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Why Do Adopted Kids Look Like Their Parents?

Adoptive parents and adoptees who are out and about together have often heard comments like, “Your son looks just like you!”

Adoptive families who are multi-racial won’t typically receive those comments. Parents and children who don’t share the same race can’t exactly “hide” the adoption, so they’ll instead be asked questions about their story (whether they want to talk about it or not). But, there are many adoptive families who can “pass” as biological.

Why do so many people seem to think these parents and their (adopted) children look alike? For many adoptive families, “You two look so much alike,” is a frequently-heard comment. Why? 

We have three theories as to why some people may think that parents and their (adopted) children look alike:

  1. People See What They Expect to See

Because the majority of families are formed biologically, people default to that assumption. If they see a child and adult together, they’ll typically assume that the two are biologically related as long as they look relatively similar. 

If a child and parent have the same hair color or skin tone, the average person will hone in on even a small similarity as confirmation of their assumption. If the default assumption is that most family members are biologically related, then they will assume this is true until told otherwise.

  1. People May Begin to Look Alike Over Time

This has been an observed phenomenon in spouses and couples who cohabitate over long periods of time. The same theory may be applicable to adopted children and their (adoptive) family members.

Research into the theory that couples and non-biological family members begin to look like each other has found that facial similarities don’t converge over time, but rather, the perceived similarities may be a result of human social patterns. Which brings us to...

  1. Learned Behavior Plays a Role

Humans “mirror” one another’s facial expressions, pattern of speech, body language and more. This is a subconscious behavior that is common among socially-driven animals like humans. That’s why you find yourself picking up your friend’s phrases, falling into your regional accent and more.

Babies, in particular, pick up on these physical cues as part of their natural development. Infants learn facial expressions, speech patterns and emotional response by watching the people they interact with every day: Their parents. This is called “affect attunement.” 

This developmental process helps babies understand the correct facial expressions to match his or her emotions. And, because children learn those facial expressions and emotional responses from their parents or caretakers, their facial expressions will tend to match the parents’. Their glad looks like their parents’ glad, and their mad looks like their parents’ mad. 

Just like you find yourself “attuning” to your close friends or to your spouse, adopted children don’t need to be biologically related to their family members to attune to them.

Find a Better Compliment Than (Perceived) Shared Appearance

The well-meaning person who remarks, “You and your daughter look just alike,” probably intended this as a compliment. But, why? And what message is that sending to an adopted child?

Additionally, the involuntary inheritance of physical traits seems like a far less meaningful “compliment” than:

  • “I love that you and your son share such a passion for sports.”
  • “Your children are so polite.”
  • “You have such a creative daughter.”
  • “You’re so kind and compassionate. Just like your mom!”

So, instead of complimenting parents and children on perceived physical similarities, let’s encourage meaningful praise that doesn’t hinge on the assumption that all families were created biologically.

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