DNA Testing – What to Think About Before You Do a Test

DNA testing“More than 10 million people have uncovered something new about themselves. You will too.” -Ancestry.Com

It is well known that technology has completely changed the search and reunion process in adoption. The recent surge in popularity of DNA testing sites such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com has created even more opportunities for forging connections and uncovering information. With these opportunities come a whole new set of complexities and challenges. Through the use of these tests, individuals can discover their genetic background, ethnicity, potential health concerns, and even potentially connect to other living relatives. In the post adoption world, this can be an amazing opportunity for anyone who is trying to search for birth family members or attempting to find more personal genetic information.

On the other hand, there are several potential difficulties with completing these tests that are often not addressed. Individuals may be disappointed if they discover no new information or they learn upsetting or overwhelming information they were not expecting.

Here are just a few examples of some of the search and reunion calls from adoptees that we’ve handled at BPAR over the past year.

Many of these individuals have received ongoing support and/or consultation at BPAR to help manage new information and new relationships. (All names were changed to protect confidentiality.)

“I’ve been searching for my birth family for years without any luck and almost gave up on finding anyone. But then, through 23andMe I was able to track down a distant cousin who eventually led me to my birth father. I’ve made contact with him and I don’t think my life will ever be the same again…” —Sue

“I did 23andMe and just got the results back. I found out I have 10 siblings and they just contacted me on Facebook and want to meet this weekend. I am completely overwhelmed and have no idea what to do…” —Fred

“I am 35 years old and just received my ancestry DNA test results. I just found out that my parents used a sperm donor and that I have two biological siblings. I tried reaching out to them online but haven’t heard anything back. I’m feeling really rejected, lied to and upset…” —Tim

“I was contacted by a woman who said she was my sister. I told her that wasn’t possible, because my mother and father had been married and had 3 of us kids, and no other children. My sister then explained that my father had an affair and we were half siblings. I don’t know what to do with this information and I don’t want to be the secret holder….” —Steve

As you can see, some of these examples are positive and some are negative. On their website, Ancestry.com states: “More than 10 million people have uncovered something new about themselves. You will too.” We at BPAR could not agree more with this statement, but we feel there should be an asterisk in there — almost like a side effect warning on a medication label!

We envision it would read:

*WARNING: Retrieving your DNA testing may result in the following symptoms including but not limited to shock, confusion, discovery of family secrets, sudden development of new family members, complex feelings towards current family members, arguments, identity crisis and depression. Please consult a professional if you experience any of these symptoms.

There are a lot of different reasons why people want to do DNA testing. We have found that in the post adoption world, the motivation centers around two main goals: 1) searching for medical information; and 2) searching for biological connections. For years, individuals who are adopted have longed to know their medical history. This lack of knowledge can cause extreme stress when facing new medical complications. Imagine if you find a concerning new medical condition and arrive at an urgent doctor’s appointment only to have them ask if it runs in your family. How stressful and frustrating that would feel to not have that information to help guide medical treatment!

Conversely, we find many adoptees are interested in learning about biological connections, but not sure where to start. Or, they feel they may have exhausted all previous options. Again, what a great opportunity that Ancestry.Com and 23andMe offer in both of these scenarios. We have even heard from some clients that Ancestry.Com and 23andMe acknowledge the complexities of obtaining genetic information and may recommend that individuals consult with a professional for support after receiving new genetic information.

It makes sense that these two sites have become so popular in the post-adoptive world. As word spreads about the possibilities for discovery, there is an understandable sense of urgency to act quickly.

As tempting as it may be to order the kit and get the answers NOW, here are some potential benefits of slowing down the process before you undertake DNA testing:

1.     Be very clear about your expectations and hopes:  Spend some time writing, talking to a friend or a mental health professional about the reasons why you are interested in taking the test. Are you looking for general information about your heritage? Are you trying to ascertain specific medical information? Are you searching for biological connections? There is no wrong reason for doing this test, but it’s important to know why you are doing it. This knowledge can help guide you and allow you to take care of yourself throughout the process. By exploring these hopes, fantasies and possibilities beforehand, you will be able to better handle whatever information you receive.

2.    Prepare your First Aid Kit:  How have you prepared yourself for the possibility that you won’t find the information that you were looking for? How will you handle the disappointment, and who can you talk to? Would it be helpful to have a loved one or a partner present? Do you have an existing therapist with whom you could process the results? If you are already feeling very anxious and stressed, does it make sense to talk to a therapist or professional for additional support or consultation at this time, as some of our BPAR clients have opted to do?

It is important to decide who you feel comfortable sharing this process with. These test results can yield a lot of surprises. What will you do if something unexpected comes up?  Remember the above quote from Fred, the client who unwittingly signed up for the testing and discovered he had 10 siblings that wanted to meet him that weekend? That is a lot for anyone to take in and manage. We recommend that you have a game plan of who to talk to afterwards, and how to educate yourself about the test. For instance, there are options to not view all of the information at once.

3.   It is okay to change your mind:  This is your journey and it is perfectly acceptable to change your mind during the process. We’ve heard many stories from individuals who are adopted who initially described themselves as ecstatic about sending away for the testing and told most people in their life that they were doing the test. Often, this initial enthusiasm was followed by an intense period of uncertainty, sometimes even resulting in staring at the test results without opening them for months, and not feeling emotionally ready.  Remember all of your choices with your First Aid Kit. You drive the process, no one else, and you know how to take care of yourself. If someone asks and you don’t feel comfortable sharing, it is okay to say:  “Thanks for thinking of me, I’m still working on the process,” or simply, “At this point, I am still processing a ton of information — thanks for checking in.”

At BPAR, it is our mission to help anyone who is touched by adoption get the support that they need  by providing resources like education, therapy, consultation or appropriate referrals. We recognize how important and relevant the DNA testing topic is, and we will be addressing it in an ongoing blog series. Stay tuned!

Written by KC Craig, LICSW and Kelly DiBenedetto, LMHC, ATR
Boston Post Adoption Resources

About BPAR

Boston Post Adoption Resources publishes blogs as part of our mission to educate the public about post adoption resources.