3 Hurtful Things You’re Saying to Adoptive Parents (Without Even Realizing It)

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It’s a good thing my husband and I are generally “open book” kind of people because our privacy really took a hit when we became an adoptive family. You may not realize this, but adoption (especially interracial adoption) kind of throws a spotlight on your life. Here you are, trying to navigate this massive life change, and suddenly you realize you’re on a stage, with a crowd of people watching and expecting some sort of “performance”. It takes some getting used to.

We did share the news publicly (via my blog) when we started our adoption process. We hoped that maybe our experience would encourage others to consider adoption. And so, for the (almost) five years that we worked and waited to get our daughter Kate home, we dealt with people doubting, questioning, or just being curious about our process. But then – once our daughter was home from Thailand – we became what they call in adoption world a “conspicuous family”. Basically, it means that you can tell (just by looking) that our family is different. Two white parents + a beautiful little brown-skinned daughter = “not the norm” to most people. So we get looks, and smiles, and stares, and compliments, and questions pretty regularly these days.

Adoptive parents, especially those with a conspicuous family, get a lot of stares, prying questions, and hurtful comments. Stop saying these things!

If you do a simple search, you’ll find dozens of lists of “what not to say to adoptive parents” or “questions not to ask adoptive parents”. They vary from the absolutely obnoxious (What’s wrong with her?), to the terribly intrusive (Did her real parents die?); and then, of course, there are those questions with an agenda (Why didn’t you adopt a kid from America?). Generally speaking, I attempt to be polite, gracious, and ready to “educate” strangers when they ask questions like these. I have my “lines” that I’ve memorized for each of these scenarios, and as I recite them, I remind myself that many people still don’t know much about adoption. I’m hopeful that maybe my explanations will enlighten those inquisitive souls (and prevent them from badgering other adoptive families with similar questions down the road).

The crazy thing is, I seem to struggle more these days with “educating” those closest to me. Our daughter has been home for almost two years, and while I’ve endured some really shocking questions from strangers, some of the most hurtful and hard-to-navigate questions have actually come from friends and family that I love.

The list of questions/comments below are the ones that I continue to get – sometimes from strangers, but mostly from friends. More often than not, they are people who I know LOVE and support our family! They just have no idea how hurtful these questions can be. In the moment, I find it hard to correct them (because I know their intentions were not to be hurtful). But since this is Orphan Awareness Month and Adoption Awareness Month, I’d like to take the time to address these questions here. I hope that reading this will help people learn just a few important things NOT to say to their friends who have adopted — and what to say instead!

#1 – “Do you want to have any kids of your own?”

This is, hands down, the most (unintentionally) hurtful thing people ask. I immediately feel a tightness in my chest when someone says these words out loud. I find it hard not to visibly cringe. Because asking if I want kids “of my own” when I already have a daughter, means that you don’t see her as truly mine. That choice of words places value on biological children over adoptive children. It expresses a belief that a child with my DNA would somehow be more “mine” than the beautiful little girl from Thailand who calls me Mama. With one sentence, you sweep away all the years of working, waiting, and loving this little girl. With three words, you discredit our relationship and her role in our family.

I know you don’t mean to do any of those things! I know it – because I have said this, too (to other friends, before we adopted). It kills me to admit that, knowing now what it means. I didn’t realize how hurtful that statement was back then. But as Maya Angelou said, “When we know better, we do better”! So, let’s find some better words together, okay?

What to say instead: “Do you want to have biological children too?”

This is really the question you want to ask. I know you didn’t meant to be hurtful when you worded it differently. So moving forward, ask it this way. But keep in mind that for many adoptive families, infertility is part of their story. Discussing their plans, hopes, and dreams for growing a family could be painful for them. So ask things gently, and be understanding if they don’t want to discuss it.

#2 – “What happened to her REAL family?”

Once again – I cringe. Just typing it, I cringe!  Yes, I know what you mean. But I promise I am not a figment of your imagination. I am her REAL MOM. I am the one who wipes her tears, tucks her in, snuggles her on sick days, and watches her neat new trick. [Important note: Adoptive families, foster families, and birth families – they are all “real”.] The people you’re really trying to ask about are her “biological family” or her “birth family”.

But here’s the tricky part. This question isn’t just about re-wording something . . . it’s also about privacy. Even if you ask about my daughter’s birth family (and you choose the appropriate wording), you’re not going to get the answer you’re looking for. And you shouldn’t. Because 99% of the time, it’s none of your business.

