Speaking the language of adoption in church: Three vital (but commonly misunderstood) words

Communication is the foundation of how we—as fellow members of the body of Christ—share the journey of faith. It is, in fact, at the heart of God’s plan for salvation: He sent Jesus, the Wordmade flesh, to reveal His love for us. Within the church, we have our own language (some would say jargon) to describe our faith. Those who don’t yet share the language are left confused when we use words like “regeneration” and “sanctification.” Similarly, there are terms used within the adoption community that—despite a generalized understanding—are commonly misunderstood by those who aren’t part of it. 



In social conversation, the word “trauma” is sometimes used to dramatically describe difficult situations that we’d all prefer to avoid. But in adoption, the word is no laughing matter. Trauma describes a stressor that can is sufficiently significant to affect a person’s physical body, brain development, and/or ability to forge healthy relationships. In the case of adoption, the child may not have learned how to trust his or her caregivers to provide for their needs. Or, worse yet, they may have suffered abuse or neglect at the hands of those caregivers, which may have precipitated the need for a new family. To some degree, most adoptees have experienced trauma: brain development in utero is affected by the stress hormones of the mother. Behavioral epigenetics studies show that trauma adheres molecularly to our DNA and can be passed down, highlighting the potential impact of trauma on even those children adopted as newborns. Trauma, especially protracted exposure to it, can “rewire” the brain, making it more than a mental health issue: it’s a physiological change to the neuropathways. Only by understanding its impact can we appropriately and effectively being to remediate the effects of trauma in the life of the adopted child and his or her family.


Attachment is the lynchpin to a “successful” adoption, though it’s vital to every child, regardless of how they came to be part of a family. Attachment is distinct from bonding; it is the means by which a child learns to feel safe and secure, empowering them to explore and engage with the world. The attachment—the relationship that exists between the child and parent—becomes the blueprint for all the child’s relationships: with siblings, parents, and peers, and, eventually, spouses and co-workers. Not only does the church community need to understand how vital healthy attachment is to the child’s emotional well-being (and how the lack of it can adversely impact a family), we need to actively—not passively—seek to foster it . While attachment is an abstract concept, it’s essential and foundational to the immediate and long-term health of both the child and the family. 


Christians know this word in a way that the world does not. We understand that love is more than merely an emotion; it’s an action, demonstrated most poignantly on the cross. We’re encouraged to manifest our love toward others in sacrifice. (John 15:13) Adoptive parents rightly believe that such love—and the desire to offer it to a child without a family—is the chief motivation for adopting. Yet dealing with the complex challenges of integrating an adopted child (who may have experienced trauma) into the family requires more than love as we traditionally think of it. It requires a generalized understanding of the impact of adoption and how a child comes to be available for adoption, and a specific understanding oftheirchild’s story, which will shape their parenting in ways that might appear unconventional. For example, a parent whose adopted child was assaulted on a diaper changing station, is likely to change their child’s diaper in a way (or place!) that an observer wouldn’t consider normal. Or, a child whose formative years were marked by profound chaos may try to create similar chaos both because it’s familiarto him/her and to determine whether his/her new parents are reliable. In such a scenario, adoptive parents might set limits that seem exceedingly strict according to societal norms. In both cases, the parents are tending to the child’s unspoken needs in the most loving way possible—despite outward appearances.

Because the church advocates adoption—as a means of embodying the heart of James 1:17, that true faith cares for widows and orphans—it is a language that pastoral and church staff (together with the entire congregation) can benefit from learning. While these words have a common meaning, their use in the adoption community is quite specific and deserving of a nuanced understanding.

When we speak the same language, we will better communicate and build the bonds that join us in Christ, especially with a marginalized population of children whose birth and earliest experiences may affect them for a lifetime.

Kirsten Holmberg is a writer, speaker, and public speaking coach based in the Pacific Northwest. As an adoptive parent since 2004, her understanding of God’s adoption of her into His own family has grown and expanded. She is the author of Advent with the Word: Approaching Christmas Through the Inspired Language of God and He is… therefore i am. Kirsten speaks regularly at church and community events, encouraging others to step closer to Jesus and better know His love for them through His Word. Find her online at www.kirstenholmberg.com.