Before I started working in the fertility field, the emotions of adoptive parents were something I knew very little about. But since I’m a psychiatry professor, of course I thought I knew just what to say to them. I was wrong. I’ve learned there are a lot of things people say to folks like this that we think sound good, but are not. Here are five things you should actually never say to an adoptive parent.
1. “Your child is so lucky to have you as a parent!”
I used to say something like this when I met with adoptive parents for the first time, not realizing how hurtful this phrase can be. Now that I counsel couples who are going through IVF, ovum donation and adoption, I’ve learned that most adoptive parents don’t feel like “luck” has much to do with their adoption journey at all. After all those interviews with lawyers, plus the costs, legal papers and waiting time, the adopted child certainly is not just found by chance, parents point out. Often, the decision to put a child up for adoption is not an easy one for the birth mother, either. Researchers say most birth mothers decided that adoption would be better for the child; they are not just hoping the child will get ‘lucky.” I’ve learned to say “I’m so happy for you all” instead of this one.
2. “Now that you’ve relaxed about parenting, you’ll probably get pregnant.”
I’ve heard people say this one. But remember: Adoptive parents are not necessarily interested in pregnancy. Some never were. Some no longer are. Besides, the idea that adoption could somehow increase the pregnancy success rate is fiction! So is the notion that stress about parenting, or any kind of stress, can create long-term infertility. If stress and anxiety about parenting caused infertility, humans would no longer exist. Since the adoptive parent (or parents) and their child are now a family, the focus of adoptive parents is on parenting, not pregnancy. So, try asking questions you would ask any parent, like: “Is she a good sleeper” or “What’s his favorite game?”
3. “Does the child look as much like their real parents as they look like you?”
My patients who are adoptive parents also share that many people still ask about the child’s “real” mother or “real” father. This may be meant as a compliment, but this is his “real mother” or “real father” that you are talking to, right here. Adoptive parents point out that you are asking about the child’s “birth” mother or “birth” father, and some adoptive parents have no idea what the birth parents look like. The question is even more of a problem if the parents have not yet discussed adoption with their child. It’s better to compliment the child’s own smile, coordination skills, social skills or intelligence, instead of offering resemblance comments. Just say something like: “What a friendly boy” or “What a smart girl.”
4. “This child is adorable — how could anyone have given them away?”
Another well-meaning but potentially negative comment. Adoptive parents, even those who have fully disclosed the adoption to the child, often don’t want their child to focus on the family they don’t know but rather on the family who loves them and is raising them. This is particularly true if the children are teens. Adolescents are usually interested in their genetic history because they are developing their own identity, and their adoptive parents don’t want them to worry that they have genes from people who are heartless or silly because they “have given away an adorable child!” Just say instead: “Your child is adorable.”
5. “I can tell which one is yours.”
Because many families have a genetic child before they add their adopted child, well-meaning but misguided friends might say this. But imagine: If parents have not yet told a child about the adoption, your comment ends their right to decide when and how to tell that child. Furthermore, it implies that an adopted child is not really “theirs.” “They are all ours,” is the reply my patients tell me they give. They suggest you ask parents of an adopted child who has a non-adopted sibling the same questions you would ask any parent of more than one child. Try: “Do they get along?” or “How old are they?”
I may be a counselor, but adoptive parents have counseled me plenty. And here’s their message: If you are unsure about a question you’d like to ask or a comment you’d like to make, remember that adoption is a legal, private and permanent addition to a family. If your comment or question does not reflect those facts, don’t share it. If you’ve thought about those points and still find that you’ve said something well-meaning but obviously upsetting to adoptive parents, just apologize and ask what a better comment would be. You are probably not the first to say something to them that they would prefer you not say. However, you can be the one to impress them with your conscientiousness.
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