Words have power. And, when it comes to adoption, words can leave a great impact on those affected by this process.
It’s crucial that people are familiar with adoption-positive language and appropriate conversation topics. So, we’ve put together a three-part blog post to help you shape up your adoption discussions.
First, we’ll tackle some of the most commonly heard and commonly hated questions from adoptees — so you know exactly which ones to strike from your vernacular today.
1. “Where are you really from?”
Most often asked to transracial adoptees, this question is perhaps the most offensive. Just because a person of color is adopted doesn’t mean they’re from somewhere outside of the U.S. And, even if they are an international transracial adoptee, their personal story is no one’s business but their own.
2. “Who are your real parents?”
An adoptee’s “real” parents are their adoptive parents — the parents who raised and cared for them throughout their life. Family is much more than biological connection. Questions like this not only invalidate adoptive parents but all other non-biological guardians and family members who play a critical role in raising non-biological children in their lives.
And don’t just swap “real” with “biological” to ask this question anyway. As mentioned above, it’s solely the adoptee’s business.
3. “You look so much like/so different than your parents.”
Adoptees walk through the world with a different experience than biological children. They know they’re different, and they know they live in a world where biological connection is the default.
Whether or not an adoptee looks like their adopted parents isn’t important. Commenting on their physical similarities (either positive or negative) to their adoptive parents only reminds them that they don’t fit the unspoken “standard” of biological connection.
4. “Why didn’t your parents want you?”
Not only is this question rude, it assumes that all adoptees were abandoned by birth parents — when that’s nowhere near the truth.
Many people adopted at birth were placed by parents who made the active decision to choose adoption. These parents personally selected their children’s adoptive parents, made a post-placement plan and did what they did out of love.
Similarly, foster care placements don’t automatically equal a lack of compassion from birth parents. In most cases, those birth parents didn’t have the means to give their children what they wanted for them — no matter how many reunification attempts they made.
An adoptee is not “unwanted,” no matter their personal history.
5. “Is it because you’re adopted?”
While many adoptees struggle with issues of self-identity and latent trauma, don’t assume that every issue in their life stems from their adoption placement. Yes, it was a big moment in their life, but it doesn’t define them — just as one moment in your life doesn’t dictate all of your future decisions.
It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, but don’t assume a person’s struggles or personality is — or isn’t — a direct result of adoption. Let them make that personal connection, if they feel it’s right.
6. “You’re so lucky you were adopted.”
Adoption can be a beautiful thing — but it frequently also creates trauma for the adoptee and birth parent. Being placed for adoption is not a matter of “luck”; it’s a placement often made out of impossible circumstances (like financial difficulties, substance abuse issues, etc.).
Don’t forget that foster care adoption is most common in the U.S. A person adopted out of foster care often had to undergo several failed reunification efforts with birth parents, as well as moving from home to home while in foster care. It’s not something any foster child would wish on another, so refrain from comments assuming a person’s life is always “better” because of adoption.
7. “It sucks that you’re adopted. I’m sorry.”
While not all do, many adoptees have to cope with trauma and feelings of abandonment throughout their life. Being separated from biological parents — either at birth or through placement into the foster care system — leaves its mark.
But most adoptees don’t want pity. Although their personal origins are different than others, they aren’t damaged or less valid. Genetic connection isn’t the end-all-be-all of connection and relationships, and lamenting someone’s lack of that connection implies that their familial relationships are somehow “less than.”
Remember that not all adoptees harbor ill feelings toward their adoption, either.
8. “Sometimes I wish I was adopted.”
Adoption affects a person forever. It’s not a “cute” or “quirky” thing to wish for. Adoption involves separation from biological parents and history, and it comes with its own challenges (and rewards). Lighthearted comments like these can be insensitive and invalidate the very real experiences adoptees go through.
While it can be tempting to try to sympathize or relate to adoptees with this statement, you’re better off not saying anything at all.
9. “I’m not adopted, but here’s what I think…”
Unless they ask, never assume that an adoptee wants to know your opinion about their adoption experience.
When an adopted individual shares their story with you, the best thing you can do is listen. Adoption is a very personal thing, and every adoption story is different. No matter the good intentions, you should never try to explain adoption and its related aspects to an adoptee — especially when you have no connection to the process.
Just accept that they know more than you about adoption — and try to learn from the important details they are sharing with you.
10. “Are you adopted?”
An adoptee should be able to move through the world and make their adoption as much — or as little — of a story as they want. They don’t need you asking or reminding them of this personal history. Odds are, adoption is an integral part of their identity, but it’s not their whole story.
And, let’s repeat it again: Someone else’s adoption experience is never your business.
Any other comments and questions we missed? Drop them in the comments below!