Does Birth Order Matter in Adoption?


By Gail Heaton

There is enough understanding about birth order to know that there is importance associated with what position one is in the family. And so, when this order gets changed through adoption, it could be hard on the resident child who gets displaced.

Paying attention to and being aware of the potential difficulties can help you support your child, even when they have not expressed concern.

First, there is the bad news. As with most things relating to the impact adoption has on the resident siblings, how to help the displaced child adjust is not something that people are researching or talking about.

Changing the birth order has been cautioned against and even prevented by many adoption agencies. However, there is no empirical research definitively that shows it is necessarily always a bad thing.[1]

Most assume that the adjustment difficulties would be too much for the family to withstand, so the more common practice is to place younger children in a family.

I have found that the information available is geared towards families still in the pre-matching stage, not families who have already identified the child, or who already brought their child home.

The good news is that I have identified a few factors associated with greater adjustment success, which I share below.

  • Consider your resident child’s current age. 

The younger the resident child is, the less likely there will be a negative impact to a displaced family order.

Experts say that if the resident child is under the age of three, then there will be less disruption as they haven’t settled into the power of their particular family order.[2]

Your resident child will do best by having conversations with you about these role shifts in birth order. It’s never too late to have these conversations.

By bringing it up, you can let your child know that you recognize it may be a difficult adjustment for them, and you are here for them to help.

Just because your resident child has not said anything, don’t assume it is ‘ok’ with him or her, or not without concerns.

  • Get your resident child’s input on the matter.

If your resident child has been enjoying the responsibilities and privileges that come with their birth order status for a while now, you will want his or her input on the adoption of a child that displaces them.

If the new child is already in the home, ask your resident child candidly if they have accepted the change in their family order status.


What is tricky about accepting this change?

What adjustments can be made to help him or her to better settle in with the idea?

Having their voice heard and valued, even if you can do nothing about it, can go a long way in making your resident child feel secure about their place.

Be willing to make those concessions, within reason.

Allow your resident children to voice their frustrations in a nonjudgmental atmosphere, let them feel heard, and let them vent, if necessary.

Together, you may come up with some compromises and solutions that you wouldn’t think of on your own about how to preserve some of the resident child’s status and privileges.

Play act or role-play some possible scenarios that could work out solutions to some potential problems.

Foster positive early experiences between the children to help strengthen the sibling relationship.

Family activities that create wonderful memories will aid in making everyone feel like a family sooner.

  • Consider the maturity and needs of the incoming child. 

Children coming from trauma and loss backgrounds often are emotionally less developed than peers who experienced stronger first starts in life.

Your in-coming child may be older than your resident child by a few years, but developmentally, that child could be years behind emotionally. They could also be physically smaller.

A good rule of thumb is to expect maturity levels to be up to ½ the chronological age.

For example, an eight-year-old child from a trauma background, who resided in an orphanage, had multiple placements, or whose birth mother drank while pregnant could have the emotional maturity of a four-year-old.

Your resident child may ‘lose’ family position status in name only. It may help for them to know that.

  • Treat each child as an individual. 

When you can treat each of your children as the unique individual that they are, you may find that birth order power struggles are at a minimum.

Chores and privileges based on maturity level can mean that even the younger aged kids can have positions in the family that are ‘above the pay grade’ of their older siblings.

If this is naturally the culture of your family, then birth order power won’t matter as much.

By power, I mean the way that older kids lord it over the youngers that they get to do special things no one else gets to. In this case, now everyone is getting special privileges and special responsibilities which match their maturity and not age.

It may not quiet the oft-heard refrain ‘I’m older, I get shotgun seat’ on the way to the car that I heard with my kids, but it will go a long way in allowing yours to share the power seat in other ways.

  • Have your support groups ready. 

Parents who are well supported are better able to support all the children in the family. Don’t be shy in getting the support you may require to parent children from different backgrounds.

By support groups, I mean a support group for yourself and a support group for your resident child(ren).[Check out this article on Support Groups!] 

The idea is that if you and your resident children are prepared with a support group before the need arises, your support group will already be in place for each of you.[3]

Get outside sources of help around the house if necessary and possible so that you can focus more attention on the displaced child, to help them process and adjust.

Success in reorganizing the family order will depend in significant part on your ability to emotionally support each of your children.

So, get the support you need. And transition success will depend on your resident child’s mailability in adjusting his or her birth role. So, get them the extra support they need.

What would you add to the list?

What helped your resident child the most to adjust to a birth order shake-up?

What was the trickiest for them?

If you don’t know, maybe now is a good time to ask.

Let me know, and I can share the idea in a follow-up post or article.

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