Tag Archives: terminology

Words don’t come easy

This contribution is from a group of ‘birth’ and ‘adoptive’ parents who started discussing this issue on Twitter. What is the impact of the words we use to talk about people in the care and adoption process?

Do we need to be more considerate of or more challenging about the terms we use? 

You may also be interested in this blog post from an adoptive parent. 


Does the terminology associated with adoption need to be challenged?

The current adoption climate in the UK has seen the use of many terminologies being uttered that evoke negative emotions for all involved. Adoption in itself is very emotive for all involved especially where consent has been dispensed with.  So can the use of some of these terms be considered as  “hate speech”? Possibly, possibly not, but what is clear is that we need to remove the use of some of these terms as it builds an even greater divide between the “birth family” and the “adoptive family”.

Whichever side you find yourself on, it is the child at the end of the day that is most affected by whichever term is used.  Some can denote that the one family is either lesser or even better than the other family, leaving the child in the middle feeling they are being torn in two having to choose sides. This has a devastating and lasting effect on the child’s identity, self worth, emotions and psychology not to mention a test on their loyalty to the families involved.

So let’s look at some of the terms and the emotive relationships associated to them:

Birth Parent

Person who gave birth is nothing more than a ‘surrogate’ or ‘breeder’. Denotes derogatory connotations. If an adopter has a blood child and an adopted child, it segregates the two making the adopted child always feel isolated.

Genetic Parent

Person is nothing more than a donor of an egg or sperm

First / Second Family

Renders the essence of a family unit moot. Undermines the role of permanence and stability. Suggests families can be discarded summarily and breeds lack of respect.

Forever Family

This is considered one of the most offensive terms in adoption. There is not such thing as a ‘forever family’ as the whole process of adoption contradicts the entire term. It is also suggestive to children in families who have not been separated by adoption, that their place in the family is temporary which has devastating consequences in terms of building trust, relationship alienation etc.

Natural Parent

Who will carry this term (adopter or other?) and is being a parent a ‘natural’ thing so that assistance is never required at any point? Everyone needs help and guidance as children do not come with manuals and no two children are alike. Whoever coins their family as ‘natural’ will them imply that the other family is ‘unnatural’.”

Real Mother/Father

Adopters are made to feel they are artificial parents


The use of this term for adoptive parent dismisses the emotional and psychological link the ‘biological’ parent has and will always have, with a child who has been adopted.


Many adopters feel they should have the use of this term as opposed to the inclusion of the ‘birth’ family within the term, but is a ‘family’ simply all who love and care for the child and can simply be seen as a ‘cohesive family’ ?


Denotes that the child is ‘different’ and unloved by those who gave birth to them. In the UK, this term is becoming synonymous with having come from an abusive home, hence they were removed for adoption. Not all children are removed from abusive or neglectful homes and parents who did not love them. Many parents who have lost their child to adoption will go to extra-ordinary lengths to fight for their child’s return. Another obvious observation is that if ‘birth’ parent is used does that make this child a ‘birth’ child?


Not everyone can parent. This applies to ‘birth’ parents as well as ‘adoptive’ parents. So do we keep the term parent for both?


The  impact of terminology

The emotive responses can either have positive or negative connotations and more suitable terminology must begin to be accepted, especially amongst the legal fraternity and social care societies as it is from there that the initial steps can be introduced.  So what do we use? There is much debate around this very subject with no definitive conclusion.

Do we start referring to “birth” parents as the “Alpha” parent/family while “Beta” is used for extended families, “Gamma” for Step families and “Delta” for the adoptive family? Does this make one again lesser than the other or is it simply a matter of numeric’s. After all, without the “birth” family coming first, there would be no adoption?

Literature and research accepts that the majority of ‘adoptees’ will at some point seek out their ‘birth’ family. How reunions turn out often depends on how the child, adopter and ‘birth parent’ have associated each other’s role based on the terminology that each has grown accustomed to or been offended by.  If the reunion is a success, the adoptive family, especially the parent, will often feel sidelined and abandoned whilst the adoptee reconnects with the biological ties that will forever bind them to their ‘birth’ family.

We need to be realistic and frank if we are ever to get to the bottom of all this, despite everyone’s sensitivities. Adoption is nothing more than giving a child which is not your own, a potentially safe environment to grow up in, but how is this different to growing up with grandparents or extended families? Would you raise an eyebrow if a child referred to their  grandparents as ‘my adoptive mom’? So is the use of Adopter still appropriate and should this term perhaps be replace with “Guardian”?

As adoption can be cross-cultural, do we also need to consider religion and culture in the terminology as translations can change an entire meaning? Or do we stick with the English speaking populous and leave the rest to be interpreted as each culture and religion sees fit?

Will changing the terminology go a long way to building a more constructive framework and solid foundation for the child involved and even possibly lead towards successful open adoptions?

What if we used similar words with similar meanings but either spelt or pronounced differently?

We call two grandmothers in a family different things so that we can distinguish them e.g. grandma, nan etc.., and one is not loved more or less than the other.  The same can be done for mothers for example, so that the child knows the difference but the terminology would be different for every family.

Some possible suggestions are:

Female Carers: Mom, mommy, mother, mama, mammy, mum, ma, mummy, etc.

Male Carers: Dad, Father, Pops, pappy, daddy, papa, pa, etc.

It has to be argued that this has to be the better option for all involved but more so, for the child. If you accept that, then why not go the extra step when referring to ‘Birth’ and ‘Adoptive’ parents both  as ‘Parents’? Similarly, both sides can be referred to as ‘Families’ because that is pure and simply what they are and will always be to the child.

Removing the adjectives and verbs will improve long term outcomes for the child and that dear reader, has to be what is in every child’s best interest.