Things to Never Say To an Adoptee

“You can change the course of your life with your words.” Anonymous

 Words can heal or destroy. Praise or injure. They can befriend or create an enemy. It’s all in how you use them. As the Proverb goes, “Thoughtless speech is like the stabs of a sword; But the tongue of the wise is…healing.”

In all things, remember to be mindful of your words. Especially if you don’t personally know the history of your audience, such as with adoptees. Words can trigger deep emotions and wounds that are purposefully concealed. It’s ok if you don’t fully understand or know how to relate. Communicate that. But, overall, try and be as sensitive and considerate of others’ feelings as possible.

There are just some things you should never say to an adoptee.

“You look nothing like them.”

I was in Jr. High, standing in a hallway at my homeschool Co-op and speaking to a friend of my mom’s between classes, when I felt this one. I had just told her who I belonged to. Her remark was immediately followed by, “are you sure you’re a [family last name]?” A few heads turned in curiosity as individuals walking past heard her loud question. In the moment, I laughed it off and replied that I looked more like my dad than mom, and the conversation ended seconds after that. Other than that segment, I have no idea what the context of our brief run-in was.

From a very young age, I knew I was different. That I didn’t look like my sisters or parents. I also didn’t enjoy the same things they did, and constantly wondered where I had gotten my likes and dislikes. It wasn’t until later in life when I spoke to my birth mother that I got answers. That said, it was something I was already acutely aware of. Being reminded at all was bad enough. Having a friend of my mom’s ask me in public and not quietly was humiliating. My adoption wasn’t something I spoke openly about then, and having it projected down echoy hallways wasn’t appreciated. It meant my difference was noticeable. That I truly didn’t blend in with the rest of my legal family.

For adoptees, there is a lot of shame that comes with being adopted. Even guilt. Doubts and low self-esteem about identity are close behind. It isn’t easy knowing you came from another family and not understanding why. Not being able to have answers, and feeling ungrateful if you were to ask. This statement causes nothing but pain and emotional distress, and is highly insensitive, so it’s definitely something never to say to an adoptee.

“Your mother loved you so much she gave you up.”

Surprisingly, I’ve dealt with this one numerous times. The most impactful occasion was when my adoptive mom said it. I was 15 years old, and I was studying abortion in my biology textbook. It was extremely confusing to hear, especially from the woman who raised me. My parents knew very little about my adoption story, which compounded the confusion. Granted, I understood the definition of the word, “selfless,” but to me that wasn’t enough.

This statement is as confusing as it is hurtful. It suggests that adoptees should be grateful for the trauma and agony our birth mothers went through to choose adoption rather than abortion. As if, in some way, it’s our fault or that we had any say in the matter. Even as an adult, I cringe at this one. Maybe the intention is to bring comfort. But it doesn’t. Hearing this is akin to someone asking me, “Aren’t you happy your birth mother didn’t decide to kill you?” It also has a secondary impact. For some adoptees, this statement can get misinterpreted into: love equals abandonment.

Each and every adoption story and situation is unique. There is so much involved. Some adoptees are truly happy with their adoptive families. Others are not. I personally know adoptees from both sides of that reality, and have listened and heard their reasons why. We didn’t ask to be adopted. We didn’t openly invite feelings of rejection and abandonment into our lives, nor would we ever. Rather, a lot of us grew up wondering if we were wanted. What we did wrong. What was wrong with us. Adoption happened without our consent.

My birth mother did what she thought was right for me, and I grew up with my adoptive family. Am I grateful? Yes, but that doesn’t make this statement okay. So, please never say this to an adoptee.

“Sometimes I wish I was adopted.”

First of all, why? Second, not funny. Being adopted isn’t a joke or something anyone should actively wish for. Ok, rephrase. Someone biological should wish for. Adoption is not an easy fix, or something that should be used to explain xyz. Unfortunately, I grew up hearing some family friends say this about their children to dismiss strange behavior. Siblings said it about each other too. They never knew how much it stung me.

Many adoptees are sensitive about their background and origins. It is never ok to make humorous jabs about adoption. Ever. Being adopted doesn’t mean that there’s a problem, or there is something wrong with the adoptee. Be sensitive and considerate of others’ feelings.

This is something never to say to an adoptee.

“You aren’t my real sister, you’re my ADOPTED sister.”

I was between 10-12 years of age with this one. I had recently started babysitting my two younger sisters anytime mom and dad had to run errands. Although I don’t clearly recall the context of the argument that prompted the above statement — because I’ve spent years blocking it out — I do remember the fateful seconds in which it occurred. My middle sister wasn’t getting her way with something. In all reality, I had probably said something like, “Because I’m your sister and I said so” in a weak attempt to assert my newly-given authority. Then the sentence came out. It was spoken in anger, and the emphasis was on my adoption.

Knife, meet heart.

Conclusion

Words can change someone’s life. For better or for worse. When the impact is negative, sometimes the damage is so deep that it can’t be undone. Words once spoken cannot be taken back. As just discussed, I can vividly recall the moments each of the above things were said decades later. It helps that, in my adult life, I have come to terms with adoption being an aspect of my identity, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to hurt.

As I’m only one adoptee, I’m not trying to make any blanket statements for all adoptees out there. We all have our own stories and experiences. However, the core injuries to our souls through others’ words are similar. Similar does not mean same, but rather common ground. If there are other adoptees who have experienced any of these statements, or others like them, please feel free to share. We would love to hear from you.

For those enjoyed this article, please visit the two other segments to this series: “Things to Never to Say to a Birth Mother” and “Things to Never to Say to an Adoptive Parent.”

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Resources:

“6 Things You Should NEVER Say to an Adopted Person.” BellaNaija, 15 May 2017, www.bellanaija.com/2017/05/6-things-never-say-adopted-person/.

“10 Things Not To Say To An Adoptee.” Psych Central.com, 21 Oct. 2018, blogs.psychcentral.com/adoption/2017/06/10-things-not-to-say-to-an-adoptee/.

“Adoption Stories: 10 Things Not to Say to Someone Who Is Adopted.” WeHaveKids, WeHaveKids, wehavekids.com/adoption-fostering/Adoption-Stories-What-Not-To-Say-to-Someone-Who-Is-Adopted.

Barra, Angela. “5 Infuriating Things Non-Adoptees Say To Adoptees.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 12 Mar. 2017, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/5-infuriating-things-non-adoptees-say-to-adoptees_us_58c4f9e1e4b0c3276fb785ef.

“Damaging Things You Should Not Say to an Adopted Child.” AptParenting, AptParenting, 4 Mar. 2018, aptparenting.com/things-not-to-say-to-adopted-child.

Lendroth, Susan. “8 Things You Should Never Say to an Adopted Child.” Good Housekeeping, Good Housekeeping, 21 Mar. 2018, www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/parenting/a33002/things-not-to-say-to-an-adoptee/.

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