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Adoption Terminology: An Important Shift of Terms

By: Virginia Frank

Published On: Oct 09, 2018

Adoption Terminology: An Important Shift of Terms

Words are powerful. Full of meaning. They evoke emotional responses — both good and bad. In a world evolving into one more “Politically Correct” (PC), a lot of emphasis has been placed on specific word choice. The concept is that reinforcing positive language with more sensitive topics will reduce the creation of inaccurate societal stereotypes. Thus, it’s important to research and educate ourselves on how to do this effectively.

An important shift in adoption terminology is no exception to this rule. Some of the most commonly used terms will be explored below. For further research, please use the resources attached or speak with your adoption lawyer or agency.

Birth Mother / Birth Parent

Also referred to as “biological mother,” this term represents the individual who birthed the adoptee. As a whole, the term “birth mother” has always been used in the adoption industry. It became a commonplace term in the 1950s and 60s, then a finalized one in 1979 by Marietta Spencer, a social worker at Children’s Home Society of Minnesota. She as an adoptive mother as well.

The term itself has been met with some distaste over the years. Some birth mothers feel referring to themselves this way distances and denies the emotional connection they have with their child. Others have tried to devise other words to relay a similar meaning. However, because it’s such a familiar term now and easily searched via the Internet, it’s alright to use. Provided it’s not used in a context that will demean them in any way, of course. Specific words considered not appropriate when mentioning birth mothers include: real parent or natural parent.

Additional familiar terms associated with birth mother are as follows…

  • Birth Parent: the mother or father genetically related to the child.
  • Birth Father: the biological father.

Adoptive Parents

The legal parents of the adoptee. Once the papers are signed, adoptive parents resume all social and legal rights for the rest of the child’s life. Pretty simple and straightforward. No matter what age the child is welcomed in the home, they permanently evolve into the child’s parents.

This term holds a mixed reaction. While in conversation, it may be necessary to clarify between the child’s adopted and biological parents. Yet, adoptive parents feel that being referred to as the child’s “parent” or “mother” or “father” is more respectful. To them, this largely reduces remarks implying the adopted child is not their own. Inquiring after the reasons behind the adoption prompts offensive and discomfort as well. Non-biological children are members of the family. Asking about their origin, a parents’ fertility rate or saying things like, “they look nothing like you!” or “where are her real parents?” is not ok.

Be sure to use affirming language when speaking about your child. Make a point to say, “my child,” “my son,” “my daughter” to disband any dissonance. Remember, it’s important to use positive adoption terminology.

Adoptee / Adopted Child

Put simply, the child placed for adoption. The term “adoptee” can refer to two different things: 1) an individual who joins a family by adoption or 2) an adult adopted as a child. It is essential to use “person-first” language whenever possible with this term, because this is another one that’s sensitive in nature.

Speaking from personal experience, being called an “adopted child” or “an adopted sibling” is rather hurtful. Yes, it’s true I’m adopted. I’m not discounting or denying that. However, that should be something I openly choose to reveal about myself when sharing my life story. Not something that is thrown in my face or used against me. It’s part of my identity, and the identity of millions. It shouldn’t be seen as an unfortunate or shunned label.

Refrain, also, from using the term, “own child.” Sure, papers are signed to legally bind adopted individuals to families; but again, that’s something to be celebrated. Not looked down upon. Adoptees are flesh and blood, not shackled possessions. If you love your child, communicate that. Use positive and affirming language. Create openness and comfort. In the long run, this will promote closeness and the security to love and feel like your child belongs.

Respecting the important shift in adoption terminology and using positive language goes a long way.

Child Placed for Adoption

The decision to choose adoption or place a child up for adoption is not an easy one. So, it’s important to be tactful when referring to the process. When a birth mother decides to surrender her child and place it in a legal home, she isn’t giving up, as the more commonly known phrase — “putting up for adoption” — suggests. Actually — she’s doing the exact opposite. She’s choosing to give her child life, making an adoption plan and allowing a loving family to raise him or her.

This is essential to note, and explains why there’s been an important shift to correct adoption terminology.

Another negative term associated is “unwanted pregnancy.” Anything carrying the implication that secretes concepts of abandonment or rejection in adoptees’ minds isn’t healthy. Those words and emotions are already there — from the moment the adoption takes place.


Words can either build up or tear down. They can conjure terms that spread misunderstandings and form stigmas. Stigmas injure and create lifelong wounds. This, in turn, establishes a community of people who go about their lives with unhealed burdens they aren’t comfortable voicing because of the assumed judgment that will ensue. It’s time to change that. It’s time to present a more positive and uplifting environment surrounding adoption.



“Adoption Terminology and Language.” Friends in Adoption,

Colaco, Maria. “11 Things Never to Say to an Adoptive Parent.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 13 Nov. 2014,

Gretchen. “About Us.” AllOptions, 28 Nov. 2012,

“Positive Adoption Language.” Adoptive Families, 14 Oct. 2015,

“Positive Adoption Terminology.” Adoptions From The Heart, 4 Jan. 2017,

“Words Matter: Positive Adoption Language.” AdoptMatch,

Virginia Frank, Adoption & Surrogacy Attorney

Virginia L. Frank is an international surrogacy attorney who helps individuals and couples complete their family through surrogacy....Learn More





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