DNA technology has completely changed search and reunion in adoption. Whereas adoptees or birth parents searching for each other used to rely on paper trails and government records, modern-day searches have the benefit of online DNA-tracking websites. Declaring this shift strictly good or bad is difficult — there are arguments for both sides. One thing is for sure: it’s complicated.

Search and reunion is a topic with thousands of perspectives. The emotional elements are varied and nuanced. Each story brings unique experiences, and what can be a joy for some is terrifying for others. Here, we’re addressing a specific facet of this issue. What do you do when contacted by someone who has found you through a DNA-tracking website?

Perhaps you are a birth parent who has been found by a child who was placed for adoption, or, conversely, a child found by a birth parent. You might be a relative of a birth parent who is being contacted by that parent’s child — you may not even know about the adoption, and are learning for the first time you have a biological niece or nephew.

Talk about a tricky situation.

There’s not a universal course of action when this happens. Each situation is unique and requires an equally unique response. There are some things you can keep in mind that will be helpful. Above all, take a deep breath and be kind. These are often emotional situations, and everyone involved could benefit from a friendly response.

Responding to a Connection

Woman hand using smartphone got 1 new message email. Business communication technology concept.You’re going about your life — work, rent, bills and all of those things — and then you get a phone call, or an email, that stops you in your tracks. Someone has found you through 23andMe or another DNA-tracking website, and they are saying you are related.

People are, generally speaking, not fans of unplanned changes. So it’s understandable if your gut reaction to this contact is negative. It can totally blindside you. That’s why it’s important to gather your thoughts and keep a level head before responding. That’s the first piece of advice: take a minute to collect your thoughts and evaluate your feelings.

Here are a few other pointers to keep in mind for biological parents, biological children or relatives who are contacted in a search and reunion effort:

  • It’s up to you whether or not you respond. Just because someone has discovered a possible genetic connection to do you does not mean you are required to reach out. If you value your privacy or feel that responding is not in your best interests, then that is okay. While it is always good to be considerate of others, it’s also important to evaluate what is going to be best for you as well.
  • Be compassionate. Things might be tense. This is a big phone call or email to receive, and it’s also a big one to send. Nerves are likely high, and whoever is contacting you has their hopes up. It’s normal to feel shocked, but try your best to gather your thoughts and respond with compassion. A terse or angry reply will aggravate the situation.
  • Consider the other person’s feelings. While you may not have been expecting this call, it’s likely something they have been planning for quite some time. Try to consider their feelings — the hopes and dreams they may have attached to finding their biological parent (or, from the other side, biological child). Do what you can to take this into account and respond accordingly with empathy.
  • Take it slow. Try not to dive straight into things. If you decide to respond when contacted, start small. Get to know the little things about each other. Give yourself time to decide if this is a relationship you really want to bring into your life, or if this is something you feel comfortable talking about concerning a relative of yours. There’s no need to rush.

Navigating a Potential Reunion

After being contacted about a potential DNA match, you may find yourself preparing for an uncomfortable reunion. Your feelings are likely contradictory — excitement mixed with nerves and a little bit of fear.

Or, it could be that the person contacting you is trying to reunite with your sibling, cousin or another relative. How do you prepare for something like that?

For adoptees and birth parents preparing for a reunion, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, choose a place where you feel completely comfortable. This may mean somewhere public — a restaurant or coffee shop — rather than your home. Second, set appropriate expectations. While you may immediately click, it is more likely going to feel a bit awkward. This is okay and should be expected.  Third, be upfront about what you are hoping for. If you would like to meet the person but not form a deep relationship, it’s okay to state that. Setting honest expectations will lead to a better conversation.

If you have been contacted by someone seeking a relative of yours, like your sister’s biological child who was placed for adoption, there is a whole different set of consideration to work through. How should you respond? Is it your place to confirm the biological connection? Should you put the two in contact with each other?

The best thing to do in this case is to contact the relative and ask. These are big decisions, and it’s best if you don’t make them for someone else.

Navigating either side of the search and reunion process can be complicated. It’s a complex, emotional ordeal with a wide array of possible outcomes. If you take things slow, show compassion and be honest, you will be in a better position for things to go well.