Tuesday, October 6, 2015

7 Things Not to Say - Special Needs Adoption

Imagine you have been waiting months or years for your child.  You are excited, nervous, and eager to share your news with many people.  You want them to see your child and "Oooh" and "Aaah" over his precious face.  You know the world is a better place for him being in it and you are uncontrollably happy that you are the one who gets to be his Mommy or Daddy.  

Now imagine that instead of joy and congratulations, you are met with unintended insults. The reactions indicate, however subtly,  that your child is not good enough.  You feel pity instead of joy.  And you know that every time you show a picture of your beloved child, there's a chance you could be met with this reaction.

Pretty heartbreaking, isn't it.

Accepting a referral for a child is a huge milestone in the adoption process.  It is the moment when your dreams suddenly have a real, live child attached.  You see the child you will love for the rest of your life.  The vague imagery of adoption is gone and the specific reality of your future sets in. 

It is terrifying, exhilarating, and a feeling that can't be contained.  Imagine the excitement of seeing an ultrasound picture times a thousand.   

This can also be a vulnerable time for an adoptive parent waiting to welcome a child with identified medical needs. Adoptive parents need people to share their joy just as much as any mother announcing a pregnancy or an adoption of a child without medical quirks.  If the child has a visible difference, the vulnerability increases.  The adoptive parent sees the beauty of this child - will others?

Our family is not the only family in the history of the world who has adopted a child with identified medical needs.  Its really not that special or unusual.  

Yet many families, including my own, have heard unfortunate comments when sharing their news.  Not from you, of course, Dear Reader.  But, I have compiled a list of some of the things people have said to me about our adoptions.  I am sharing not only what not to say, but why it is an inappropriate comment.  

I know the people who said these things didn't mean to hurt feelings or insult.  I believe they just didn't think through their responses.  

1.  What is wrong with him/her?

Sometimes a child has a visible difference.  Sometimes friends and families know a family has been pursuing the adoption of a Waiting Child (adoption lingo for a child who has an identified medical need or some other situation that might make it a little harder to find the perfect parents for them).  

When a family tells you they have been matched with a child, NEVER ask, "What's wrong with him?"  because there is nothing "wrong" with the child.  They may have been made less than typical, but it isn't "wrong". 

Nobody is an unblemished specimen of human perfection.  Even you.  Even your child.   And well brought up people don't immediately inquire about the medical minutia of everyone they meet.  Adoptive parents have the right to not be questioned about their child's health to satisfy your general curiosity. 

If they want to discuss their child's medical needs with you, let them bring it up first.  

The only time you can ask about the medical condition first is if you are a very, very close friend or family member.  If you wouldn't discuss the details of your colonoscopy with this friend, your relationship is not close enough to allow you to ask this question.

2.  Did you know he/she would have that?  Couldn't you say "No"?

Anyone intending to adopt a child with a medical condition chooses it.  (There can be undisclosed issues, but that is a different situation).  The prospective adoptive parents must discuss the needs they are comfortable parenting with their social worker.  They must be approved to adopt a child with those needs by not only their social worker, but also the US government and, in the case of international adoption, the other countries government.  They have to do adequate research on the medical needs and have a plan of care in place.

Once a child with medical needs is referred to the family, they have the opportunity to decide if they are able to meet the needs of that particular child.  There  is a whole lot of thought and introspection involved.

Basically, a person must actively seek out and choose to adopt a child with a disclosed medical condition.  So yes, an adoptive parent did know about any known and disclosed medical conditions before accepting the referral.

The problem with asking if the adoptive parents could have said, "No" implies there is some reason this child should not be wanted.  Asking if they could back out of it is akin to asking a parent who gave birth to a child with a medical need, "Would you refuse to parent that child if you could?  Do you wish you had a different child instead?"  

That is all kinds of wrong.

3.  They are so lucky you would choose them.

No, they are not lucky to be chosen.  Children with special needs are just as much of a blessing to a family as children without identified medical needs.  To say they are lucky implies that there is something inherently "less than" about them.  

Adoptive parents know you mean this as a compliment.  But, as a guideline, if you wouldn't say this to a parent about their biological child, you shouldn't say it to a parent adopting a special needs child.  

4.  I could never adopt a child like that.

Why not?  An adoptive parent, clutching the picture of the child they are promising to love forever does not want to hear about why you would never adopt a child "like that".  Because I can guarantee that even if they are nervous about how the medical needs will affect them and their family, they have no desire to listen to why their new child wouldn't have measure up to your standards.

5.  Are they cheaper if they are Special Needs?  

For the millionth time, parents don't buy children they adopt.  So they are not cheaper.  Sometimes there are adoption fee reductions for children who are harder to place.  Sometimes parents can get grants to help offset adoption fees.  However, often times the cost of surgeries, therapies, etc. involved mean that adoptive parents anticipate spending significantly more long-term on their children with special needs than they would if they adopted a child without identified needs.  

A second point that to note.  The phrase, "The child is special needs."  is not appropriate.  The child may have special needs.  But it is not who they are. Usually the child's medical need is one of the very last things parents will think about when when describing their child.

I know this sounds like nit-picking.  But I am assuming if you have read this far into the post, you want to learn how to support an adoptive family.  Or you are an adoptive parent nodding along.  Or you are just killing time till you have to pick your kid up from soccer practice.  Whatever. 

6.  Are you sure you want to take that on?

As described above, a parent must give a whole lot of consideration to whether they are able to meet the needs of a child with specific medical issues.  If the adoptive parents are showing you the picture, they've already crossed the Rubicon.  They're in.   

Questioning them about their abilities implies that they jumped into the situation before adequate consideration of the impact of the medical needs at best.  Or it suggests you don't think they could handle it at worst.  Even if you don't mean it to be confrontational, it puts adoptive parents on the defensive.

7.  I knew someone who had that...

Great.  Unless you have personal experience parenting a child with the medical need, adoptive parents don't usually want to hear your second-hand stories.  Unless the story involves just how awesome that child is.

If your intention is to tell us about the struggles involved in parenting a child with that need, save it.   Adoptive parents want support, not a negative anecdote by somebody who hasn't lived it.  

EVERY child deserves a family.  Photo from Love Without Boundaries - an amazing organization who works with Chinese orphans, especially those with medical needs.

Here's what you may not realize:

When a biological child has unanticipated medical needs, the family often must mourn the "perfect" child they had anticipated.  They need to readjust their thinking and can often feel trapped by a situation they have no control over.  I've been there.  I know.

With special needs adoption, there is no mourning over what might have been.  Adoptive parents have the luxury of taking the child as they are.  They can celebrate the child without feeling like they missed out on a completely typical child (whatever that is).  They go into it with eyes and hearts wide open.

So, if you shouldn't say any of the above when an adoptive parent shows you the referral picture of their new child or when you meet their new child, what should you say?

It's easy.  Take your pick of any of the following

Congratulations!!  Your new son/daughter is adorable!   I'm so happy for you!  I know this child will be a tremendous blessing for your family! I can't wait to meet him/her.

You don't have to be clever.  Just share the joy. 


Libbe said...

Good explanations! May I share it on my FB page?

Kristin said...

Libbe - You may certainly link to the page on your FB page. I truly believe most people want to be supportive for adoptive families. But, if they have not learned what is and is not okay to ask, they won't know. This is a gentle list, offered in love, for how to speak to people about SN adoptions.

I am flattered that you are willing to share.


S June said...

glad to you blogging again :)

Kristin said...

Thanks, S June. It had been a while and it feels good to get back in the habit.