Adoption Positive Language

Adoption Positive Language

Why it’s important: Failing to use adoption sensitive language in a group setting can often lead to people with certain life stories feeling less than or excluded. Adoption is not an overly common experience, but it happens regularly enough that, when addressing a group of 40 or more, statistically speaking you likely have at least one adoptee in your midst. Adoption sensitive language isn’t often talked about, but it plays a crucial role in making those around you feel safe, heard, and comfortable.

Here is an example of a personal experience with insensitivity. The person being insensitive did not mean to be, however it created a feeling of “otherness” for me. The story took place as followed:

I was sitting in Sunday school, listening to one of the children’s pastors speak. I don’t remember what the lesson was about, but I do remember something that was said that was very difficult for me to hear. The woman said “Do any of you have brothers or sisters?” I, like many others in my group, raised my hand, confirming that I do, in fact, have a sibling. Pause. I believe that now would be an opportune time to say that I do not have any biological siblings that live with me. My sister was adopted at birth too, and we are in no way blood related. Let me make something perfectly clear, she is my sister. I love her more than anyone else in this world, and have had the privilege of watching her grow into a beautiful, godly young lady. She is about 6 years younger than me, and I have been over the moon about her since day one. I remember getting the call from the adoption agency that we had been chosen by her biological mother to be her family, and there is a video of me running around our living room yelling “I’M GOING TO BE A BIG SISTER!!” She is my sister. Resume. The next question that the sunday school teacher asked was if we remembered when our “mommy’s were pregnant with our siblings.” my hand went down. I was the only one. I remember this so clearly because it was one of the first times that I came to recognize that I was different. My family’s makeup was different from my peers. I remember telling my mom after church what had happened, and she was angry with the church. “Why was that even a necessary thing for them to say? How does that help the lesson?” She asked no one in particular. She later contacted the church, who apologized for what had been said. This story specifically is why I felt the need to create this course. No child needs to feel excluded in church, or anywhere else for that matter.

That is just one of many examples of insensitivity that has been presented throughout the course. However different the individual stories, they all lead to a feeling of “difference” or “wrongness” of the adoptee. Phrases can have the same effect. Here is a list of common phrases and their respectful alternatives, paired with the reasoning behind each.

[su_table responsive=”yes” alternate=”no”]

Common termRespectful alternative
The child was “given up”The child was “raised by an adoptive family”
The child was “entrusted to adoptive parents”
They decided to “keep” the childThey decided to “parent” the child
They decided to “raise” the child
“Real parents”“Biological parents”
My “real” childMy “birth child”
My “biological child”
“Adopted child” (When referring to an adult)“Adoptee”
“Illegitimate child”“Child born out of wedlock”
A “reunion”“Reconnection with the biological family”
They “are adopted”They “were adopted”


Reasoning behind each:

*“Given Up”: given up is not sensitive because it implies that the child is more of an object than human. Emotionally speaking it is difficult for a child to hear that they were given up at any point, as it makes them feel invaluable and makes it seem like there was something wrong with them. The only other time we use the term given up as a society is with a project or difficult task. Ex: I gave up on the cause a long time ago. Generally when we say this it means that the project was not worth our time or effort, and a child is always worth time and effort. An easy way to sensitively say what you mean would be to say “the child was raised by an adoptive family.” However, it is necessary to note that if an adoptee refers to themself as “given up” it is important not to correct them, as that is how they are comfortable talking about their story. This being said, you should still continue using the respectful phrase unless otherwise asked by the adoptee.

Keep the child: again, this makes it sound like the child is a sack of potatoes, able to be tossed around at will. Not literally, but you get my point. This is a human child with feelings that you are talking about here, not an expensive painting. This terminology makes the child sound like a burden, whereas the phrasing “parent” instead of “keep”, makes it sound as though it is the intention of the caretaker to raise the child to the best of their abilities and be a parent figure.

Real parents: as an adoptee, this one really, really sets me off. My real parents are the ones that were there for me in my best and my worst times, the ones there to celebrate my success, and the ones there to dry my tears. My real mother was the one that skipped the scary parts in movies so I wouldn’t get nightmares, and if I did, she was the one that stayed up comforting me. My real dad is the one who instilled a love of reading in me and encouraged me to continue my passions, even when I felt like giving up. My real parents are the ones who never give up on me, not the ones whose genes I share. As an adoptee, I find the term ‘real parents’ in reference to my biological family invalidating the experiences with and love I feel for my adoptive family. Sharing genes with a child doesn’t innately make you a real parent, just as giving birth to a child doesn’t make you a mother. Both of those titles carry so much more weight than just being a biological parent. Instead of the term “real parents” a good alternative phrase would be “biological parents”.

My real child: this one has basically the same explanation as the last one. If you are an adoptive parent and referring to your biological child as your “real child”, it makes the non-biological child feel as though you love them less, or as if they really don’t belong in the family they were adopted into. If you are an adult who has chosen to have your biological child raised by an adoptive family, you have relinquished your rights to that child, and they are no longer ‘yours’, regardless of if you share DNA with them or not. In both of these situations, the term “real” can simply be replaced with “biological” and this becomes a non-issue.

Adopted Child (when referring to an adult): This is not overly sensitive, as it almost limits the adults identity to what happened to them as a child. It casts the impression that they are almost stuck at that age, and can’t comprehend anything further about their adoption. They are no longer children, they are adults, and should be referred to as such. A simple solution is to just call this person an “adoptee” if it is necessary to reference this person’s biological story.

Illegitimate child: the definition of illegitimate is “Not authorized by the law; not in accordance with accepted standards or rules”. Though it is commonly used when talking about someone born outside of wedlock, the word ‘illegitimate’ is hurtful, regardless of what it is referencing. No child is not in accordance with accepted standards, they are children. They had no say in how they came into this world, yet they are still the ones given the label of illegitimate. A good way to rephrase this would be “the child was born outside of wedlock”

A reunion: When we use the word ‘reunited’ when talking about a child meeting his or her biological family, it makes it seem as though this is the ‘happy ending’ we’ve all been waiting for so to speak. It sounds like this is what was always meant to happen, and how this is how everything should go down. This might make it difficult for the adoptee or biological family to express any negative feelings surrounding the meeting. It also might make the adoptee feel out of place in their adoptive home, as ‘being reunited’ sounds as though they have found who they are supposed to be with. A way to rectify that statement would be to replace ‘reunion’ with ‘reconnection’.

They “are” adopted: This confines someone to a specific event that happened in their lives. The person being talked about is so much more than their adoption. They are an individual with thoughts and opinions about their lives that have to do with so much more than them being raised by someone who was not their biological family. A great alternative to “they are adopted” is “they were adopted”.

Finally, it is necessary to address what to do when an adoptee around you has just encountered insensitivity. This requires only two simple steps.

  1. Stick up
  2. Stick around

This can appear in a variety of ways, but making sure the adoptee feels seen and heard, and then staying to show your support towards the adoptee, is validating and encouraging. This can help lessen the sting of insensitivity for adoptees.

I would be happy to address any questions you may have! Please feel free to contact me at

Sarah Pfleeger
Guest Author

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