ask the awful questions. I was once even asked if I was more 'special' than them. Needless to say I gave that person a peice of my mind-that was in grade 3 though. I have the things people say and ask me and my sisters "are they actually sisters? They look the same" Yes we all are, and no they do not actually look the same-they are from different provinces and look very different form each other thank you. "Why are you sisters?" Because we are "Do your parents like you better?" No, do you like your mum or dad better? Ya I thought so. Sorry, I'm ranting but I just wanted to show everyone how the other child feels to. A, C and I talked about it once and found out the different things we deal with. For them it's always "Are you and C sisters? Why is D yoru sister? Who are your real parents" For me it's "Why are you sisters? Are they actual sisters? Are you more special" I hate all of it. So do they. But we don't care because family sticks together. (we are DEFINIETLY not bullied because of it, it's just the ignorent people or new people we meet who are like that)

    Posted by: Dana at 10:57am Oct 5

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