Avoid These Mistakes When You Interact With Adoptive Parents

These are the dynamics every adoptive parent and child wants you to know. Avoid doing or saying something hurtful and support the gift of adoption instead!

Cheryl Butler
8-minute read
Episode #554
The Quick And Dirty

Friends and family members can support adoptive parents by:

  • Getting a better understanding of what it means to be an adoptive parent and celebrating the family union
  • Knowing that even well-meaning comments can be hurtful to adoptive parents and their child
  • Understanding some essential ways to recognize and support the gift of adoption

November is such a special month. We celebrate our military veterans, give thanks for all the wonderful blessings in our lives at Thanksgiving, and for those who didn’t know—we also celebrate National Adoption Awareness Month.

26 years ago, I received the most special gift I will probably ever know in my lifetime—I finally became a mom through the gift of adoption. After struggling with five-plus years of infertility, we changed gears and focused on creating our family through adoption. Because I knew in my heart that I was destined to be a mother, it was more important to form a family through love rather than spending month after month as an infertility patient, frustrated and heartbroken that my body just wasn’t up for the task at that time.

Adoption is an incredible journey. It not only affects the adoptive parents and birth parents, but the friends and family that will also become a part of this new family member’s lives.

As the grateful mom of eight remarkable kids (yes, we moms can brag!), I know I wouldn’t be the mother I am today if it wasn’t for the beautiful adoption we had 26 years ago. Adoption is an incredible journey. It not only affects the adoptive parents and birth parents, but the friends and family that will also become a part of this new family member’s lives.

Every adoptive parent's journey is different, but a few things seem nearly universal. There are three essential ways we would love for you to support us.

  • Celebrate the union of family
  • Know what not to say to adoptive parents and children
  • Understand the ways everyone can recognize and support adoption

Let’s take a closer look at these things to consider when your family grows through adoption.

Celebrate the union of family

As much as I dreamed of one day being pregnant, what I really craved was to be a mother. After years of sadness at not being able to carry a child, I searched deep in my soul and realized that becoming a parent was far more important to me than how my family was formed. It was then that a bright light shone down, and our adoption journey was off and running. Adoptive families are a diverse lot, but our goal is the same—to unconditionally love and parent a child regardless of what biology has to do with it.

Here's one of my favorite takes on adoption from an article on Adoption.org:

Adoptive families are beautiful! They are a picture of what happens when one part of the human race decides to care for another human being. Adoptive families are self-sacrificial! They take a risk by giving another child, not their own, a place in their own home without thought of self. Adoptive families love unconditionally. They give without thought of getting back. Adoptive families are not perfect, but they are awesome!

Derek Williams, What Are Adoptive Families?

I can personally relate to that sentiment, as I’m sure many adoptive parents can. I yearned to love, care for, and raise another human being. When we were chosen by a birthmother who only had a collection of photographs and a telephone interview to choose us by, we knew our lives would be forever changed.

Adoptive families are full of love and hope for their new child. And yet, at the same time, they're quite vulnerable. If you’ve adopted, you're in the process of exploring this amazing gift of creating your forever family. You not only can’t wait to throw your entire heart and soul into raising this special being, you might not quite know how to articulate your feelings about this process.

New adoptive parents want you to know a few essential things to help you celebrate with us.

  • We're a family just like you and your biological kids are. We welcome your love and support.
  • This child is a part of our beings now. We embrace him or her as our own, regardless of any biological or personality differences you might see.
  • Please welcome our new family member just as you would a birth child. We are over the moon with love, joy, and pride, and need your support and love more than ever.
  • It’s okay to ask us how we’re feeling and adjusting to our new life. We’d rather have your questions than have you speculating.

Know what not to say to adoptive parents and children

Once we decided to embark on the adoption path, we were so excited and giddy we couldn’t think of anything else. All felt right with the world! Whereas the word “baby” would once bring me to tears in my infertility saga, now the mere mention of a baby left me euphoric and hopeful.

That all came to a screeching halt, however, when we shared the news of our intention to adopt with my in-laws. No sooner had we excitedly set out on our plan to adopt when my mother-in-law made a hurtful comment.

“Does this mean you won’t have any children of your own?” she asked.

Ouch! Talk about deflating our super-happy balloon.

Adoptive families are already juggling many new emotions when they go through the adoption process. Handling family and friend’s unexpected comments can be an added challenge.

As painful as her comment was at that time, I've realized something over the years. Her comment was her way of trying to process whether or not she would have any biological grandkids. (Little did she know!) We were just getting used to the idea that the loving gift of adoption would now create our family, so we hadn’t stopped to factor in how the grandparents would handle things.

Adoptive families are already juggling many new emotions when they go through the adoption process. Handling family and friend’s unexpected comments can be an added challenge.

As a veteran mom of an adopted child, I’ve had nearly three decades to process the emotions that adoptive families and birth families must contend with when navigating adoption. Here are some questions that warrant a bit more sensitivity.

“Do you also want to have children of your own?"

