Caustions About the Word Special

One Word Adoptive Parents Must Avoid

For many adopted kids, teens, and adults, the word “special” might translate as “loser.” It can be like a 50-pound barbell that we must cart around for life, but most parents don’t know how it burdens. Oh, quit being so negative, Sherrie. Not all adoptees feel this way. Right, but many do and parents must learn to be cautious, educated, and self-regulated. So, am I saying that it’s not okay for adoptive and foster parents to say their child is special, the answer is “yes.”

Whenever I teach this point during a training, many parents get upset. I wonder why. Are they offended that they’re saying the wrong word? Are they embarrassed, like someone caught with their pants down? Or, are they ticked off because they supposedly know better than anyone what the child needs…and how the child feels?” Really? Is it about the correctness of the word or how he feels and reacts when singled out?

Parents must listen to how many adoptees translate “special:”

  • Others have high expectations of me.
  • We must prove our worth by excelling.
  • We’re not like everyone else in the family…we are different.
  • Perform!
  • Be perfect.
  • Conform conform conform!
  • It’s not okay to just be myself
  • You are a loser.

Why do many adoptees interpret the word negatively? In the first place, “special” is usually associated with our adoptions. The way we hear it may be, “You are so special because your first family disappeared and you didn’t have parents nor a home.” Or, “You are special because you are a basket case.” When my parents told me about my adoption, they envisioned a “baby store” with row upon row of babies from which to pick. They found me because I was the prettiest baby. Yuck.

Caution for Adoptive and Foster Parents

Like I said, parents get upset. “Why can’t we tell our children they’re special?” Please hear me, friends. You can tell your adopted or foster child that he is special….just don’t tie it to his adoption. That’s the only caution. Beyond that:

  • Does the word edify your child?
  • Have you ever explained your meaning of the word to your child?
  • Have you ever asked your child how he feels when you use the word?

What Parents Can Do

  1. Left-handed drawing: suggest that you and the child do a left-hand drawing of how each of you feel when you use the word “special.” This is a great way for getting in touch with true feelings.
  2. Family: Make an agreement about whether or not the child wants you to use this word to describe him. That puts the power back in his hands, vs. chance.
  3. Ask yourself: “What if when I said ‘special,’ my child heard ‘loser,’ what would I do to become increasingly attuned to my child’s needs?”



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