Building and maintaining relationships between siblings

21 January 2019

Elsbeth NeilBeth Neil

Being adopted involves gains and losses for children, but one of the starkest losses is of relationships between brothers and sisters.

In a recent survey of adoptive parents we found that almost half of adopted children had no contact whatsoever with any of their brothers and sisters who lived elsewhere and only a quarter were able to continue to meet up with their siblings (Neil, Young & Hartley, 2018).

As a new study of siblings and the law carried out by Daniel Monk and Jan Macvarish found, being adopted is the most serious risk to the continuity of sibling relationships (Monk, Macvarish, 2018). For a whole range of reasons it is not always possible for adopted children to grow up in the same family as their siblings, but can we minimise the loss by keeping children in touch with each other? We can and should do more to help adopted children maintain these connections.

To support practitioners, the University of East Anglia and Research in Practice have updated the website of resources for contact after adoption and included a new section on sibling contact. This includes a Practice Briefing that summarises key messages from research, and two Practice Guides which aim to help with deciding about, and supporting, direct sibling contact. The resources can be used to help more children stay in touch with their brothers and sisters.

When contact is maintained, it is generally rewarding and helpful as it allows children to know their siblings are doing well. In our study of direct contact one adoptive parent said ‘I think it reassured him to see his siblings and to see they were alright...he seemed grounded and settled, almost relieved and more content in himself…he was able to relax knowing that they were fine’ (Neil Cossar, Jones, Lorgelly & Young, 2011).

Seeing brothers and sisters can help children make sense of their identity as explained by another adoptive parent in the same study: ‘They are not just pictures on the wall; they ... are standing next to him and they look like him, and he can see who he resembles and I think that’s so important for him’. Children value the chance to build relationships with their siblings, one young adoptee in our longitudinal research study said: ‘My sister’s lovely as well, …it’s just like playing together and doing stuff together … it’s really nice to meet up’ (Neil, Beek, Ward, 2015).

Adopted children are most likely to stay in touch with siblings who are also adopted but in another family. When siblings remain in the birth family, or they are in care but in touch with birth parents, adopted children more often than not lose direct contact. There is a sense here of a kind of protective anxiety, a fear of contamination, that the adopted child needs to be protected from their birth parents, even at the cost of losing their brothers and sisters. Certainly there will be situations where this level of control is necessary, but I would argue that these decisions generally don’t arise from careful individual risk assessment but from a background of unnecessary and possibly irrational fears.

Where sibling groups are split up, it is also important to think about the needs of older siblings (not adopted) whose younger family members are adopted; these young people will care about and have often been involved in caring for their younger brothers or sisters. We interviewed several older siblings in our study of direct contact (Cossar, Neil, 2013). Their grief and anxiety about how the younger ones are doing, can be similar to the feelings expressed by birth parents. Contact can help ease feelings of loss, one older sibling said ‘I saw my brothers and sister were really happy so I knew if they are happy, I am happy’

Sibling contact is not without challenge. It is important that whoever is looking after the other children is willing and able to work with the adoptive parents (and vice versa). It helps if families get on and have things in common, but the main priority is working together for the children’s wellbeing. Getting things organized can be fraught when more than two children or two families are involved. Just finding a date when everybody is free, and an activity or venue that everybody likes, is tricky.

Siblings can be far apart in age and in terms of their life experiences and views of the birth parents. Because brothers and sisters have sometimes shared bad experiences, seeing each other can trigger difficult memories and emotions and children need support to manage these. Children may need help repairing difficult relationships such as when rivalry is intense or one child has been scapegoated. There may be situations where one sibling has been involved in the abuse of another.

Even when direct contact does take place, children can lose the sense of their connection with each other – hardly surprising when they don’t see each other often and when they only meet in formal settings. Perhaps we need to move away from the idea of children having ‘contact’ with each other and think more in terms of enabling fun and meaningful family gatherings.

Sibling contact can help children with their sense of identity, with understanding why they are adopted, and with lessening of adoption related loss. If children can build a meaningful and rewarding connection with a brother or sister in childhood this relationship is likely to last for the rest of their life.

About the author

Beth Neil is Professor of Social Work, Director of Research and Chair of the Research Ethics Committee for the School of Social Work at the University of East Anglia. Her research interests are in the field of adoption including post-adoption contact, birth relatives’ perspectives on adoption, post adoption support, and adoptive parent recruitment.

Related Research in Practice resources

Contact after adoption

The contact after adoption website supports practitioners working on making post-adoption contact plans and/or supporting birth relatives, children and adopters to establish and maintain contact. Topics contain a mixture of research briefings, practice guides, presentations, exercises, links to relevant research and practical tools for working with families both during proceedings and once the child is placed.


Cossar J, & Neil E (2013) ‘Making sense of siblings: Connections and severances in post-adoption contact’. Child & Family Social Work 18 (1) 67-76. Available online: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/cfs.12039

Monk D, Macvarish, J (2018) Siblings, Contact and the Law: an Overlooked Relationship, Summary Report, London: Birkbeck University of London. Available online: http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/sites/default/files/files/Final%20Siblings%20Summary.pdf

Neil E, Beek M, & Ward, E (2015) Contact after Adoption: A longitudinal study of post adoption contact arrangements, Coram, British Association for Adoption and Fostering. Available online: https://www.uea.ac.uk/contact-after-adoption/home

Neil E, Cossar J, Jones C, Lorgelly P & Young J (2011) Supporting direct contact after adoption, British Association for Adoption and Fostering. Available online: http://adoptionresearchinitiative.org.uk/summaries/ARi_summary_10.pdf

Neil E, Young J & Hartley L (2018) The joys and challenges of adoptive family life: a survey of adoptive parents in the Yorkshire and Humberside region, Norwich: Centre for Research on Children and Families, University of East Anglia. Available online: http://www.uea.ac.uk/documents/3437903/0/Yh+report+may+2018/d4acf363-9a5d-ee95-c52e-ae65878d091b?_ga=2.105646279.590926134.1547034952-963308122.1538407360

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