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.


15 thoughts on “Words don’t come easy

  1. phillimoresarah Post author

    I am grateful for this contribution – I know we have been using the terms ‘birth’ and ‘adoptive’ parents on this site, simply to try to make the information we publish easy to access. But I can understand how to call someone a ‘birth’ parent is not always going to be a helpful descriptive term.

  2. Philip Measures

    …’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…’

    Sorry – but I find these comments highly offensive. The reasons for adoption are many and varied and include tragic circumstances – the person who originally gave birth is a ‘birth parent’ who once held all parental rights and for the adopted child provides part of their genetic heritage.

    The terms we use ‘professionally’ ought to be different to those used towards the child and family – once adopted it is their parents child – not an adopted child / adoptee and their parents are their parents and not adoptive or substitute parents – but professionally we have to use terms that make sense – they are not prejudicial but factual.

  3. phillimoresarah Post author

    Philip – none of the contributors was trying to be ‘offensive’ to anyone; they are sharing their views about what terminology they find helpful and what they don’t and why.

    I think there is merit in examining the ‘professional’ terms we use because of the impact the terminology can have on the people we deal with. That is why, I assume, the term ‘disposal hearing’ fell out of favour and was replaced with ‘welfare hearing’.

    I am usually impatient with too much time wasted on semantics, but I can see that sometimes these discussions have value.

  4. Shirley Thoresson

    Adoptive carers , foster carers, social workers or local authorities can give any name to any adoptive “parent” , foster carer or even legally change the names of the children they have forcefully taken from their birth parents, yet one thing they cannot EVER do, is change their DNA. History bears full proof that these children will one day seek out their birth parents and biological families. What God has put together NO man can put asunder!!!!!!

  5. Jerry Lonsdale

    Thank You CPR for this blog posting, when I first posted the remarks on Twitter I knew it would be contentious and those in the filed could say it is controversial, the terminology used throughout the start and finish of Child Proceedings can often leave somewhat of a bitter taste, it can more so, paint an incorrect picture of the true nature of the process, not just the terms spoken of above, there are many more which can do more harm than good.

    “Sticks And Stones May Break My Bones But Calling Names Never Hurt Me”

    There are many comparisons made in the Media when they report on travesties or failings of parents, those are likened and compared with the actions rife in “Baby P”, I remember vividly the wake following Victoria Climbié’s death, I had just started out on this road, many documents, reports et al and the press were likening situations to that of Victoria. Wrong or right, I am galled at the use of a Child who sadly died in order to justify a means to an end.

    The term Adoptee, personally I feel likens that to the Children of WW2 the “Evacuee’s” who were sent far and wide from their parents, I always have the mental image of the children at the train stations with the large signs with their names on around their necks, this, I would go further to say the ill feelings I have when in discussion about “Adoption Parties” those similar things happened during WW2 as well for those Evacuee’s.

    The use of the term Birth Parent, which I believe was the instigator which has led to this blog post never seems to do justice for the parents who the term is used against, a parent(s) do more than just give birth, even if the child becomes adopted that in its self does not eliminate the actual parent(s), an adoption just means that the parent is still biological to the child only the legalities are removed from the parent (s) from making informed decisions, obviously one can argue that there are some parents who simply lack the capacity to be parents, whether the term Natural is used again some sadly cannot be Natural parents,
    and one of the responses on Twitter was “We all Need a Little Help” yes and one would wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. Birth Parent(s) could be construed to that of Surrogacy, after all, the Surrogate parent is only the Birth Parent.

    One could say that these are just words, simple phrases used within the world of Child Protection, to describe matters and identities, however, should such derogatory words be used though, why is there a need to use terminology in such a way as to impose a label on the Child, Parent(s), is there such a thing as a bad parent, I cannot recall the actual case but I do remember the Court of Appeal frowning upon the use of that particular term by the Authorities in the case.

    Are the use of the terms highlighted above needed in these matters, what would we replace them with but more so how?, I would hazard a guess that the readers of this blog would come up with a few for their own use, Lawyers, Social Workers and others alike would use other terms that would never be agreed upon.

