Responding to Hurtful Words from an Adopted Child

The adoption journey is filled with healing and hurtful words.

If you’re an adoptive parent (as I am), you probably know this by now. And if you’re just getting started, you’ll probably learn soon enough that some of the most healing and hurtful words are said within the walls of our own homes.

Maybe you’ve heard (or will hear) one or more of these—

“You’re not my real mom.”
“I hate you.”
“I didn’t ask to be here.”
“You don’t really love me.”

The list of possibilities is as endless as the English language. I know this because I was adopted, and unfortunately I said some of these things.

When responding to a child’s hurtful words, here are 3 things to remember—

1. Hurt people hurt people.

Prior to being adopted, your child suffered a profound loss. This isn’t your fault, but you are the one—for better or for worse—who has committed to walk this path of healing and growth with your child. This means there will necessarily be times when you experience the brunt of your child’s reaction to his or her big emotions.

Unfortunately and fortunately, scientific and psychological research have proven that we tend to hurt the people we love the most. So when your child says something hurtful, keep in mind that—even though the words may sting—it actually demonstrates your child’s dependence on you.

2. Children say childish things.

It’s what adopted kids do … and bio kids, too!

Sometimes your child may be reacting to past trauma, but sometimes your child may just be being a kid, and adoption may not actually factor into the situation. Be careful not to assume that every decision your child makes draws a straight line back to his or her adoption. Kids, like adults, have bad days.

You may feel the sting of your child’s hurtful words differently because of the great lengths you went to bring your child into your family. You remember with keen accuracy the interviews you completed, the paperwork you finished, the expenses you paid, the tears you shed, the prayers you prayed…all to show your child how deeply and profoundly you love him or her. But your child doesn’t have that same perspective yet.

He may not be rejecting your love as much as he’s looking for a reaction.

3. Hurtful words are opportunities.

In the heat of the moment, you may be tempted to respond to your child with equally hurtful words. Don’t do it. Moments like these present us with golden opportunities to build trust, demonstrate love, and show Christ.

Your child may be testing you. If you do not react to a hurtful phrase or comment, your child will probably be less likely to use it again. (Note: Your child may test out a few creative phrases over the years.) Each time he tests you and you pass the test, you fortify your child’s sense of security and belonging, even if he doesn’t outwardly acknowledge it.

“I love you” will always be three of the most powerful words you can say to your child in any context.

My moment of clarity

Many years ago, I unleashed a string of hurtful words to my dad in response to hurt I was feeling as a young adopted kid.

In response, my dad gently gathered me into his arms and took me to a room where he pointed to a photo of me on the wall under the words, “For this child we prayed” (1 Samuel 1:27). He calmly told me the story—again—of how much he and my mom had wanted a child and how God had directed them to adopt me and how much better he believed our family was with me in it.

I remember wishing in that moment that he would just get mad at me.

Dad never even responded to the words I had spewed. He never raised his voice, never criticized my unkindness, and never (at least outwardly) took it personally. Instead, he showed me grace in the form of a story I’ve never forgotten. And to my knowledge, I’ve never questioned his love for me since that day.

Responding correctly when our child says hurtful things isn’t easy, but it’s good parenting. And more to the point, it’s our opportunity to do for our child what God has done for us.

Find more helpful resources to encourage you as you parent.