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Decoding the Genome: Unearthing DNA Secrets and Exploring the Trauma Within

Updated: Nov 22, 2023


How do revelations such as DNA secrets wield such significant influence over us? There are emotional complexities involved in making a DNA discovery. Individuals may grapple with a sense of belonging and question their biological roots. The repercussions of a DNA surprise reaches beyond the individual directly involved, inducing trauma that echoes throughout entire families, altering dynamics and relationships.


Key terms:


NPE.  Non-Paternal Events/Not Parent Expected is an individual who discovers the father that raised them is not their biological father. 


Donor Conceived. Donor Conceived is someone who was conceived using donated sperm, eggs or embryos. 


Late Discovery Adoptee. Late Discovery Adoptees are individuals who find out they are adopted later in life.


What unifies this group of individuals? Consider discovering your adoption at the age of 40?  What about realizing you are an NPE at the age or 60? Imagine finding out you are donor conceived at the age of 17?  Your identity is crucial as it forms the foundation of an individual’s sense of self and belonging. It shapes one’s understanding of their place in the world, influencing relationships, choices, and aspirations.  A solid sense of identity provides a stable framework for navigating life’s challenges, fostering self-confidence and resilience.  Additionally, identity establishes a connection to one’s cultural, familial, and personal history, contributing to a richer and more meaningful existence. Everyone has a right to know their origins. 





What types of trauma do individuals impacted by DNA surprises experience? In this post, we will be highlighting and discussing just some of the major types of trauma that impact these individuals. In return, we hope this information can offer readers insight into the experiences of these individuals.  


  • Betrayal Trauma

  • Identity Trauma

  • Disenfranchised Grief

  • Moral Injury


Discovering your parent(s) are not who you thought they were, brings up many emotions.  Individuals may experience a profound sense of betrayal when important details, including biological parentage, are withheld or misrepresented.  Navigating feelings that involve hurt, confusion, and the need for open communication to rebuild trust and foster healing is both complex and critical. How can someone with a DNA surprise ever trust their parent again? Working through betrayal with a mental health care professional is a positive first step in the healing process.    


Identity trauma among DNA surprised individuals stems from the profound impact of disrupted connections, cultural dislocation, and the often elusive understanding of one’s roots.  These individuals may struggle with a fractured sense of self, and have questions about who they are and where they come from.  The trauma can be intensified when aspects of their identity, such as heritage or biological lineage, are obscured or undisclosed.  Recognizing and addressing identity trauma is pivotal for individuals that have had a DNA surprise in order to experience a journey of self-discovery, acceptance and healing.  


Grief profoundly affects these individuals as they navigate the complexities of loss tied to biological connections. The mourning process may extend beyond the initial recognition of these losses, influencing their sense of identity and belonging.  There is a form of ambiguous loss, where the absence of information or a clear narrative about their origins can contribute to ongoing grief and a quest for understanding.  Disenfranchised grief refers to the sense of loss experienced by an individual that is not openly acknowledged or socially supported. It often occurs when the nature of the grief is not recognized, such as in unconventional relationships, non-traditional losses, or in this case when a DNA discovery is made. This type of grief can lead to feelings of isolation and difficulty in the mourning process.


Moral injury among DNA surprise individuals is almost always present. A moral injury is a concept that arises from experiences when an individual's actions conflict with their deeply held moral or ethical beliefs. Not only do the individuals themselves experience a moral injury, but their parents can also experience this type of trauma that leads to confusion, shame or guilt. Moral injury can result from perceived injustices, such as ethical practices, lack of transparency, or a sense of personal values that were compromised.  Acknowledging and validating these emotional experiences can help those involved work through the complexities associated with their discovery.   Counseling, psychotherapy, coaching and support groups can provide a safe space for individuals to process and make sense of their experiences.


Gaslighting surrounding DNA surprise individuals can be a deeply troubling dynamic where the parents may manipulate the individual’s perception of reality, feelings, or memories in order to protect their loved one from the truth.  If you have some time to listen to one of the podcasts listed below, you will hear stories from individuals whose parents could not bring themselves to tell their children the truth about their identity.  This emotional manipulation can manifest in subtle or overt ways, creating a toxic environment.  When individuals are made to doubt their own origins, experiences or emotions, this can lead to confusion and a distorted sense of self.  Gaslighting can exacerbate the already complex issues surrounding identity and trust, making it crucial for parents to foster open communication and empathy to ensure the well-being and emotional health of their children. Sadly, this is not a given especially when an unexpected DNA discovery is in play.  


Human beings crave connection, and when a parent permits a disconnection, for any reason, it is the child who bears the brunt of the consequences. There are invisible wounds that deeply impact DNA surprise individuals emotionally and psychologically.  Hidden struggles can manifest as a sense of longing, questions about belonging, or navigating complex emotions tied to their experience.  Fostering an environment that is supportive truly can promote healing among individuals who have experienced a DNA surprise.   


Tips for supporting individuals that have experienced a DNA surprise:

  • Openly communicate.  Be a good listener and let them share their thoughts and feelings without judgment.  

  • Respect boundaries. This can be a sensitive topic.  Some individuals might not be ready to talk openly about their experience. Respect their boundaries and go at their pace, not yours.  

  • Educate yourself. Take the initiative to learn about DNA surprise related challenges and issues. This will help you understand what they are going through better.  This can lead to more meaningful support.

  • Avoid assumptions. Recognize each DNA surprise is unique. Making assumptions or asking intrusive questions can induce shame for the individual.  They will share what they are comfortable with. 

  • Celebrate their identity. Acknowledge and celebrate the individuals cultural and ethnic backgrounds, this will impact them significantly on their identity journey. 

  • Be empathetic. Recognize the potential emotional complexities tied to DNA surprises and be empathetic. Offer a listening ear and emotional support when needed.  



Resources:


Podcasts


Adoptees On with Haley Radke

DNA Surprises with Alexis Hourselt

DNA Discoveries with Edward Looney

Everything‘s Relative with Eve Sturges

NPE Stories with Lily Wood


Books:  


Inheritance (A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love) by Dani Shapiro

The Lost Family by Libby Copeland

A Broken Tree: How DNA Exposed a Family's Secrets by Stephen F. Anderson

My Surprise Family: Find Your Ancestry Story by Margaret M. Nicholson, PhD


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