Your adopted children can feel confused, stressed, and othered when they encounter the stigmas they hear about adoption. How can you help your child handle the adoption microaggressions they face as they grow and develop their identity?

What are Adoption Microaggressions?

Before you can help your child handle adoption microaggressions, it’s essential to understand what microaggressions are and how they sound to our kids. Loosely defined microaggressions are subtle slights, injustices, or invalidations that we typically think of when discussing issues of race.

When we apply this definition to adoption, we can hear invalidations that subtly reiterate stigmas that devalue an adopted individual or the experience of adoption itself. Usually, the speaker does not intend to hurt or offend when they speak an adoption microaggression. However, the impact is othering, distancing, and discriminating against our kids.

Adoption microaggressions impact all members of the adoption constellation. However, this article speaks to parents of adopted children who seek to identify and cope with the adoption microaggressions their children encounter.

Adoption microaggressions then, intentional or not, can show up in the following ways:

  1. Micro-assaults are harmful and insulting language aimed at an adopted person’s origins, experience, the culture of birth, etc.
  2. Micro-invalidations bring into question the adopted child’s experience with “real parents” and adoptive parents as if their birth parents or adoptive parents are less real to or for the child. They also reinforce devaluing stereotypes or beliefs about first parents or those who choose to adopt
  3. Micro-insults are subtle, verbal “digs” about an adopted person’s culture or birth family. These are often beliefs or spoken words about how adoptees should feel grateful or how lucky an adoptee is to be adopted by “this” family.
  4. Micro-fictions, coined by Dr. Amanda Baden, are the secrets, falsehoods, partial truths, and deeply hidden stories that make up the story of a child’s adoption. They can also include systemic fictions, like amended birth certificates, fabricated social history reports, and other institutional narratives around adoption, orphans, and birth parents.

Where do Adoption Microaggressions Come From?

Cultural & Bloodline Beliefs

Among the cultures and religions worldwide you will find strong beliefs about who “truly” belongs to a family or a people group. For example, the Asian culture places a very high value on sons to carry on the family line. Many folks will assume that your adopted Chinese daughter was abandoned because “the Chinese don’t like or want girls.”

Here in the US, children who do not “match” their parents can experience the harm of these beliefs from many directions. If we are not aware and vigilant, they might even face them in our social circles, schools, places of faith, and even our own families. International, transracial adoptees quite commonly experience adoption microaggressions from this root of cultural beliefs.

The Stories We Tell

Many familiar stories in our culture are built around the stigmas and myths about adoption, orphans, and birth families. You have seen fairy tale stories about princes, princesses, and superheroes. The standard narrative of the troubled orphan or “adoptee as damaged goods” usually goes two ways. The central character is an orphan who overcomes tremendous adversity and rescues other characters from peril and world domination by evil forces. Conversely, the troubled orphan is a “bad seed”  who is bent on destroying himself and others in his path.

What Can You Do to Equip Your Child to Handle Microaggressions?

We’ve said it before – much of adoptive parenting is about dealing with your stuff. It’s critical to recognize that your adopted child might need additional support and resources to manage their adoption experience and thrive. However, it’s equally crucial to consider your perceptions of adoption and adopted children, including what you believe about birth families, trauma, and related assumptions from your family of origin.

1. Start by Asking Yourself Hard Questions

What have you believed about the following common adoption microaggression themes? Can you identify how you have bought into these ideas or how they may have colored your part of your child’s adoption experience? Identifying these themes or beliefs is a huge step toward helping your child identify microaggressions to handle them well.

  • The troubled orphan or “bad seed” narratives
  • Biology is best or “Blood is thicker than water” themes
  • The suggestion or inference of degrees of parenthood – first, birth, real, adoptive, etc. that create sensitivity for you
  • The grateful adoptee – the idea that adoptees are not allowed to feel critical or negative about their parents or adoption
  • The lucky adoptee – related to the “grateful adoptee” language, this often comes up in terms of how much better the child’s life is now
  • Cultural limbo or invalidation of heritage – (might often sound like “Oreo”- black on the outside and white on the inside). Do you see your adoptee as fully part of his heritage or birth/ethnic group AND fully part of your family and culture?
  • Cultural philanthropy and altruistic rescuer themes – Do you feel your culture or country is “superior?” Do you get praised for “rescuing your child?”