    Further words that need addressing are, “Stolen” – that implies to an object or a piece of property, Children are neither, “Forced” – in the term used by opponents of the Adoption system, forced means by that context, arms tied behind ones back, however the system operates not by forced, held down until in agreement but the opportunity to OPPOSE is taken away, not by force, whether the parent is in AGREEMENT, or not, one would compare that term in the context of “Forced” Marriage, now that indeed is known to be done using exceptional “Force”, again, like I said previously and on Twitter the contentious of us would take hum-bridge to me even using those descriptives, hence the over riding needs to debate further about this.

    Words are just that, letters chosen from a list of 26 letters arranged in a line to make some form of text, one could say we have bigger fish to fry and quite rightly so, however, in order to move forwards together one would suggest that the foundations laid would be the staring block in building the Tower, I say we start at Plan A, if that fails there are another 25 letters to choose from.

  6. Philip Measures

    No, Jerry, words should have positive meaning and alternatives should not be equally offensive and hurtful – if not even more so in some instances.

    As a social worker of over 40 years experience I know the pain and anguish behind many adoptions and those mothers who gave physical birth have sometimes had to make agonising decisions or bear the results of situations not always of their own making. Extended family members have also often felt the pain.

    If we want to use alternative terminology let us at least make it positive for all concerned.

    I still say that professionally we need to know what we are talking about – so instead of being critical what are the acceptable alternatives?

    1. Matt Harding

      Not to be morbid, though I do wonder what the suicide rate for birth parents is. I would think that losing your children would have very devastating effects indeed.

      1. phillimoresarah Post author

        I don’t know – I don’t know if statistics are kept or indeed if it would be possible to keep clear records. A lot of my clients, sadly, have a lot of awful things going on in their lives and removing their children may be the final straw… but equally some clients have been able to concentrate on getting the help they need after their children’s removal and have gone on to live happier lives. But I am sure the loss of their children remains deeply affecting.

        I have met only a hand full of clients who – in my view – did NOT love their children. that is rarely the issue. The issue is usually translating ‘love’ from a word or an emotion into an ACTION, i.e. consistently putting the children’s welfare above or even on a par with their own.

    2. Jerry Lonsdale

      Philip, the idea of this blog posting obviously stemmed from a worthy debate on Twitter, I had said it would be controversial and could cause angst amongst the readers,

      I wholeheartedly support the use of any terms that are not derogatory in nature, however the reasons for this debated subject was to hopefully come up with a few alternatives those involved in the system, professional or other could agree on, now as you say your experience is in Social Work, Sarah’s is in Law, many other readers are likewise and some readers are adoptive parents and some maybe parents who may be facing Child Protection matters or could be in full swing court proceedings.

      I was no intending to be critical, the notion of this was I was becoming increasing concerned by the use of the term birth parent, that in a descriptive term means gave birth AND raises the Child.

      I have to say that while I do not normally like to use Wikipedia their page on Language of Adoption [American Adoption] although it is descriptive of the American Adoption system the terms used seem to be pretty informative and useful in this debate and as it reads terms of description have evolved for decades when referring to matters contained within this debate, they have broken language down into sections of Positive Adoption Language -PAL – and Honest Adoption Language- HAL


      I am in almost complete agreement with the contents of that Wikipedia page,

      We do need to see modernisation of these words and phrases, if the descriptive is believed on the linked Wikipedia page then the term “Natural” Parent was not used from and like the very recent use of the words Legal Blogsphere, a term coined by President Mumby when he was describing an article from another very well respected legal blogger, those words were welcomed by all, I would say though that the Courts and no offence Lawyers are very slow to act upon these issues, apologies Sarah no offence intended, it is just my experience dictating that.

      I do not know what are the best words to use, I could chose many that would only be from my own principles and drive, I want to look at the wider aspect of the whole use of terminology, for example a Looked After Child’s review it’s acronym being L.A.C Review however that has regional variations, and sometimes even I become confused when speaking to parents, social workers and the likes from that particular area, some towns in the north call L.A.C reviews C.A.R’s.