A child’s family history is their story to share. It’s private information, and it can include a lot of painful, difficult, complicated details. It’s not meant to be public knowledge. Friends, extended family, teachers, church members, neighbors, and acquaintances don’t get to know that (very personal story). I am not a confrontational person, so it took me some time to come up with my response to this question. But these days, if you ask me that, I’ll tell you this: “We don’t have a lot of information – but what we do have, we don’t share publicly. That is Kate’s story to share – and when she’s older, she can choose who she shares it with.”

About 90% of the time, this is a question you just shouldn’t ask (because you’re probably just being nosy.) However, for those of you who are really close friends, or who are considering adoption yourselves (and wondering more about open vs. closed adoption), you can choose a different question.

What to say instead: “Do you mind if I ask if your adoption is open or closed?”

This question allows the adoptive parents to share only what is appropriate. If they have an open adoption (which means that the biological family is still involved in their child’s life), they might share more with you about the child’s bio family. If they have a closed adoption, stating that will let you know that story is private. And if they don’t feel like talking about it at all, this question will let them avoid the discussion (without having to point-blank say, “It’s none of your business!”)

#3 – “She is so lucky!”

When you make this statement to adoptive parents, we are, once again, *cringing*  inside (while attempting to smile and thank you on the outside).

We know what you’re meaning to say. You’re attempting to compliment us. You’re trying to say we’re good parents. You’re attempting to look at the “bright side” of adoption. You’re excited that our daughter has a family now – and that we can all live “happily ever after”. But adoption isn’t that simple.

I once read a quote that said, “Adoptees are the only victims of trauma that people expect to be grateful.” [Let that sink in for a minute. Adoption = trauma. There is no adoption without loss.]

That statement – saying our daughter is “lucky”? That means that you expect her to be grateful for how “lucky” she is to be adopted. But here’s the reality – to get into our wonderful, loving family, our daughter had to lose everything. She lost her birth family, her friends, her home, her culture, her language, her citizenship, her medical history, her sense of belonging, her identity, and the answers to so many simple questions that we all take for granted. My beautiful, brave little girl experienced more pain and trauma in her first four years than most people do in their entire lives. There’s nothing “lucky” about that.

You wouldn’t walk up to an amputee, take a look at his shiny new prosthetic and exclaim with a smile, “Wow! You’re SO LUCKY!” Because you know that no matter how incredible his prosthetic is (or how thankful he is to have it), it is proof that he experienced a profound loss. So please don’t tell an adopted child how “lucky” they are. It discredits all the loss they’ve endured. Adoption is a beautiful response to a terrible tragedy – but it’s not a simplistic “happily ever after” story.

What to say instead: “You are such wonderful parents!”

This is really what you meant – right? You’re saying our daughter is “lucky” because she ended up with us. You think we’re great, and you want us to know it! That’s SO AWESOME. Because let me tell you – I regularly doubt myself as a mom (and I know my husband doubts himself too.) We’re constantly worrying about whether or not we’re doing this parent thing right. So if you think we’re awesome? Please tell us that! Then instead of cringing (and feeling as if we need to clarify things), we’ll just feel really encouraged. 😉 

Want to know a few more ways to compliment us? Try these:
“You’re doing a great job!”
“She is such an amazing kid!”
“I love seeing the way you all love each other.”
“You have such a beautiful family!”

If you're saying these things to the adoptive parents in your life, you're now aware of the hurt you're causing. Beautiful quote by Maya Angelou: "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."

Adoptive Mamas – what are some more “unintentionally hurtful” things people have said to you? How did you handle it? I’m always looking for helpful responses (as sometimes the questions do catch me off guard).

Comment below with your best advice, and let’s help our friends know better – so that they can do better! 😉

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Just days after graduating from Auburn University, Ericka took a trip to Africa that changed her life forever. She discovered two unexpected things there: a passion for orphan care, and her husband Rusty! Together they founded The Sound of Hope, and have spent the past 10+ years working to provide holistic care to vulnerable children around the world. Though her heart (and time) is divided between other countries – she’s proud to call Birmingham, Alabama home! When Ericka & Rusty decided to grow their family through adoption, they never guessed it would take five heart-wrenching years to get their daughter home from Thailand. These days Ericka tries to soak up every moment of long-awaited motherhood to their beautiful little girl, Kate. Their Thai darling is growing up way too fast, and Ericka is mildly obsessed with over-documenting it all on Instagram and her blog! In addition to managing The Sound of Hope, Ericka and her husband run a video & photography business called RJackson Media. In her “free time" (do moms have free time?!) Ericka enjoys gardening, decorating, and DIY projects. She also loves singing, dancing, and acting – and was cast in her very first musical theatre role last year. She firmly believes that you’re never too old to try something new!

