When there’s a DNA test surprise, you may become the bearer of unexpected news about birth relatives or misattributed parentage. Read this advice from genetic counselor Brianne Kirkpatrick.
Sometimes DNA testing leads to unexpected connections, such as surprise birth relatives. What should you do if you discover it? How do you talk with your family about it? Guest author Brianne Kirkpatrick, MS, LCGC, genetic counselor and founder of Watershed DNA, shares the following advice, which originally appeared on her blog.
Conveying unexpected news is never easy, and it’s natural to feel uncertain going into it. The world of DNA testing and surprise DNA discoveries has made “breaking the news” a new part of life for many people. Over many years as a genetic counselor and genealogist, I have been in a position to give unexpected DNA news on more occasions than I can count. Helping a person struggling with uncertainty to find their footing after a shock, and helping them find the confidence to start a conversation about the discovery with others has become a passion of mine.
In many cases, the news of a DNA discovery is exciting and full of joy, like in the case of a birth parent and adopted child connecting as a result of DNA testing after years of an unsuccessful search. In other cases, a surprise DNA discovery can be a shock to the system for one or more people, causing grief, loss, and pain.
When you are the person in a position to share unexpected information, preparing ahead for the conversation makes it easier for everyone. Whether you need to share unexpected DNA information with children, young people, or older adults, these strategies can help.
Breaking a DNA Test Surprise to Children
1. Consider the child’s age and maturity level. Children can pick up on a parent’s distress even in their preverbal years. Try your best to explain the situation in the most simplistic way and offer closeness and cuddles if and when words won’t work.
2. Be honest. Children need the facts. Otherwise, they create stories and fantasies about the situation. If you are upset because you’re grieving a loss or adjusting to a family discovery, acknowledge it to them. Explain that you are working through a lot of big feelings, that it isn’t their fault, and they haven’t done anything wrong.
3. Avoid excessive detail. You can tell a child the truth without getting detailed. As your child grows up, they will ask more questions as they are ready. You can explain, “I found out something surprising about Grandma that happened many years ago,” without going into particulars of a parent’s extramarital affair, for example.
4. Let your kids talk. Having an opportunity to talk is therapeutic no matter your age. Provide them a chance to play games and toys with you, and spend time reading books. When your child has their questions answered, they will naturally move on to a new topic. Some children have a need to talk and ask and process what they learn more than others.
5. Repeat important messages. People, big and little, can only absorb so much information at a time. Be prepared for the same questions to come up again and again. This is normal and does not mean they weren’t listening when you spoke about it in the past.
Breaking a DNA Test Surprise to Adults
1. Give advance notice, if possible. If the news you have to share has a shock factor, it is helpful to plan ahead for the “share session” as much as possible. Giving the other person a heads-up that there’s something important you need to talk about in private helps to make sure you have their attention. People are more likely to overreact when blindsided.
2. Create a private and comfortable setting. It shows care and respect if you allow another person a private setting for absorbing intense news. This is not a hard and fast rule; always consider your personal safety, especially if you have had experiences that have taught you the need to set firm physical and emotional boundaries with the other person.
3. Outline your message or write a letter. Nervousness might cause you to lose your words in the moment. Having notes or a letter in hand that you can turn to is a safety net many others have found helpful. Whether you decide to read from the notes or letter or let your words flow in the moment, both options are valid.
4. Fight the urge to take away the pain. Trying to offer reassurance is a natural instinct and a means to make you feel better, not the other person. Be open to whatever emotional reaction they have to the news. Wait patiently if you are met with silence, denial, or crying. Being present and silent is often the best choice.
5. Respect the need for space and time to process. If someone responds to unexpected news by stating it’s not a big deal or they are already moving on, do not try to argue or push back. Let them know this is big news, and that you will be there and ready to talk about it again when they are ready.
6. Be prepared with helpful resources. People may have trouble thinking clearly or knowing where to turn next after learning something unexpected. Many people experience a DNA discovery as traumatic. In case they want assistance later, think ahead to what they’ll need. They may appreciate a paper or an email with hyperlinks listing a few support websites and professionals who can help.
7. Follow up. The listener may be too overwhelmed to ask all the essential questions right away. If necessary, let them know you’re available to speak again when they’re ready for more details. They might take you up on the offer right away or might go radio silent. Be prepared they might not reach out again. Some people choose to reach out to someone who was not the messenger of the unexpected news for the next phase.
Final words about unexpected DNA discoveries
Unexpected news is a fact of life in the world of DNA testing, whether a test uncovers information about a medical finding, an ancestry surprise, or a family secret.
DNA shocks can trigger the loss of someone’s sense of identity, their connection to another person, a relationship, a belief, or long-held family history. Make it easier for the listener, whether they are a kid or adult, to navigate life after a DNA discovery by choosing honesty, empathy, and clear communication.
About the guest author. Brianne Kirkpatrick, MS, LCGC is a Genetic Counselor and DNA Consultant; Founder and Owner, Watershed DNA; and Author of The DNA Guide for Adoptees and Could the DNA Test Be Wrong?
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