Saturday, August 06, 2011

Is He Adopted?

Just as many parents with children with special needs often ‘zones in on’ other parents who share the same parenting challenges, often times I notice when a child appears to be adopted.  Being an adoptive parent myself, I have spent some time in the adoption community and can quietly and discreetly tiptoe around the subject to see whether my conversation companion cares to bring it up.

What would make someone NOT want to talk about adoption??  There are actually many circumstances around adoption which may make a family uncomfortable speaking openly about adoption, especially if their adopted child is with them.  Here are a few examples:
  • The child may be insecure about their adoption, and discussing it may make them uncomfortable.
  • If there are biological children as well as adoptive children, speaking openly about adoption may make the adopted child feel singled out, or different.
  • There’s always the possibility that the child is NOT adopted, and bringing it up may cause embarrassment, and possibly doubts and concerns for the child either then, or later in life.
  • Some couples come openly to the idea of adoption, whereas others do not.  If the child doesn’t know they are adopted, such as a toddler that was adopted as an infant (regardless of whether they look anything like their parents or not), then opening that door publicly isn’t such a great idea.
  • Sometimes asking such a simple question brings a much more complicated answer, and one that could be more private than the couple would like to discuss, such as their use of an adopted embryo, or a donor, which may go back to their own fertility issues.

I’m sure there are more, but those clearly point out some of the valid reasons people may have for not wanting to discuss their adoption casually and in public. 

That said, often times there IS a kind and ‘open’ way to bring up the subject of adoption without causing any of the “conversation fallacies” that are listed above. 
  • Bring up your own story.  Bringing up that you are a parent is often natural when engaging another family (especially if your kids aren’t with you), and mentioning that some of your children are adopted allows the parent to open up as well without being concerned that THEY will be the one committing the social faux pas.  If you have adopted siblings, friends, or are adopted yourself, finding a way to bring this in to the conversation will open the door.
  • If your adoption story hasn’t started yet, but you (obviously, since you’re reading this J ) have an interest in adoption to some extent or another, then share that interest.  Maybe you hope to adopt one day, or have looked in to adopting in the past.  Maybe your family isn’t quite complete but you don’t know whether it will be completed through the gift of adoption.  Regardless of how you connect to the idea of adoption, gently bringing that up in conversation opens the door for them as well.

Another question often raised is this:  When talking openly about adoption with someone, are there any subjects that just shouldn’t be brought up, or do’s and don’ts of talking to someone about their adoption experience?  The answer is simple: YES.  There are certainly parts of adoption that friends discuss quite casually, yet when strangers openly ask the same question it can make an adoptive parent not only uncomfortable, but their adopted children as well.  Here’s a few do’s and don’ts of “adoption talk” to help guide a safe adoption chat!

What you can openly ask:
  • talk about the process
  • what brought the parents to decide to adopt
  • where the child is from (if it was an international adoption)
  • whether the parent traveled to meet the child
  • how old the child was
  • how long the adoption process took from start to finish
  • how the parents learned about the child
  • what agency or resource the family used to adopt their child
  • whether the family thought the process was overall easy to maneuver or whether it seemed difficult
  • how things are going now that the child is home
  • anything about the child in general—not related to adoption! (how old is she now, what does she like to do, what’s her favorite sport or activity, does she like school… etc)

What not to ask or say:  (note: some of these are fine to ask within reason, especially if you are interested in adopting, but not “grocery store encounter” type of questions)
  • how much did the adoption cost
  • was the adopted child what you expected they would be like
  • did you come across any corruption within the adoption
  • does the adopted child have the behavioral issues that people see on the news
  • whether the parents knew about the problems the child has (especially if the child has behavioral issues or special needs)
  • avoid comments which ask about the child in a negative light, for instance, asking what difficulties are there, the hardest part of bonding with a child, etc.
  • don’t put the adoptive parent on a pedestal, and avoid comments such as “I couldn’t do what you do,”  or “it takes a special person.” 
A special note to friends, family members, and acquaintances of adoptive parents: Your comments matter.  More so than a stranger at the grocery store or someone at the park, what you say will be remembered for a long time.  Negative comments about a prospective adption, about a new adoption, or even about your own regrets about the parents’ decision to adopt after the fact are not helpful. 

When a parent decides to adopt and comes to you for advice, share openly.  When they come looking for an ear to listen, your listening ear is often all they are looking for.  In my last 3 years working with adoptive parents both pre-adoption and post-adopt, the most sad stories are from parents who say they no longer have anyone that they are comfortable talking to that knows them well because they don’t support their adoption.  Imagine a new mother excited about the upcoming birth of her baby and the negative comments about “you shouldn’t.”  Or bringing home a new baby from the hospital to be met with relatives’ comments of “that baby is going to be too much for them to handle,” or “I told them it wasn’t a good idea.”  

Similar emotions are involved with the adoption process as are involved in birthing a baby, and these comments in both contexts can bring nothing but heartache. Guard your heart.  Guard your words.  Protect your relationships, and continue to be someone that the adoptive parent can come to-openly- to talk.  

A last note:  Though this wasn't one of the original "archived articles" that I've written, I had several adoptive parents request an article discussing these topics.  I hope it will be met with the same positive embrace that the previous article on special needs has :).


  1. Thanks for this info Meredith! My aunt and uncle recently adopted an 18 month old from Russia! She is absolutely precious. It's nice because it breaks my parents into the idea of adoption, esp from EE, before I do it!

    I have a number of adopted friends, and know a number of adopted children. Some are VERY open about it, and others are not. I always let the person bring it up, and I agree it's great to share your own connection to adoption. It sort of signifies to the adoptee that you aren't going to ask "those" questions.

    awesome post Meredith!

  2. Thanks for all the helpful information you write about. I was talking with a friend at work the other day about my plans to pursue and international adoption and got the "why don't you adopt a child from OUR country" which I respectfully replied that I see our community as a global one and every child, regardless of their location in the world, deserves a family and love. I'm amazed at how many people look at me like I'm crazy when I talk about international adoption. As always, thanks for all you do to help those of us new to the process, as well as those out there who are in the middle of their journey! Peace, Allison