08 Mar Know someone adopted? Don’t say this – do say this.
There are approximately 7 million people in the US that were adopted. A lot of people, but a minority in a country of over 320 million people. The reality of being adopted isn’t talked about much so it’s hard to know what’s ok and not ok to say to an adopted person. Just like a queer person could be in the room without you realizing it, adopted people don’t have identifiers like skin tone. As a result, hurtful things are said about adoption all of the time. When we know better, we can do better.
Let’s face it, the story of adoption is that adoptees are either lucky to have been given a better life or they’re the serial killer in the cop show you watched last night. Adoption isn’t discussed like other traumas. Adoption is the only developmental trauma that is regularly categorized as beautiful or God’s will. Paul Sunderland says it’s a trauma that’s categorized as a privilege.
People who were adopted commonly fear abandonment and rejection. Their first relationship ended in abandonment supposedly because of love. While there may be love in the decision to relinquish a child, there is also a big dose of crisis and tragedy. Early on, love is linked with abandonment. Additionally, faces and innate behaviors are not mirrored for adoptees by an adoptive family. This leads to misses in attunement; a felt sense of being not real or not seen.
Given our culture’s narrative on adoption – butterflies and rainbows – it’s really easy to say the wrong thing to people who were adopted. This includes adoptive parents and extended family.
As adopted person myself, I’ve heard them all. And these micro aggressions chip away at identity and security. Here’s how you can do better for your child, family member, partner, or friend.
- You were given up because your mother loved you so much.
- You’re part of our (adoptive) family, that’s all that matters.
- You were chosen to be in our family.
- But you had a great childhood.
- You are so much better off with your family than you would have been. or It could have been so much worse for you.
- Have you searched for your “real” parents? (ok question, don’t use “real”)
- At least your mother didn’t have an abortion.
- Did your parents treat you differently than their “real” children?
- So where are you from?
- So and so has an adopted kid, you know they have a lot of problems.
- Jokes about adoption in general.
It’s great to be interested in someone’s story. If someone’s story involves adoption there are lots of ok ways to show interest. This becomes more important the closer the relationship.
- What was being adopted like for you?
- Do you ever think about your other, first, birth family? (notice: not “real” family)
- What do you think about adoption?
- If close to the person – family or good friend – you can ask if they plan on searching for their original family AND you can offer support.
- Is there anything else you would like to share or wish I knew about being adopted?
Everyone’s experience is unique. Many people who were adopted don’t see adoption as trauma or loss. The adoption narrative is pervasive and can feel comforting. Questioning the narrative is a brave move for adopted people who have been trying to fit in and adapt to their family for a long time.
When people who were adopted eventually change their views or start talking more honestly about their experience, it can feel shocking to those around them. Understanding and curiosity is loving and kind. Always do more of that.
Kate Murphy, LCSW
Kate Murphy, a therapist in Chamblee, GA, specializes in helping you decrease stress and anxiety. You can live a more balanced, connected, and meaningful life. Kate works with individuals and couples over the age of 18 to support healing, communicating, and experiencing joy more often. Personally and professionally she is part of the adoptee and LGBTQ community. Licensed in GA & FL.