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?”



How to Know Your Child's Special Needs

The Special Needs of Many Adopted Kids

Many adopted children have special needs that adoptive, first, and foster parents must learn  in order to become their child’s #1 cheerleader.

Use this list as needed and as age-appropriate for discussing special needs with your child. You might say, “An adopted person wrote a list of her special needs. Would you be interested in seeing it? I’m curious if you identify with any of the needs that are mentioned.”

Remember, with young children, keep it simple-rephrase into kid speak, and stick with the words: SAD, MAD, GLAD ANGRY.

Scripture verses are included for those who want them.


  • I need help in recognizing my adoption loss and grieving it. (Ecclesiastes 1:18)
  • I need to be assured that my birth parents’ decision not to parent me had nothing to do with anything defective in me. (Proverbs 34:5)
  • I need help in learning to deal with my fears of rejection–to learn that absence doesn’t mean abandonment, nor a closed door that I have done something wrong. (Genesis 50:20)
  • I need permission to express all my adoption feelings and fantasies. (Psalm 62.8)


  • I need to be taught that adoption is both wonderful and painful, presenting lifelong challenges for everyone involved. (Ezekiel 17:10a, Romans 11:24)
  • I need to know my adoption story first, then my birth story and birth family. (Isaiah 43:26)
  • I need to be taught healthy ways for getting my special needs met. (Philippians 4:12)
  • I need to be prepared for hurtful things others may say about adoption and about me as an adoptee. (John 1:11)


  • I need validation of my dual-heritage (biological and adoptive). (Psalm 139:16b)
  • I need to be assured often that I am welcome and worthy. (Isaiah 43:4, Zephaniah 3:17)
  • I need to be reminded often by my adoptive parents that they delight in my biological differences and appreciate my birth family’s unique contribution to our family through me. (Proverbs 23:10)


  • I need parents who are skillful at meeting their own emotional needs so that I can grow up with healthy role models and be free to focus on my development, rather than taking care of them. (II Corinthians 12:15)
  • I need parents who are willing to put aside preconceived notions about adoption and be educated about the realities of adoption and the special needs adoptive families face. (Proverbs 23:12, Proverbs 3: 13-14, Proverbs 3:5-6)
  • I need my adoptive and birth parents to have a non-competitive attitude. Without this, I will struggle with loyalty issues. (Psalm 127:3)


  • I need friendships with other adoptees. (Ecclesiastes 4:12)
  • I need to taught that there is a time to consider searching for my birth family, and a time to give up searching. (Ecclesiastes 3:4)
  • I need to be reminded that if I am rejected by my birth family, the rejection is symptomatic of their dysfunction, not mine. (John 1:11)


  • I need to be taught that my life narrative began before I was born and that my life is not a mistake. (Jeremiah 1:5a, Ephesians 1:11)
  • I need to be taught in this broken, hurting world, loving families are formed through adoption as well as birth. (Psalm 68:6)
  • I need to be taught that I have intrinsic, immutable value as a human being.
  • I need to be taught that any two people can make love but only God can create life. He created my life and I’m not a mistake.  (John 1:3)

Your greatest challenge as a parent is to first identify the special need that has arisen and then to help your child verbalize it. This gives him some sense of mastery and control over something that feels out of his control. Helping your child heal is largely centered on honest, productive dialogue between you and your child.

Once you as a parent gain such a depth of understanding of your child’s special needs, you will be able to give him the support he needs not only now but throughout all of life. His special needs, in turn, will become deep wells of personal strength and empathy within him as he grows older.

Friends, be sure and add your email address at the right hand corner. Blogs are only once a week…you will not be inundated with unwanted mail. I’d love to stay connected with you.

This list may be reproduced, only when credit is given to the author and the book: Copyright, 1999, Sherrie Eldridge, Random House Publishers-TWENTY THINGS ADOPTED KIDS WISH THEIR ADOPTIVE PARENTS KNEW.


business calligraphy close up composition

My Take On Adoption Reform

 If a young man or woman signed up to be a Marine, would they be told what to expect? You bet. Bootcamp, deployments, death of their buddies, their personal death, and PTSD. In essence, a Marine would be prepared ahead of time and given the equipment needed to win in battle.

There is another group of men and women–adoptive parents of all sizes and shapes, who’d give their very lives for their children. Some have even dreamed of adopting a child since their own childhood. They signed the dotted line for becoming an adoptive or foster parent, but the actual person or agency that signed them up, failed to educate about the realities of parenting a child from trauma, as well as provide tools for accomplishing their mission of loving their adopted child well.

It may be tempting to believe this happened only during closed adoptions of bygone eras, but I’ve found that it’s just as alive today as it was the day that my parents adopted me. The majority of adoption agencies, child protective services, or adoption professionals know the back story of the child, but choose to withhold negative and painful parts the history.  Some agencies are required by State law to provide this type of education and preparation, but for others, it’s too scary to broach the topic. What adoption professional is brave enough to tell prospective parents that their child may reject not only their love, but them? Isn’t my proposed action for adoption professionals like throwing a bucket of cold water on the adoptive parent’s heart-felt passion for adoption? And, do prospective parents really want to hear harsh possibilities? In my research with 50 adoptive moms, the answer is a bold yes.

What Adoptive Moms Say

Cindy Coisterson, mom of six adopted children, who were adopted at the ages of four days old, 3,4,5,11, and 13, describes the strain. “I had no idea about the stress that could occur.”

Single mom, Lauren Whiting, says, “Eighteen years ago, no one told me. No one prepared me. I didn’t even know to look for it. The non-intentional, stressful relationship that surfaced blindsided me.”

