My sis­ter is the best aunt – but a harsh, con­trol­ling mother with one of her adopted chil­dren

The Guardian - Family - - Family - An­nal­isa Bar­bieri @An­nal­isaB

My sis­ter al­ways wanted chil­dren and she is the best aunt. Some years ago, she adopted a girl of pri­mary-school age. Then, a few years later, she adopted an­other girl. Her first daugh­ter is now a teenager.

My sis­ter was not the mother we all thought she would be. She was very strict with her first daugh­ter and not loving, in a way that was no­tice­able to ev­ery­one. We tried to talk to her about her par­ent­ing style, to un­der­stand that it must be hard, but we all felt that this lit­tle girl, who had been through so much al­ready, was be­ing treated un­duly harshly. I am still ac­cused of tak­ing her daugh­ter’s side when, re­ally, I thought my sis­ter was an adult and could stick up for her­self. I felt it im­por­tant to stick up for the child, as did oth­ers in my fam­ily.

Over sev­eral years, we have tried to talk to my sis­ter about how harsh and con­trol­ling – some­times even cruel – she is be­ing. What she thinks is dis­ci­pline is ac­tu­ally con­trol – she will threaten pun­ish­ment (such as not al­low­ing her child to go some­where) weeks in ad­vance. Their re­la­tion­ship has de­te­ri­o­rated badly and the girl plays up.

When my sis­ter de­cided to adopt an­other child, we feared the lit­tle at­ten­tion she be­stowed on her first child would be even more di­min­ished. That is ex­actly what hap­pened. The younger daugh­ter is wor­shipped. The el­der child has few friends, is not do­ing as well as she could and is an­gry and un­happy. She loves be­ing away from home.

My sis­ter had coun­selling some years ago, but she ig­nored all the coun­sel­lor’s ad­vice.

My niece is no an­gel, but I can’t help feeling that she is an­gry, “voice­less” and un­fairly treated. We can’t un­der­stand how my sis­ter can be this per­son, when she never was as an aunt.

What a very sad let­ter. I edited out a lot of de­tail to pro­tect the iden­tity of the chil­dren. The first thing I thought was how you all seem to know what is go­ing on and yet are all pussy-foot­ing around your sis­ter. I feel for her, be­cause she sounds very un­happy, but, as you say, there is a vul­ner­a­ble child (ac­tu­ally, two) and they take prece­dence.

I spoke to Ali­son Roy (childpsy­chother­, who works ex­ten­sively with adop­tion fam­i­lies, and she also con­sulted other pro­fes­sion­als in the field. Roy ex­plained that, while adop­tion is a mar­vel­lous thing and can go ex­tremely well, some­times the level of shock and dis­ap­point­ment (that it is not what you ex­pected) is great. This is hard to ad­mit and to ar­tic­u­late be­cause, hav­ing gone through the process, peo­ple can be scared of be­ing seen as not cop­ing or not loving/lik­ing the child.

There was noth­ing about your sis­ter’s jour­ney to adop­tion. Had she tried to con­ceive, but been un­suc­cess­ful? Did she have IVF? Roy said: “Your sis­ter may have gone into moth­er­hood with a tremen­dous amount of loss. Adop­tion can be about loss as well as gain. Peo­ple – mother and child – can go into it bruised and bro­ken; two peo­ple con­sumed by loss, com­ing to­gether.”

That struck me as a lot to con­tend with. You have your sis­ter, a bril­liant aunt (the ex­pec­ta­tions!), who, with­out a part­ner to share the highs and lows, adopts a child of school age who comes with her own bag­gage and has de­vel­oped her own per­son­al­ity. But be­ing an aunt isn’t like be­ing a mother. The for­mer is usu­ally part-time, with few of the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

“We’re not talk­ing about faults,” re­minds Roy, “but a com­bi­na­tion that ap­pears to have gone wrong. Your sis­ter and her el­der child seem to have dif­fer­ent at­tach­ment needs.” How­ever, she af­firms what you say: “It is not the child’s fault.”

What to do now? “Your sis­ter is en­ti­tled to post-adop­tion sup­port,” says Roy (and the word sup­port is key here). “There is a gov­ern­ment fund that pro­vides fi­nan­cial help to­wards ther­a­peu­tic sup­port. You can ac­cess this through your lo­cal author­ity and ask about adop­tion sup­port.”

In your longer let­ter, you said you felt that so­cial ser­vices had of­fered lit­tle sup­port and that ser­vices are patchy de­pend­ing on where you live. But it is there – and sup­port is needed for your sis­ter and her chil­dren. You could ac­cess help pri­vately from ther­a­pists who spe­cialise in posta­dop­tion (see link above), but that costs money.

How­ever, none of this helps you ap­proach things with your sis­ter. Is there any­one, asks Roy, who could ap­proach her who doesn’t make her feel so de­fen­sive? Who could say: “Look, this is a fam­ily prob­lem”? Roy asks: “Is the child safe and, if not, do the right peo­ple know about it? This is a child-pro­tec­tion is­sue and the adults around that child need to take re­spon­si­bil­ity. Al­though ev­ery­one in your fam­ily seems to be talk­ing and wor­ry­ing, some­one has to do some­thing.”

Is ap­proach­ing your niece’s school an op­tion – could they offer her sup­port?

If your sis­ter doesn’t lis­ten and you feel your niece is at risk, you may need to con­tact the post-adop­tion team your­self. They are there to pro­vide sup­port, Roy as­sures me.

Could your niece live with an­other fam­ily mem­ber? Some­times this can pro­vide the headspace for re­flec­tion on what is needed.

You can also con­tact and adop­ to get ad­vice and talk through op­tions.

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