Diana is an adoptee and staff writer at American Adoptions. You can read her story here, and her parents’ story here.
Below, she shares 15 things you shouldn’t say when you meet an adoptee.
Adoptees have heard it all. Especially transracial adoptees, who don’t have the luxury of “hiding” their adoption when they don’t want to answer questions. But, even when fully cringing at a comment or question, adoptees know that people say these things from a lack of information.
So, for those who were not adopted, consider this a teachable moment. And maybe tell your friends to react a little better than this:
1. Laugh. Pause. “Wait. Seriously?”
On the rare occasion I mentioned adoption in class when I was little, teachers insisted that I was lying. I guess in their defense, kids make up weird stories all the time. But even now, people sometimes think I’m joking when I say that I was adopted.
It gets especially awkward if my, “Actually, I was adopted,” was in response to someone’s ‘joke’ along the lines of, “Yeah, well, you were probably adopted and your parents didn’t love you.”
2. “Do you know who your real parents are?”
OHHHkay, FIRST OF ALL. Retire the ‘real parent’ thing. Everyone will have their own preferred terms when differentiating between their two types of parents, but when in doubt, just stick with the term ‘biological.’ Secondly, this can be a sensitive topic for closed adoption adoptees.
In my case, whenever someone asks me this, I answer with a, “My adoption was open, so yes — I know my birth parents.” Nobody ever seems to pick up on the firm little correction and will then typically ask:
3. “Have you ever met your mom?”
One more time, this time put it to a fun beat or something. Whatever you need to make it stick. MY MOM IS MY MOM.
Or at least, that’s how the response goes in my head. What I actually say is, “Yes, I’ve met my birth mom. We hang. It’s chill.”
When I entered the scene, my birth and adoptive parents were very much on the forefront of the open adoption movement, but nowadays more than 95% of adoptions are open. That means most adoptees will grow up knowing who their birth parents are, if not having some amount of contact with them. My own adoption is considered very open, but everyone’s situation is different.
That being said, a lot of adoptees grew up in a closed adoption. They might not know much, if anything, about their birth family. If that’s the case, here’s a bonus don’t-bring-this-up for you, free of charge: An adoptee’s decision to search for or meet their birth family is super personal. Read: Not something you get to have an opinion about.
4. “Why did your parents give you up?”
I usually just offer up a quick, “They didn’t feel ready.” The individual situation of a person’s birth parents was probably pretty complicated, but the simplest answer is often, “They didn’t want or feel ready to have a kid right at the moment.” It might not be as exciting as you expected, but I don’t have to justify their reasons to you.
And remember that a lot of adoptees don’t know. So, it can be painful for them if you bring it up.
5. “But where are you from?”
I can’t imagine how frustrating this question must be for domestic transracial adoptees who then have to answer like, “Uh, Ohio.”
If an adoptee was adopted internationally, they’ll volunteer that information if they want to. Don’t make (racist) assumptions about someone just because they’re a different race than their parents.
Just don’t make assumptions about adoptees, in general. Or anyone, really. Yikes, dude.
6. “Are you related to your sibling?”
People seem to have a lot of questions about siblings. A lot of them are variations of the same question, though.
“Is he your blood brother?” “Do you guys have the same parents?”
Of course I’m related to him. We have the same parents. We’re as much siblings as anyone else.
But I get what you’re driving at, and for me, the answer is: Different birth families. This is pretty common, but again, everyone’s situation is different.
I’ve started answering the question before you even ask, because you’ll always ask. Then I get in front of your next question, and tell you that I also have biological half-siblings, which you’ll be surprised at for some reason, and then you’ll ask questions like this one:
7. “Are your birth parents still together?”
Couples who are married or are in loving, committed relationships absolutely place children for adoption sometimes. But it’s more common for people to place a baby for adoption if they’re not planning on having a lifelong relationship with one another.
Many birth parents will go on to marry different people, have more kids and generally do their own thing. Even if they don’t stay together, quite a few birth parents seem to stay friends, including mine.
8. “Oh, cool. I adopted a cat recently.”
9. “Did you hear about *insert adoption horror story here*?”
Hoo, boy. That’s your only impression of adoption? Get out and meet some more people.
10. “Have you seen This Is Us?! I love that show — I cry every time.”
I haven’t seen it, no. From what I hear, it gets a few things right and some things wrong. Any TV show or movie that features adoption will always be highly dramatized.
Think of all the books and TV shows and movies that have the adopted character become either a superhero or a supervillain. My own origin story is not that interesting and, to my knowledge, my only power is my ability to chug a cup of coffee in under 5 seconds.
Point being: Make sure a pop culture portrayal isn’t your only source of information about adoption. But thanks for the show recommendation, I guess?
11. “At least your parents got to choose you. I was an ‘oops baby.’”
Uhhh — same. Adoptees usually start out as an ‘oops.’
While my (adoptive) parents did plan on me, they didn’t just get to pick out their kids like puppies from a litter. Birth parents choose the adoptive parents.
I was just along for the ride. Like every baby in existence.
12. “What was it like in the orphanage?”
And what, dear children, did we already learn about assumptions?
Orphanages aren’t a thing in the U.S. anymore.
13. Pitying look. “Oh. I didn’t know. I’m so sorry.”
What’s there to be sorry about? See, you say that, and then I have to comfort you with things like, “Oh, no, it’s OK — it’s not a sad thing. My birth parents are really nice, and blah blah blah.”
It wasn’t weird until you made it weird, man.
14. “You’re lucky. I wish I was adopted.”
Don’t forget that all adoptions start with loss. Adoptive parents have often lost out on the ability to have biological children. Birth parents have lost out on the experience of raising their child. Adoptees lost their first family in order to gain their permanent one.
Yeah, there is often a lot of happiness involved in adoption. But there is also loss. What’s more, you don’t always know the circumstances of a person’s adoption. Their experiences may feel anything but lucky.
This is a super insensitive thing to say for about a zillion reasons, so maybe just… don’t.
15. “I’ve always wanted to adopt kids after I have some biological ones. Like, maybe one from foster care and another from a different country.”
Your casual attitude implies you probably don’t know some important things adoption, or how hard it is. My parents didn’t just hit up the Baby Store on their way home one day.
Do you have any idea how much it costs? Or why it costs that much? Have you researched raising children from very different situations, and how to support them through their unique types of trauma? Maybe you’ve done all that, but you’re still being kind of insensitive toward all the people who adopt after struggling with infertility. Congrats on your functional reproductive organs, I guess.
Adoptive parents put in a massive amount of time, research, preparation, money and tears throughout the course of their adoption journey. They’re also careful to not sound like they’re “saving” children.
These types of comments aren’t coming from a malicious place! You probably mean well, and you’re just curious. That really is great. But maybe in the future try to exercise a little more tact. The adoptee in your life will appreciate it.
What else have you heard when you told people you were adopted? Let us know in the comments! Then, give this blog a share to let others know what they should avoid saying when they meet an adoptee.
This was such awesome advice!! I’m an adoptive parent to two boys, who are biological siblings. One was placed with us at 18 days old, the other at 17 years old — so yeah, different feelings, processes, and interactions with the birth parents. Thanks so much for the “not saving” — I so hate those comments, especially, that my husband & I are “saints”. Hate, hate, hate. Nope, just people who love these kids. Period. You know, like parents often do with their kids?!?