Pam Mittenberger says, “I didn’t learn about the mom-child relationship until I was in the thick of it.”

Amy Briarwood says, “No. No one told me or mentioned anything like it.”

Peggy Jordan says, “No one ever made us aware of these things. I fully believed with all my heart and soul that my love could take care of any challenges that may come.”

Jenny Mosier says, “I don’t recall learning about that relationship specifically. If I did, it probably would have been from an Empowered to Connect Workshop.”

Possible Wording for Professionals

As I give this more thought, I think again of young men and women who want to join the Marines. They are told prior to enlisting that they must endure many battles, even death. If the Marines do this for their soldiers, why can’t adoption professionals do it for prospective parents? They might say something like this:

You must know that you’re adopted child has suffered relinquishment trauma before you ever saw him. Adopted babies, children, teens, and adults will likely have special needs resulting from the great loss of the First Mom. He/she may push you away at every turn. Your child may become suicidal at some point and want to end his life. Knowing all this, if you decide to continue with the adoption, we’ll do our best to prepare you about how to handle it for the good of your child.”.

Thus, my advice to moms? Do your homework. My advice to professionals who hold back the truth about the child’s back story? Step up. 

This is my “take” on adoption reform.


A Birth Grandfather's Letter

A Birth Grandfather’s Goodbye Letter

Dear Baby,

Although I consider myself a literate and learned man, I confess that these are the hardest words I have ever written or read in my nearly fifty years of life. I want to tell you about the circumstances of your conception and birth. Since I won’t be able to do it in person, this letter will have to suffice.

Were you to have come into your family I would have been your grandfather and you would have been the first female in my lineage in two generations. I am the oldest of six sons and I have two sons. Many are the times I have longed to have a daughter or granddaughter. To see you as I did this week, with tubes and monitors attached to your tiny, not even three-pound frame, is to make my arms ache to hold and protect you.

My son and his beautiful girlfriend conceived you out of marriage. As parents we loved the two of them and hoped they might marry, but at ages sixteen and eighteen it seemed unwise. Our children wanted to make the foolish, but understandable choice to abort their unplanned pregnancy without telling us. When they revealed their secret, we parents assisted them for a time, even to the point of taking your birthmother to a nearby town for a procedure. We couldn’t follow through with our sin—it was too painful for us all. Through God’s strength, your parents and the parents of both your birthmother and birthfather chose to see you through birth and adoption.

All of us, for two generations on both sides of the family are Christians. I confess to you, granddaughter, that grace and providence snatched you from the jaws of death. All of us, your birthparents and both sets of grandparents, stood before a church congregation asking for forgiveness and prayers. Your birth is a confirmation that God heard and answered those prayers.

Do you see that before you ever came into this world you were loved and special? You were also early, two
months premature to be exact, crying and wiggling, flush with life and defiant of the odds, which are common babies like you. All of us wept and said good-bye to you several times.

I want to say a word about your adoptive parents, though I know them mostly from photos and letters. The first time they will see you is when you are in intensive care, pink and fighting for life. In the adoption process, as we looked at numerous portfolios, your parents stood out from them all. The soft love of your mother and the determination of your father, uncles and grandparents tell us that you will be in good hands from now on. What is more, we know you will be raised to know that same grace which gave you life in the first place.

I am giving this letter to an intermediary who is helping handle this adoption. I have told him to let your mother and father read it, and they can show it to you when they feel the time is right. I may be gone from this world when you reach adulthood and want you to know more about why you are the way you are. I cannot tell you who I am, but records will be available to allow you to find out more when the time is right.

I love you with all my heart and soul. Never forget that.

Copyright: Jewel Among Jewels Adoption Network, 2014, 2021. No reprint without permission.

What Scared My Adoptive Parents

How sad I am that on homecoming day at ten days of age, Retha (Mom) and Mike (Dad) momentarily lost their confidence, giving in to fear. When Mike handed tiny me to Retha, I arched my back and screamed bloody murder. I’ve since learned that whenever a baby arches it’s back, it means it is in a lot of pain. Not only was there the pain of being unwanted and unplanned, but the pain of inexplicable loss that kept me from eating. I’m sure the nurses were good, but how often was I touched during those first ten days? To this day, I startle when someone touches me unexpectedly. Actually, this mound of newborn suffering  created in me a cry print, which is akin to a fingerprint. It expresses the unique need of the one who is crying. Mine was,  “I lost my mama whom I loved with all my heart. Where is she? Where did she go? I’m going to die without her.”

Who can even imagine how Retha felt? Perhaps, like a bucket of ice water was thrown on her? She probably shook in shock, like anyone when something unfathomable happened. Where was Mike? Was he holding her close? Knowing him for a lifetime, he was probably running for the back bedroom. And, there Retha was. All alone. No one to help her, no one who had the presence of mind to hold her close, even my grandmother. It would be easy for her to read rejection into my screams. “Maybe my baby doesn’t like me, or maybe I’m not suited to be this baby’s Mom. If I were, Sherrie would have snuggled into my welcoming arms immediately. She would have known my inexplicable love for her.  But, this instance is proof that I am not enough to meet my child’s needs.”  

Note that this unpleasant moment didn’t have a permanent effect on me, but it sure made for a challenging homecoming day. 

Best wishes to you as you interpret your child’s cry print. I encourage you to check out a special FB page dedicated to these challenging dynamics. Look for WHAT PARENTS CAN DO WHEN ADOPTED KIDS REJECT LOVE.

Sherrie Eldridge