It is of utmost importance to realize that an adopted child is absolutely the adoptive parents' own child.

What you could ask instead is, "Do you also want/have biological children?" But before you do, consider whether it's your place to ask at all.

“Is he your 'real' son?" or “Where is your 'real' dad?"

Oftentimes classmates who aren't familiar with adoption ask children of adoption or foster care where their real dad or mom is. My daughter, who is now 26, shared how frustrating and hurtful this question is.

The biggest thing non-adoptees need to know is that when you ask about our 'real parents,' we're going to tell you about the parents who adopted us and raised us. They are our real parents.

“The biggest thing I think non-adoptees need to know about adoption is that when you ask about our 'real parents,' we're going to tell you about the parents who adopted us and raised us," she said. "We know what you're trying to say, and we know you just aren't sure of the terms—which, by the way, are 'birth parents' or 'biological parents'—but the parents who raised us are our real parents.

"Adoption isn't a shortcut to having a child; most families that adopt do so after many years of trying to have a biological child and not being able to, or are foster parents adopting the child they've had custody of for a long time. Adoptees are not pretend children; they are loved just as much by their parents as their parents' biological children.”

“How much did it cost?"

For those who have adopted, this question is one of the most common. It's also quite personal. Our adoption agency equipped us with some ways in which to handle the entire topic of adoption costs starting with, “Children are not purchased.”

If you want to know more about adoption fees in general, and what that could look like for your family, ask something like "What are the average fees for domestic/international adoption?"

“Why did her real parents give her up?”

The term “give him/her up” is taboo. There are dozens of reasons that birth parents “place” their child for adoption, not “give them up.”

Personal tragedy, drug or alcohol-related issues, and not being financially able to provide for their child are just a few examples. If the adoptive family wants to share this information, then you’ll know the reason. If they don’t, it’s best to respect their privacy and instead focus on helping to welcome their new family member. 

“I'm sorry you couldn't have one of your own.”

We adoptive parents know you're trying to be supportive and empathetic. Maybe you've witnessed our struggle to conceive and you're hoping to show some compassion. Even so, comments like these can hurt once we've made the loving decision to adopt. Our adoptive child is our own, so your sympathy is unnecessary. 

Instead of expressing negativity or disappointment, why not share in our joy that we've just added a beautiful new family member?

“Now that you've adopted, you'll be able to get pregnant.”

The notion behind this phrase is that once a couple has adopted a baby, they’ll finally relax and be able to get pregnant.

In my case, we were in the midst of fertility treatments when we adopted our daughter, so, yes, I did become pregnant through a procedure shortly after. Once our infertility team discovered why I had struggled with conceiving and having multiple miscarriages, I was able to get pregnant without any assistance and went from having no children to eight within a decade.

Don't automatically assume that the adoptive parents' goal is to have children through pregnancy and childbirth.

Our story is, perhaps, unusual. And yet, the dozens of adoptive families we know and have bonds with have all told us that others expressed the same "now you'll get pregnant on your own" sentiment.

Although it does happen on occasion, the rate of pregnancy among infertile couples post-adoption is exactly the same as the rate of pregnancy in infertile couples in general. Also, infertility isn't the only reason people decide to adopt. Don't automatically assume that the adoptive parents' goal is to have children through pregnancy and childbirth.

“Are you afraid he'll want to find his real parents someday?”

This topic is very sensitive to adoptive parents. Every adoptive family handles it differently. 

The adopted child is usually the driving force behind the search for her biological parents. It was in our daughter’s case, and we supported her every step of the way because it’s an extremely emotional journey for all involved. Our daughter’s birth mother died before they could meet, but she did connect with her biological sister, and they now have a very close relationship. It's been a wonderful experience for us because this lovely young woman is now an extended part of our family.

Understand the ways everyone can recognize and support adoption 

Even if you haven’t been touched by adoption personally, there are ways you can celebrate and recognize National Adoption Month as a positive way to grow families.

  • If you do know someone who has adopted, ask about their adoption story. I still beam, 26 years later, when people ask about our adoption. One of my favorite parts of our journey was finding out that our daughter had been born just minutes before we were leaving for the airport. When we checked in, the airline bumped us up to first class (with lots of champagne!) when they learned we were on our way to meet our new baby daughter.
  • There are wonderful books about adoption—seek them out! Here's a list of 11 great adoption books to get you started. My daughter’s favorite is Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born, written by actress Jaime Lee Curtis. It’s geared toward young children, beautifully illustrated, and captures the amazing love of adoption. It's a perfect book to help give you an understanding of what a magical moment it is for adoptive parents to meet their child for the first time. You can also ask your library to showcase adoption-positive books this month.
  • Spread the word on this year’s National Adoption Month initiative, "We Never Outgrow the Need for Family." You'll be helping to increase national awareness and bring attention to the need for permanent families for children and youth in the U.S. foster care system.
  • Mentor a child who is aging out of the foster care system. The National Mentoring Resource Center and AdoptUSKids are good places to start.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.