7 COMMENTS

  1. Ericka!! Thank you so much for sharing this. I was actually just thinking of writing something similar. Some of the most recent questions I’ve been asked are, “Adopted, Foster, or babysitting?” And “are they siblings?”

    Well, first, why ask these questions IN FRONT of my kids to make them feel conspicuous or abnormal in some way when they likely already feel a little different because I’m white and they are black. Secondly, we are trying to help them realize they ARE siblings through and through – so to ask that question (especially in front of my children!) and expecting me to tell you no or yes in terms of a biological sense is just rude and completely unthoughtful. My answer will always be, “yes, of course they are!” Just don’t ask.

    I so appreciate your article. 🙂

  2. I am a Nanny who loves City Moms Blog.
    Thank you so much for this article! I feel like it will help me so much in the future.

  3. It’s not a question exactly, but one thing my daughter and I really struggled with was how to refer to each other in public. She was already a teenager when she became part of my family and she has a mom she still knows.

    At first, my daughter wasn’t okay with almost any familial words: beyond mother and daughter, she didn’t like parent, child or family. My closest friends knew that I saw her as a daughter but that she struggled with that terminology and that I didn’t push any words on her.

    But when we’d meet new people or go to parent teacher conferences or anything like that, it was REALLY difficult.

    In four years, we’ve both grown and changed and I use daughter and child most of the time and she uses parent unless the person she’s talking to also knows her biological parents. But that’s probably happened only in the last year or so. There was a good three years it was so easy to upset her.

    All that to say, I wish people maybe would have asked the questions they didn’t say. I wish they would have asked: What do you call each other? How do you describe your relationship to each other?

    In addition, the other thing that has been really hurtful because she’s older has to do with money. I’ve pretty much paid for things in her life the same way my parents did when I grew up. For example, she bought her car and pays for gas, but I pay for insurance. I pay for food at our house, but she pays for fast food while out with friends.

    This year, we’ve dealt with several large medical bills. Several times people have gone out of their way to tell me I shouldn’t be paying for those for her because she’s taking advantage of me or needs to learn responsibility or is old enough to do it herself. It’s hurtful because they assume that they know our situation better than I do. They assume that an older child is manipulative or undeserving without considering what she’s experienced and how it affects her current abilities and relationships. And worst, the very worst, they sometimes think that when she turned 18 she’s not my family anymore, just a child I used to help.

    When I signed those papers, she became family for life! And it really doesn’t matter if she turns out to be a great kid or a struggle, she’s mine. I’m gonna walk through life with her as long as the Lord gives me life.

  4. Great article. Since both my husband and I grew up with first cousins who were adopted, our families were extremely supportive and already well-schooled in adoption culture.They have been fabulous and welcomed our baby into the fold with love and celebration, treating her no different than any of the others for the last 18 years.

    I do so relate to friends and acquaintances asking some real tough questions and tossing out some callously worded judgements — and we fumbled around briefly until we found the brilliant and concise “When Friends Ask About Adoption:Question & Answer Guide for Non-adoptive Parents and Other Caring Adults” by Linda Bothum. Loved it and bought multiple copies, loaning/giving to the inquisitors in our social circle. It’s a tiny little book and likely out of date, but it helped us prepare for those sometimes shocking questions like: “How much did she cost?” She is priceless.

  5. In tears reading this as I am an adoptive momma to 4 children! Something what drives me bonkers is when people ask if we have “our own children” . I usually play dumb and just keep replying, “yes, I have 4.” People look at me puzzled and say, ” no, I mean like did you HAVE your own kids.” Yep, sure did, I HAVE 4 kids. Then people typically get it.

  6. Thank you for sharing! I appreciate the first-hand perspective on talking with adoptive families. Your family is beautiful!

  7. We adopted a beautiful little girl with many medical problems. A funny question (or really a comment) is that when our little girl was young, someone said. Isn’t it a shame she has to have a trache ? I was somewhat taken aback, but replied, the alternative is fatal so I’m glad she has this reminder to me and others that breathing is such a valuable asset and skill.

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