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Parenting Tips: “The Power of Words”

Parenting Tips
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Adoption Coaching & Training
a ministry of America World Adoption
 “….a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” – Ecclesiastes 4:12


The Power of Words

This is a blog post about words.  Words can be powerful.  They not only convey facts but can evoke images and emotions.  Research shows that hearing positive words can release endorphins, those feel-good hormones that we love, while negative words can increase cortisol, a stress hormone that contributes to anxiety and depression.  It is clear that the words we use can have a profound effect.

I have a son by adoption.  I want to take a minute to dissect the phrasing of that sentence, because I say that in a very purposeful way, rather than saying, “I have an adopted son.”  Using the phrase, “I have a son by adoption” puts the emphasis on the person – he is my son – with the secondary emphasis on the nature of the relationship – he is my son because of an adoption.  It might seem like a small distinction, but small differences matter.

The movement for Positive Adoption Language (PAL) emphasizes the use of words that express respect for all members of the adoption triad.  We substitute words that are negative, critical or that perpetuate stereotypes, for words that are neutral, accurate and less offensive.  We speak of adoption, and the people involved, in a way that reflects the dignity of the person and the beauty of the process.

For example, over the years we have often been asked who our son’s “real” parents or his “natural” parents.  I take issue with those words.  The opposite of real is fake; the opposite of natural is unnatural.  Does that make me, the adoptive mother, an unnatural fake mother?  The years spent wiping noses, going to school plays, paying for braces and driving all over town for cello lessons sure make me feel like a “real” mother!  The terms “real” and “natural” parent give the impression that only a relationship based on a blood connection is genuine while all other relationships are inferior, and that is simply not the case.  Instead, the term “birth” parent is preferred because it speaks to the fact that another woman gave birth to the child.  By the way, I very rarely refer to myself as my son’s adoptive mother.  I am his parent; he is my son.  Enough said.

Ever hear the term “put up for adoption”?  Know where it came from?  From 1854 to 1929, railway trains carried orphaned and homeless children from large cities on the east coast, such as New York and Boston, to rural areas in the Midwest.  Along the way, the trains made numerous stops, and at the stations, platforms were erected where the children were lined up.  In other words, these children were “put up” on these platforms for inspection by the local townspeople who were looking, most often, for extra hands to help on the farm or in their home.  That is the origin of the term “put up for adoption,” a term that still endures today.  I can’t bear to hear that phrase without shuddering at the image of these poor children on display and the trauma of that experience.  It may seem like “put up for adoption” is a harmless phrase, but words have meaning and can influence our emotions.

Below is a chart, gleaned from several sources, of words and terms to use when talking about adoption.  I hope you see how the words in the column on the right portray a more positive image of adoption, and I hope you will consider using these words in your conversations:

Real parent, natural parent Birthparent, biological parent
Adoptive parent Parent by adoption
Adopted child Child by adoption, adoptee
Unwanted pregnancy, crisis pregnancy Unintended pregnancy
Illegitimate child Child born to unmarried parents
Put up for adoption, give up for adoption, give away, adopted out, abandoned Make an adoption plan, choose adoption, place child for adoption, terminate parental rights
Keep the child Choose to parent
Foreign adoption International adoption
Handicapped child, retarded child Child with special needs


Diane Hood, America World AdoptionThis article was written by Diane Hood, Clinical Supervisor with America World Adoption, and the Director of Social Services in our Georgia office.  Diane has more than 20 years experience in the adoption field and she is a parent by birth and by adoption.  

ACT (Adoption Coaching and Training) is a ministry of America World Adoption designed to support families through training, support groups, and individualized coaching.  Explore ACT services on our website here, and reach out to us today for a free consultation to make a plan to meet your needs.

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