Dealing with intrusive questions about your child’s adoption

Most adoption agencies and organizations have training for intrusive questions about adoptive families and the best ways to deal with these questions, and with good reason – intrusive questions are, unfortunately, something that most families who look a little different from what some people might expect face at one point or another. The way parents cope with intrusive questions is going to grow and evolve as their children do, and so it’s important to consider the best ways to address such questions at different times.

Reconsidering the “teaching moment”

A lot of common wisdom about how to deal with intrusive questions about a family’s adoption point out that the person asking the question might not know much about adoption and so might be curious – they might not even know enough to know that the question they’re asking is inappropriate.

There’s a certain amount of truth to this point of view – it’s definitely possible that someone who asks a rude question doesn’t know much about adoption, and they probably are curious, since that’s one of the main reasons why people ask questions. On the other hand, no matter who is asking the question, their intentions and desires are pretty much always going to be less important and less of your responsibility than Baby’s peace of mind and what they learn from the way you answer.

Sometimes this might mean answering fairly innocent questions factually and calmly, because it’s important for Baby to know that there’s no reason to be embarrassed about the way they came into your life. But other times it might require a polite but firm dismissal. If someone is asking because they’re thinking of adopting, a suggestion that you have a conversation about the process later might be the more appropriate response. In any case, though, the person asking the question is of secondary concern to Baby’s thoughts and feelings.

Leading by example

In this situation, as in so many others, your child is learning from you about how to respond to questions like this, and, since being asked rude or intrusive questions can hurt, you’re teaching them how to defend themself from them. This can be a tricky situation to be in, since it involves figuring out the best way to answer questions on your own when Baby is little, but adapting your strategy based on their feelings and preferences as they grow older and is better able to express their opinions.

Types of response

There are plenty of situations when a question about Baby might seem totally natural and comfortable, and you won’t hesitate before responding as a natural part of the conversation. Other times, though, people as remote as crossing guards at Baby’s preschool or the bagger at the grocery store, or people as much a part of your lives as one of Baby’s friend’s parents or the receptionist at their pediatrician’s office might pose questions that give you pause. When this sort of awkwardness ensues, just what can you do? 

  • Turn the question around: Sometimes, turning the question back on the person asking is all it takes for them to hear how inappropriate it sounds. This can be true whether you offer up a reserved but civil, “why do you ask?” or a more confrontational or equally intrusive question. The drawback here is that it can slow down or stop a conversation, and if this is someone you’re going to continue to have in your life, it could make things uncomfortable. On the other hand, sometimes it’s the people who make the most regular appearances in your family’s life that it’s the most important to set appropriate boundaries with.
  • Play dumb: Whether it’s a question about whether your children are “real” siblings, where your child “really” came from, or whether you’re their “real” parent, sometimes the best way to answer is from a sideways point of view. People who are asking these “real” kinds of questions often have some sense that they’re being rude, or at least insensitive, and they’re also often asking about more private aspects of your and Baby’s story. Both of these things mean that whoever is asking is in no way owed the answer he or she is looking for. Instead, it can be better to cheerfully deflect. “We live in [insert hometown]” is a totally valid answer to a prying question about where your child is from, no matter what answer the person who’s asking was fishing for.
  • Shut it down: And then there are the times when a question is rude enough, or just being asked at an inappropriate enough time, that the only thing to do is to let the person asking know that you won’t be answering. “That information is personal to our family,” should be all anyone needs to hear to switch the direction of the conversation. And, “That’s an inappropriate question” will probably stop a conversation in its tracks entirely. That’s not always ideal, but these are good responses to have in your back pocket for the situations where you just need to shut things down. “I prefer to let Baby discuss their own history when they are ready” can also be useful, and it has the benefit of being true when your child is little, but once they get to be a bit more verbal, it could open the door for them to be put on the spot in a way they're not ready for.

When your child is older, you’ll be able to talk to them about how they want to respond to these kinds of questions and just what they feel comfortable sharing. For now, it’s important to remember that – no matter how young they are – if they are around when you respond, they are taking in and learning from what you say and the way you say it.

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