What are you saying to your children about their birth families? When we have harmful beliefs about our kids’ families of origin, our kids can pick up on those. Children cannot separate themselves from their parents – by birth or adoption – and then internalize these messages to mean something about themselves.

  • Do you reinforce secrecy or support your child’s search for truth and transparency?
  • What do you believe about your child’s first family – whether known or unknown?
  • How do you handle the “phantom birth parent” in your family’s story?
  • Are you communicating compassion and empathy about the events that led to your child’s availability for adoption?
  • Are you reinforcing societal beliefs about the birth parents’ “sacrificial love” or the shame around relinquishment, abandonment, or loss?

2. Talk About Adoption Often

If you have not yet given your child her adoption story, start now. Your child deserves to know everything you know about how she came to join your family in age-appropriate language. Even if the messages are hard to talk about or hard for her to understand, she needs this information from you. As her trusted resource and support person, she looks to you to fully process her developing identity. Normalize that how your family was built is valid and valuable.

How she responds to the adoption microaggressions she encounters will largely be informed by her understanding of adoption and her story. Your goal is to equip her with facts and be open and present for the questions she has as she gains the knowledge.

3. Teach Your Child to Identify Microaggressions

Suppose you haven’t already begun talking about the adoption microaggressions your child might experience. In that case, you can start with children’s books and movies as an easy on-ramp. Read age-appropriate books that center on adoptees as main characters. Talk about what the character heard, saw, or felt related to his adoption. Discuss adopted characters and what messages the storyline might be conveying or that your child might hear. Try to ask open-ended questions that give your child room to reflect and expand their lens. Be careful not to take it personally if or when your child sees something differently than you do.

Sometimes it can feel “darned if we do and darned if we don’t” to dig into our child’s adoption experience. Remember, the goal is to help your child identify the microaggressions when they occur. His responses to you might have a wide range of receptivity across his development, so hang in there and keep trying.

4. Equip Your Child to Respond to Adoption Microaggressions

As your children get a handle on the language to identify adoption microaggressions, you can expand conversations to their real-life interactions. Provide scripts and language for responding to their friends aligned with your family’s values and your child’s style. Try to support them with some role-playing and create a supply of “canned responses” that make them feel confident.

What does that sound like?

Say you are parenting a child of “few words” who repeatedly hears “you are so lucky you were adopted.” You would key in on a short script that feels comfortable and easy to remember. Here are a few examples you can tweak for your child’s style, age, and understanding:

  • “Yup. But they are even luckier to have me.”
  • “Luck really had very little to do with it.”
  • “It’s not lucky to never know my birth family.”
  • “Lucky is winning the lottery.”

When your child bumps up against people who do not understand the impact their words have, encourage him to advocate for himself. He can choose to educate if he wants. However, your child should also know that he doesn’t have to educate others every time. He can self-protect and handle the comments by re-directing, changing the subject, or shutting down conversations that make him uncomfortable. Each child needs to feel from you that you support whatever he needs at the moment.

5. Assure Your Child that You Are His Advocate

As we’ve said about parenting children adopted transracially, this child needs to know you are his ally. He needs to understand how deeply you are with him in this journey to discover himself. The same goes for helping your child navigate the adoption microaggressions he experiences. You can communicate that message in many ways. For instance, when you or your child encounter an adoption microaggression message, unpack it together. Ask your child how he wants to respond and if he wants you to get involved. These conversations grow our kids’ self-advocacy skills in safe ways. In addition, you give the message that Mom or Dad can and will step in to help as they need us.

Tips from transracial adoptees

Your Preparation Can Yield Confidence and Trust

When raising an adopted child, especially a transracial adoptee, you are both likely to experience adoption microaggressions. They will sting – there’s no doubt about that. Preparing yourself with education and awareness provides a model for your child on how to manage microaggressions. You offer an example of tackling hard things from a position of strength. Walking with your child through the challenges of adoption microaggressions equips you both. Further, it builds trust and attachment between you. Your child’s confidence in you and himself is a fantastic foundation for his developing identity.

Tell us in the comments: has your child encountered adoption microaggressions? What did you do?

Image Credits: John Brighenti; Anthony J; Ashley Webb