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How to respond as an adoptive parent to this hurtful comment from your child



Edifa - published on 05/13/21

Raising a child who isn't biologically related to you? Here's what to do if you get this remark.

“You are not my mother!” “You are not my father.” This sentence hurled by a child does not only concern adoptive parents. Sometimes it’s addressed to a former single mother’s husband who has recognized her child, even though he’s not the biological father, or to a step-parent in the case of a marriage after the loss of a first spouse, or a “remarriage” after divorce.

This protest by a child or teenager in revolt is not to be taken as an insult, but as a call for help. You should just do your best to understand what the child is trying to express through this inflammatory statement. Of course, this will also depend on their age, the context, the family situation, and the relationship they have with the parent or parents concerned.

Why such a reaction?

Adopted children have experienced the trauma and grief of abandonment, even in cases where their first mother did not “abandon” them at all, but made an adoption plan too give them a better chance at life. As a result, children are often deeply afraid of being abandoned again, even when they’re not aware of this anxiety or are unable to express it. This is why they test their adoptive parents, challenging them to see how far their love goes: “Even if I am unbearable, even if I talk nonsense, will you still love me?” “No matter what I do, will I always be your son/daughter?” 

The same is true in the case of a father who has adopted his wife’s child. The child tries to see if this father is his “real dad forever,” if he loves them as much as he loves his other children. Saying to an adoptive father or mother, “You are not my parents,” is only a reflection of the child’s need and desire to hear over and over, “Yes, we are your parents and always will be.”

When the parent in question is not the father but the stepfather (or stepmother), the child needs a double response: “You are right, I assure you that I don’t want to take your dad’s place,” and “Even if I’m not your dad, I love you very much.”

In fact, to reflect this very special bond, some children who have lost their father or mother to death or divorce give their step-parent an affectionate nickname that they choose themselves, which is neither “dad” nor “mom.” This nickname expresses the very special tenderness that unites the child to their mother’s (or father’s) spouse, while respecting his/her attachment to the parent who is not there.

Of course, children do sometimes call their step-parent “dad” or “mom,” but it would be unfair, and even cruel, to force them to do that if they don’t want to.

Most of all, don’t get on your high horse

In any case, take the child’s words seriously, but not personally. It’s important to listen to and acknowledge their distress, to try to understand what they need and respond accordingly. But above all, don’t get on your high horse and dramatize, such as: “How can he say that to me? Why does he reject me? What have I done to deserve this?” What have you done? Well, you have loved him, so he’s asking for more, and he’s right. He wants to make sure that it’s worth it to get attached to you, that he can do it without the risk of rejection.

Often, these kinds of remarks come up during a minor conflict. You deny your adopted son or daughter permission to watch his or her show, or go out at night with friends, and he or she throws in your face: “First of all, you have nothing to say to me, you’re not my father.” Don’t be thrown off balance by this shocking response. If your son needs to be reassured about the love you have for him, this unconditional love must manifest itself, as it does for any other young person, through firm educational requirements. “Yes, I am your father/mother, and that is precisely why I won’t let you do anything foolish. I love you too much for that.”

Christine Ponsard 

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