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Words Matter. Choose Positive Adoption Language

January 13, 2010

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.

A well meaning childhood mantra aimed at helping the bullied.  But the reality is that words DO hurt.  And beyond hurting, they unconsciously shape our expectations and ideas.  The field of adoption is forever growing and changing.  But it is still plagued with negative stereotypes about ALL members of the triad.  Frequently, those stereotypes are perpetuated by the language we use when speaking about adoption.  A quick google search for “positive adoption language” will show you a nice chart of “bad” versus “good” language.    I found this one quickly from

Negative Terms Preferred Terms
Gave up her child for adoption Placed her child for adoption
Real parent; natural parent Birth parent, biological parent
Adoptive parent Parent
His adopted child His child
Illegitimate Born to unmarried parents
Adoptee Child who was adopted
To keep To parent
Adoptable child; available child Waiting child
Foreign adoption International adoption
Track down parents Search
Unwanted child Child placed for adoption
Is adopted Was adopted

**I am not endorsing this table except to illustrate that there is a surplus of positive adoption language resources available on the internet and it is extremely easy to find**

Most of these are pretty self explanatory, but I’d like to talk a little further about “birthparent.”

A pregnant woman is not a birthmother.  She is a pregnant woman.  An expectant mother.   Until she gives birth and subsequently places her child with an adoptive family she is not a birthmother.  It is reasonable to consider that a woman may be subtle-y coerced to follow through with an adoption plan when she has already been labeled “birthmother” and not simply “mother.”  Psychological research has long determined that humans are likely to behave in a way that supports how they are labeled.  An ethical adoption depends on a woman choosing to make an adoption plan free of coercion.  This is, without dispute, in the best interest of the child.


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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling.  She is the founder of The Central Texas Attachment & Trauma Center.  

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 5kidswdisabilities permalink
    January 14, 2010 5:37 am

    Thank you for this information. I have been so sensitive to the fact that my children have disabilities that I am always politically correct about how I say that. I never gave adoption a thought!
    Lindsey Petersen

  2. January 14, 2010 8:17 am

    Thanks Lindsey! It’s amazing our words impact our thoughts and beliefs!

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