Ask AF: Transitioning Children to Calling Us “Mom” and “Dad”

A reader adopting from foster care wonders how to encourage children to call her 'Mom.' Real parents who have been there share their advice and stories.

Q: My husband and I are working to adopt from foster care. How do we transition a child from calling us our first names to calling us “Mom” and “Dad”? I’m just scared that our child will never see us as his (or her) parents—just the people he lives with. I was talking with a parent who adopted a five-year-old. The child is now 12 and never calls her “Mom.” I can’t imagine never being called “Mom” if we adopt. Any suggestions?

Members of respond:

“My wife and I had our placements call us ‘Daddy ___’ and ‘Mommy  ___ .’ They later shortened this to ‘Dad’ and ‘Mom’ on their own, even though they saw their birth parents every week. But because it wasn’t just ‘Dad’ and ‘Mom’ from the beginning, it helped them separate the two.”

“If you foster a child who is reluctant to use ‘Mommy/Daddy [first name],’ think of alternatives. A child may not be open to it if he called his first mother ‘Mommy,’ but he might be willing to use ‘Mama’ instead. In the end, it is ultimately the child’s comfort, not yours, that matters most. If you foster infants and very young children, it may never be an issue, but if you end up adopting an older child who isn’t comfortable using ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad,’ this may feel sad, but this is absolutely something that cannot be forced.”

“Our son came to us at five years old. On his own, he transitioned to calling me ‘Mom’ after about six months. The first time, it surprised even him! But I think it was a natural progression, as I was filling that role (a role he was familiar with). With ‘Dad,’ there wasn’t a natural progression, as he hadn’t had anyone in that role for his first five years. He’s 11 now and still refers to my husband by his first name when addressing him. When talking with someone else, however, he says ‘my dad.’ My husband beams when he overhears our son refer to him that way and certainly longs to hear him say ‘Hey, Dad,’ but he completely understands that the deep and trusting relationship they have developed overshadows whatever name our son uses. Focus on the relationship, not the name.”

“I worry that you expect a foster child to become a ‘typical’ (non-trauma) kid once you become his or her forever family. I could be way off, and I’m not trying to be rude, but it’s something all foster/adoptive parents needs to examine because a lot of us out there do have unrealistic expectations. I think it’s so important to remember that foster care and adoption should always be child-centered.”

“The big thing for me is that the title of ‘Mom’ insinuates a bond or relationship that’s just not there with the 15-year-old I’m fostering (yet). As the bonds develop, I’m sure things will change. But, for now, she’s thanked me for not demanding that she call me ‘Mom.’ She said she’s had several foster parents who asked her to do that, but it made her feel like she was lying because they didn’t feel like moms or dads. She went on to say that, over time, she will probably start switching between ‘Mom’ and ‘Miss ___’ as we get to know each other better.”

“Keep referring to your husband as ‘Daddy ___’ when you’re talking to the children, and have him refer to you as ‘Mommy ___.’ Also, call each other ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mommy.’ For example: ‘Tammy, go get Daddy ___ for dinner.’ or ‘Daddy, can you help me with the dishes?’ If that is what the kids hear, that is what they will use.”

“There are a lot of transitions from foster care to adoption and there should be a professional working with the children to help them understand this. Calling you ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ can be another part of the transition. But, while you are fostering, you are not their parents and they should not be forced to call you anything but a respectful name. As for me, my little ones very quickly started calling me ‘Mommy,’ but my teen still calls me ‘Miss ___.’ I have big feelings about this (according to how I was raised, calling your parent by her first name is rude), but I know he does, too. We’re not bonded in the same way that I am with the little ones, but I understand this—his loyalties are more split and he has so many memories with his biological mother and family. But, we are bonded and I know he sees me as a mother figure. When he needs someone to talk to, he doesn’t seek out his birth mother, he comes to me. He trusts me more fully than his birth mother because I’ve proven myself trustworthy.”

“When our children moved in with us at ages five and seven, it never occurred to us that we should ‘make them’ call us anything. TPR was still pending, and we didn’t want to imply promises we couldn’t keep. They also had contact with their birth mom at the time, so there is a lot to consider. After we knew we were able to adopt, we told the kids we would love it if they called us ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ and asked them what they thought. They both said they really wanted to, but it was hard for them to remember. We tried to start calling each other ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad,’ too, and that was hard for us, so it gave us a glimpse as to how difficult it could be for them even if they wanted to. If they hadn’t, that  would have been OK too. Having a child call you ‘Mom’ but hate it or resent you isn’t worth it. Ten months since we transitioned to ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad,’ our son remarked, ‘We hardly ever call you by your first names and now [birth mother’s name] is [birth mother’s name]. I asked how that made him feel and he said, ‘Good, really good,’ and then he was done with the topic. That’s our story, but I encourage you to be open and accepting of how yours will unfold.”



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