Positive Language About Adoption

Adoption is both a gift and a loss for all members of the adoptive triad: the child, the parents and birthparents. For the child, adoption represents a loss of connection to their biological and genetic family, and often to their birth culture or country. Adoption also gives them all the love and support that goes along with a forever family. Adoptive parents often grieve the missed opportunity of raising biological children, at the same time that they revel in the joy of raising their children who joined their families through adoption. Birthparents have lost out on raising their children and at the same time that they made the best choice they could for themselves and their children’s future.

As families formed through adoption look to their extended network of family, friends and professionals to help them navigate these complicated waters, it is important that everyone become familiar with positive language about adoption. This language is respectful of all members of the adoption triad, and accurate about the roles that family members assume in the child’s life.

Positive Language ————————–Negative Language
Adoption triad————————————–Adoption triangle
Birthparent——————————————-Real parent
Biological parent or sibling——————–Natural parent or sibling
Birth child—————————–—————-Own child
Parent, mother, father————————-Adoptive parent
Child, brother or sister————————-Adopted child, brother or sister
Biological siblings, sibling group————-Real siblings
Was adopted————————–————–Is adopted
Born to unmarried parents——————–Illegitimate, born out of wedlock
Terminated parental rights——————-Gave up
Made an adoption plan————————-Gave away
To parent or raise ——————–———–To keep
Inter-country adoption————————-Foreign adoption
Child born abroad———————————Foreign child
Child with special needs, or a disability–Handicapped child
Child placed (or waiting) for adoption—-An unwanted child

Modified from www.adoptivefamilies.com

The words “adoption triad” is used rather than “triangle” to show that the interests of the three are not in conflict. Rather they share the same goal – to raise a healthy and happy child.

Nothing upsets an adoptive parent more than to be asked if they are the child’s “real” or “natural” parent. The implication could be that they are “unreal” or “unnatural” parents. After all, they give their children real kisses, wake up with them in the middle of the night when they are sick, teach them about how to get along, and do everything else that “real” parents do. Adoptive parents have all the legal and emotional connections and responsibilities of any other parents. However, they do not have the biological connection. In this case, it is appropriate to refer to the people who gave the child life as the birthparents, biological parents, or genetic parents (less commonly used.).

Adoption is best viewed as a one-time event in a child’s life, though it has life-long implications. The child “was” adopted, rather than “is” adopted. It is most helpful to think of adoption as the story of how a child joined their family. This means that it is not a status statement that needs to be tagged in front of the word, “child” or “parent” or “sibling” or “family,” unless the adoption story is important to the interaction. For example, a pediatrician would only need to refer to the child as an “adopted child” when they want to discuss the child’s birth history.

It is also important to communicate respect for the birthparents, to preserve the child’s sense of self-esteem about their background. Rather than saying that the birthparents “gave them away or didn’t keep them,” it is more helpful to say that they “made an adoption plan, and did not parent, or raise them.”

With the increase of adoptions from Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, it is necessary to find appropriate language for inter-country adoption. Obviously, the term “foreign adoption” could make a child feel like they are strange. A child’s cultural heritage and racial background needs to be respected, even if they do not share those connections with their adoptive family. At the same time, it should be understood that when a child enters a family, they become a part of that family’s cultural experience as well.

As an adoptive mother, I once heard that 85% of what we deal with in our families is similar to biological families. In the end, this represents how I think we want to be treated by the rest of the world. We are like other families in most ways, and we have unique attributes. Both are true.


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