My Parents Treat My Adopted, Mixed-Race Son Differently

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Dear Harriet,
We are a mixed race couple with an adopted mixed race four year old son. I can see my parents showing preferential treatment towards my sisters’ children who are not mixed race and are not adopted. I thought my parents were more fair minded. I am very hurt and angry. How shall I handle this?

Answer from Harriet Cannon:
This is a complex issue because it hits on relationship bonding, phenotype (how we look), and family legacy.

An example of relationship bonding happens in the “friend or community families” we form and to whom we may feel as close as or emotionally closer than our blood families. It’s romantic love too.

Phenotype and legacy rear up as issues in all extended families.  Grandparents, aunts and uncles resonate first to who “looks like me, resembles us” as a deep primal predisposition.  There is some research that states human newborns may resemble the father more at birth so our ancestral cave dwelling males would provide for their offspring while the mother was nurturing the child in the first months after birth.

When a child looks “different” for whatever reason, especially mixed race and adoption, relationship bonding with extended family can be more challenging.

Making quality individual time for your parents/extended family to form that deep relationship bond with your son, to “fall in love” with him is the first step. It is never too late to start.  It can be a time consuming, expensive effort if your parents do not live near by. For good long term relationship bonding it is time well spent.

Relationship bonding will ameliorate the problems of phenotype prejudice “your child doesn’t look like me” but in many families not entirely. Your parents may have deep prejudices they are not willing to discuss and/or they may have deep disappointment that your children are adopted.

Even through US culture has intellectually evolved about adoption and mixed race families many people are ashamed to discuss their fears and disappointments when it happens in their own family. Try talking to your parents non defensively about what you notice about this preferential treatment. They may not be aware of what they are doing.

They may also be ashamed of how they feel and not know how to talk about it. Even if this is painful for you, see if you can hear their point of view and make some changes on your child’s behalf.

You can also see a professional counselor familiar with multicultural, adoption issues to develop a strategy of working with your parents. I have seen many grandparents dramatically change once the issues have been addressed in a constructive manner.

Photo Credit: stevegatto2

Harriet Cannon is a Marriage and Family Therapist and Consultant who works with individuals, families and businesses in life and work transitions. Ms Cannon has lived and worked both in the United States and in Chile. She has two grown children who were partially raised overseas. Please visit Ms Cannon's website at to learn more about her as well as her contact information.

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