      That issue is however not the focus here, why I initiated this debate from the outset, we need now to move forward and use words we can all agree on, words that will not upset any one party.

      I do hope this debate carries on, it is not the biggest of issues that need addressing agreed, however it is something that can and should be worked on.

      In Loco Parentis or more poignantly for this debate Parens Patriae

  7. phillimoresarah Post author

    I agree Philip, but I fear it may be an impossibility to make it ‘positive for all concerned’ – I think the best we can do is cause the least offence or hurt to the smallest amount of people.

    I am quite wary of arguments around semantics as sometimes I feel they detract from necessary discussion about the substance of a debate. But equally I know I can’t ignore them completely as I accept terminology can in and of itself sometimes shape that substance.

    I confess I don’t have any ideas as to what to use other than ‘birth’ or ‘adoptive’ parents when we need professionally to make that distinction.

  8. Lilka

    Adoption language is a really difficult topic, and something which does cause a lot of controversy and can cause hurt, and it’s a barrier to communication, and YET not something we can actually solve.

    The thing is, adoption is a completely different experience for everyone concerned, in so many different situations. One term will work perfectly in one situation for everyone, and that same term would be wildly inappropriate in another situation for different people. And yet mostly we talk (and write online etc) about adoption in very general terms, because we can’t talk about every individual situation. So we end up having to pick a term that we know won’t sit right with everyone who listens/reads.

    I think the key thing is that we should try to understand and respect that everyone’s experience is very different and that each person needs to make their own decision about what language they would prefer to use about themselves and their situation. Because I do really notice that there is frequently a lack of respect within the adoption community as a whole, of this simple fact. My children and I have picked the language we want to use, that describes our situation, and yet we get told by other adoptive parents, adoptees and birth parents, that the language we have chosen is somehow ‘wrong’.

    But how can the language we have chosen, that fits us and our situation, be ‘wrong’? It isn’t wrong, and i totally refuse to be “corrected” by someone who can’t appreciate why i use the language i do and why it is right for my situation. It would be wrong for others, and I respect that completely. So when talking to other “adoption-connected” people I listen for their cues and when talking to them about their own lives, I try and copy their language. I hope they will give me the same respect in return and copy my language when talking to me about my life. And i think that’s the only you can do in a one-on-one situation. Listen for the cues and respond accordingly, and importantly try not to get offended if someone wants to describe themself with a term you don’t particularly like, because they have a valid reason for using it, just as you have a valid reason for choosing the language you’ve chosen. A little mutual empathy and respect can go such a long way.

    Which is such a long winded way of saying, “I’ll respect your language and I’ll use it when talking to you about your own life, but don’t expect me to use your language when talking about my own life”

    I wrote about this whole thing in a blog post a while back actually, here http://lastmother.wordpress.com/2013/10/06/can-we-talk-about-adoption-language/

    And yet, when we write an online post about adoption in general, I think you’re totally right Sarah to say that all we can do is pick the term which is likely to be cause the least offence to everyone as a group. I usually choose adoptive parents, birth parents and adoptees to do that. There’ll never be any term which could ever apply to everyone, and we have to accept that unfortunately.

  9. phillimoresarah Post author

    Thanks Lilka for your comment and the link to your blog. I think the more we can share from different perspectives, the better.

    In fact, can I link your blog at the beginning of the post?

  10. Tracy W

    Reading through the list, I suspect that what may be the problem is not the language, but the underlying situation of adoption. A number of the derogatory interpretations appear to be stretches of meaning that probably never occurred to the original users of the phrases (eg that a birth parent is nothing more than a surrogate or a breeder – huh?).
    Furthermore, the people posting online would likely tend to be the ones who find the situation painful. So the language is probably found to be painful not because of its connotations as language per se, but because the language is part of an inherently painful situation. Changing the language will not make the pain go away. Instead, the pain will just become associated with whatever the new language is.

    (This is not to say that it has to be that all, or even most, adoptions, are emotionally charged, just that people who are entirely relaxed about the situation are probably not frequently posting online on adoption groups).

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