Mike and Heidi
Children: Ryan (19), Rachel (17), Logan (15), Alyona (17), and Zhenya (16)
During 2013, the Collett family went from a household of five to seven, including five teenagers, when they adopted Alyona and Zhenya from Ukraine. Since growing their family, they have adjusted to their new normal, including navigating challenges stemming from the dynamics of sibling relationships. We are thankful to Heidi and Mike for sharing their experiences, where they have seen progress, and what they would share with other families in similar circumstances.
Mike and Heidi had talked about adoption since 2003, when their youngest son, Logan, was three years old. With their three biological children close in age, they waited to move forward with adoption. When they attended a production of the Children’s World Choir at their church in Trussville, Alabama, in 2011—nine years after they first discussed adoption, the Lord brought adoption to the front of their minds. Heidi describes the clarity of God’s call at that moment, “We had put off what we knew God had called us to do for long enough!” Their three biological kids—who at the time were 15, 13, and 12 years old—were 100% on board with the idea of adoption. During January 2012, the Lord used a meeting at the Lifeline office to lead their family of five to consider international adoption in addition to domestic. Through their homeschool group, the Lord brought a family into Mike and Heidi’s life that had adopted from Ukraine. Curious about this family’s experience, Mike and Heidi invited them over for dinner to ask them questions about it. The couple was very honest with the Colletts about their ups and downs.
Then, during May 2012, after months of praying and searching for wisdom from God, Heidi and Mike signed an application for international adoption, praying that God would close any doors they were not meant to walk through.
The week after they submitted their application, Heidi got a call from a friend to help with twelve Ukrainian children who were in town for a hosting camp. The children were attending a water park the next day, and Heidi’s friend knew the Colletts had a season pass to the water park. Although terrified, she went and watched the kids running around, having a blast. Zhenya, the Colletts future son, was part of that group. At the time, he was set to graduate from 9th grade the following year, which meant he would attend a trade school after his 14th birthday. The Colletts had envisioned adopting a 9 or 10 year old—NOT a teenager, but for the next few weeks, Heidi found herself at camp wanting to be around these kids.
By October 2012, the Colletts were well into their process, and Heidi ended up traveling with her friend to Ukraine and seeing Zhenya again. She got to ask him if he wanted a forever family. He answered a resounding, “Yes.” On the same day, Heidi noticed a girl playing in the distance, and her heart melted. Her name was Alyona. The following day, Heidi asked Alyona if she wanted to be adopted, and after some necessary conversations, Alyona said, “Yes!” So, Heidi left that trip knowing who their new children would be—TWO more teenagers! In March 2013, the Collett family of five went to Ukraine to adopt Zhenya and Alyona and become a family of seven.
The Realities of New Siblings and the Dynamics of Being Home
Adjusting to real life as a family of seven, including five teenagers, has had its challenges. Although they knew the adjustment would have obstacles, hearing about them and living them are two very different things! The dynamics between siblings have been, at times, difficult to navigate. In many ways, their experiences represent typical relationships between five teenage siblings. For example, they have watched Rachel face the challenge of having a sister (the same age) who was unsure of her own preferences regarding personal choices such clothes, make-up, or jewelry. Uncertainty lead Alyona to simply want everything Rachel had, which quickly grew old to Rachel, as she did not want to be imitated or to have to share everything. However, she feared sharing those feelings of resentment with her parents. Heidi and Mike learned to let Rachel know that she could share her feelings with them. They made changes, such as giving the girls separate rooms, which improved the situation.
The relationship between Zhenya and Logan, was difficult at first because Zhenya picked on Logan. Heidi and Mike had to know when to get involved and to help the boys navigate through that relationship. Though nothing is perfect, the boys would not know what to do without each other now!
The Colletts have also faced tough decisions about school, as Heidi homeschooled her children for many years, including Zhenya and Alyona’s first three years at home. Last fall, they decided to put Alyona, Zhenya and Logan in public schools, and that has been a great decision for their family.
Additionally, Zhenya and Alyona have known each other longer than they have known their family, and Mike and Heidi have learned to respect that relationship. The two can argue between themselves or with their siblings, but are always fiercely loyal to their family as well.
For the Collett’s oldest son, Ryan, there has never been a time in Heidi’s memory that Ryan did not treat all of his siblings like typical brothers and sisters, whether that is good or bad! Ryan can spend time with Zhenya and Alonya, enjoy any family activity, and fight with them just like he would with Rachel or Logan. For Ryan, it is like they have always been a family of seven!
Despite the trials of the last four years, Heidi remembers more joy and love than any negative circumstances. They have learned that no family has a perfect sibling situation. They have seen times when circumstances bring certain siblings closer and then times when they can be indifferent towards each other for no specific reason. Mike and Heidi have navigated when to step in and when to make changes. Mike knows that none of their kids would turn their backs on each other.
Advice for Fellow Families
When asked what advice they would share with fellow families that are newly home or in the midst of similar dynamics in their family, the couple offers the following advice, in their own words:
- Remember, an older child has a relatively developed personality, heritage, and culture that has no relation to you. We attempted to respect this from the start and to celebrate our kids’ Ukrainian culture. I would not want someone to remove my history and change me, and they don’t either.
- Don’t expect “hugs and kisses” that are real at first. You can absolutely expect artificial emotions and manipulation. Please don’t take this as you would a person with a more healthy history. They will intend no evil by these manipulations; it is simply what they know. If someday you are allowed to see true affection, it is beautiful! Once, one of our kids could see I was seriously worried about an issue at work. This child gave me an unexpected, true hug. WOW! My worries were suddenly much less important.
- As you respect the emotional issues of an older child, remember they are YOUR kids, and they now live in our country. If you give them permission to not follow the rules of their new home and country, you are setting them up to fail. You are also almost certainly setting your family up for a crisis. Don’t expect immediate results. Choose a few things that are important in your family and work from there. Remember to teach and show them that being disciplined by you is a “safe place,” safer than being in trouble at school or worse.,
- Carve out family time. For us, it’s typically on Sundays, and on vacations. Vacations force us all to be together with no distractions, and such a designated time has helped us grow together so much!