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Things You Should Never Say/Do to an Adoptee

By Julianna McKenna

At some point, every adopted child struggles with their identity and how they fit into their family structure. Many of these feelings can be instigated by some common questions and phrases that adoptees are regularly forced to answer. Below is a list of things that you should never say to an adoptee.

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1) It’s ok to be adopted….

Yes, it is absolutely ok to be adopted, but saying this makes it seem like you are justifying or assuring yourself that it is. That makes the adoptee feel bad about being adopted. It can make them think that it’s ok to be adopted, but not preferred.

2) Trying to keep the adoption a secret

Many adoptees are constantly questioned about why they look different from the rest of their family. In an attempt to deflect these hurtful questions, many adoptive parents decide to keep the adoption a secret. Obviously, not everyone needs to know your family’s personal business, but not talking about it with close friends or extended family makes it seem like being adopted is something to be ashamed of and kept hidden.

3) Assume that any “issues” they have are because they were adopted

Mental health conditions, relationship difficulties, or questioning one’s identity are not always a response to being adopted. At one point, almost everyone goes through at least one of these problems. Assuming that these issues arise as a result of adoption is harmful to the adoptee and it also creates a stigma for adopted children in general.

4) Negatively talking about their birth mother

Regardless of whether or not the birth mother is in her child’s life, the child will always have a love for his or her birth mother. Disrespecting the birth mother to an adoptee is both hurtful and damaging to your relationship with the adoptee. You don’t know the birth mother and don’t know her reasons for placing her child for adoption. Therefore, you cannot judge her for doing what she thought was best for her child. These comments also perpetuate a stigma against birth mothers that are damaging to these women and to the adoption system in general.

5) Talking about physical or personality traits

Many people tell adoptees things like “you act just like your mother!” Comments like this can strain an adoptees relationship with his or her adoptive parents. It puts pressure on them to be the child that his or her adoptive parents couldn’t conceive themselves. This can cause a rift because a child feels that they must be exactly what their adoptive parents “want” them to be.

6) Telling them they’re special

Adopted children are just like every other child. Singling them out and telling them they’re special can create problems. An adopted child just wants to be treated like everyone else. Saying that they’re special draws attention to their circumstances and often can make them feel bad. They are not special just because their parents chose them. Every child is unique and has their own talents and skills. This is what they should be known for, not their parents’ choice.

7) Your birth mother loved you so much that she gave you up….

This is a very problematic statement to make, especially to young children. Children cannot always understand their birth parents’ reasoning for giving a child up for adoption. This can lead adoptees to feel rejected and unwanted by their birth parents.

8) You must be so grateful

Yes, there is a level of gratefulness for one’s family and parents. But, an adoptee has no control over the situation that they are placed in. It’s hard to feel grateful for a process that had little to do with them and more to do with the fact that their adopted parents wanted to start a family. Adoptive parents aren’t saviors, swooping in to save poor children. That perception of adoption undermines the entire process.

9) Do you know who your “real” parents are?

The adopted child’s “real” parents are already in their life. Adoptive parents ARE the child’s real parents. They are the ones who help the child every day, providing and caring for them. To insinuate that they are not “real” is hurtful to the child. Using the phrase “birth parents” is more a sensitive way of phrasing this question, but try to stay away from this topic altogether.

10) Why don’t you look like your family?

This is never okay to say to an adopted child. For starters, it’s an incredibly personal question. You wouldn’t ask someone’s age or salary, so why ask about their birth origins? It also creates the idea that the adoptee is different than his or her family. This may lead the child to feel like they are the second choice and unwanted by their adopted family.

It can be incredibly difficult and hurtful for adopted children to have to respond to some of these common phrases. It is important to understand the effect that these comments can have on the growth and well-being of the child. Education is the first step to promoting a more positive dialogue about adoption.

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