Kris’ Corner – When Siblings Go to College

August 30, 2023

So going along with my last post about sibling connection…another thing that doesn’t seem to be talked about too much in foster and adoption is the impact when an older sibling going away to college. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you already know that in our case, our biological sons are 13 and 11 years, respectively, older than our youngest son who was adopted from foster care. At the time our youngest came into our home at three months old, the older ones were (you guessed it) 11 and 13.

At the time the age difference was nice in that they were very helpful, and they were (mostly) interested in learning about him and how to best help him. Over time, they have grown close to him, and him to them, in spite of the huge age difference. They are definitely very important to him, and they are all securely attached to one another.

However, when the youngest was 5, our oldest son went away to college. And to be honest, I kind of expected waterworks from the youngest. Instead I got anger.  Looking back, I should not have been surprised, but I was…maybe because my sad looked like sad, and even though I should not have assumed his would be like mine, I did make that assumption…but unfortunately his sad looked like mad.

Needless to say, the whole experience was hard for all of us, but especially for our youngest son. He didn’t understand why his brother was gone and then back and then gone and then back…every few weeks he’d come home for a weekend. Unfortunately (and you may have already figured this out based on our oldest son’s age), I finally had our youngest son somewhat understanding that his older brother doesn’t really live with us anymore; he just comes home over breaks.

And then Covid it happened and our oldest had to come home for months…so obviously that was very confusing. Understandably, we had the learning curve all over again when he left again for college the following September. But honestly…in spite of logically understanding what was happening and why his brother came and went, it didn’t make the emotional piece any better for him.

And all the while, sad looked like mad.

And then in year three of this season of “why is my brother here and then gone all the time?”, the other older brother also left for college…and the the fallout from that was immense.

Our youngest had all sorts of behaviors leading up to it and following it. I personally believe it’s because he was a little bit older, a little bit wiser and he KNEW what was coming…that this other brother also would not live with us full-time anymore. And he just didn’t like that.

So he’d be angsty and angry for a while and then he would smooth out…and then inevitably, one of the brothers would come home for a visit. And the apple cart would be upset again for a few days.

And please do not hear what I am not saying: in no way am I blaming the older boys… It’s definitely not their fault and of course I was thrilled when they wanted to come home. It was also helpful that they tried to be as sensitive to his anger as they could (which wasn’t always perfect because they were still teens at that point, but I do give them major props for trying).

But especially as time went on, they would try to have their next visit home planned ahead so they could tell him when they left how many days or weeks it will be before they would see each other again. And that thoughtfulness definitely seemed to help him understand that this wouldn’t be a really long time.

In a now-nine year old’s mind it’s still long, but not unbearable.

Now some of you might be reading this and are confused by his anger response, so just a quick word about that: sometimes kids from hard places don’t process their emotions properly and so an emotion isn’t displayed as it typically would be; for our son, sad comes out as mad for him…and it took us a while to figure that out.

So to be totally transparent, we say “his sad is mad” but truly it’s more than just mad; the behaviors we were experiencing with him were escalated anger, (like explosive), as well as high anxiety (lots of chewing on his fingernails). Behaviors you expect in a highly-anxious person, so we, as his parents, just have to always keep that in mind…even though he understands that his brothers are leaving, or they just left, or he simply misses them, he can be emotionally triggered by that and we have to be on our “A Game” to pick up the pieces…and also to realize as soon as we see his mad, we have to address not only the mad behaviors, but understand it in the frame of sadness.

And at the risk of sounding like a broken record: That’s where keeping ourselves calm, and keeping ourselves regulated, even in the midst of his sadness, is where we can help him continue to heal…and understand that the loss he’s feeling is not a forever loss, it’s just temporary, even though both losses might feel the same way to him as a nine year old from hard places.

Obviously there are many other possibilities when a) a behavior could manifest that doesn’t show true emotion, and b) it could be the foster and/or adopted child going away first…and the dynamics might be completely different than in this scenario. Regardless of the situation in your home, I hope this helps you understand that the behaviors or emotions you’re seeing in your child might not be the actual ones they’re feeling; true emotions might, instead, be masked under something easier for them to express. It’s only when you come alongside them and walk through the struggle with them that you can help learn the code to decipher their actual feelings.