Sibling Bonding

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What about bonding between siblings? Children bond to one another over time in the same way it happens between children and adults. Evaluating sibling relationships poses the same problem, comparing blood and bonded relationships. Being related by genes does not necessarily create a personal bond.

The bond between siblings may be the longest lasting relationship people have. When children must be removed from a birth home for cause, every effort should be made to keep the siblings together. Separating them from each other in addition to their parents amplifies the trauma. The problem is further complicated when children remain in a foster home for six months or more and bond to their foster brothers and sisters.

An effort should be made to keep siblings together initially. But what if the first pre-adoptive home is unwilling or unable to adopt additional biological siblings? What if the child to be adopted has never met or known his other siblings? What if the child, in the meantime, has formed bonds with a new set of brothers and sisters? Biological siblings and other blood relatives are sometimes discovered too late. Disrupting bonds to place heretofore unattached biological siblings together is psychologically damaging. If a child is free for adoption and the foster family has had the child for more than six months and wishes to adopt, that family usually represents the child’s best option for permanence.

Who are the child’s most important brothers and sisters? Are they the ones with the same biological parents? Or the ones with whom the child has been raised for a significant period of time? What if a choice must be made between a “blood” brother and the foster brother with whom the child has bonded? What about half-brothers? Step-sisters? Foster brothers? Sisters of the heart? The dictionary defines “sibling” as a brother or sister. It goes on to define brother all the way from “a child of the same parent or parents” to a “comrade or friend.” Some caseworkers and judges consider only genetic siblings, despite the general consensus for a much broader interpretation.

The word “sibling” refers to a child’s relationship with a peer with whom he lives and who plays a significant role in his life. Relationships between children are established in a variety of ways:

  • Through a sharing of genes.
  • Through a significant attachment known as “bonding.”
  • Through friendship, an important but less vital relationship

The same definition of bonding applies to sibling relationships as it does to parent/child connections. Bonding is a significant reciprocal attachment between children which both parties want and expect to continue, and which is interrupted or terminated at considerable long-term peril to the persons involved. Bonding results from sharing over time important events in daily life, such as eating, sleeping, and playing together.

Bonding between children who live together can be evaluated according to the same four criteria used with parent and child: Time, Behavior, Reciprocity, and Family Identification. As stated earlier, bonding may occur after three months together, is probable after six, and almost certain after 12 months.

No one would oppose the policy that keeps siblings together when they are first removed from an abusive home. This is important, not just because of their genetic ties, but because they have lived together and are probably bonded to each other in ways that transcend their blood tie. Every effort must be made to find a foster home that can accept all the children.

To separate a child from his siblings at the outset, and then to do it again after he has bonded to new parents and brothers and sisters, even if well-intentioned, is misguided and cruel. Worse, to remove a child from a home where he has bonded and place him back with later-born siblings or an unknown relative whom he has never known, represents a failure to understand the true function of relationships. Genetic connections are only one way that attachments come about. Bonding, when it is demonstrated, outweighs the mere sharing of genes.

Protecting both genetic and bonded relationships need not be a contradiction. Wherever possible, siblings should be placed together at the time of removal. If, however, siblings are separated for six months or more, then the new relationships that have been formed should be evaluated before disrupting them to “honor” genetics.

Family refers to the people you live with, not simply to your family of origin. Siblings are all your brothers and sisters, not only those with whom you have a blood tie, but those with whom you have shared a family life.