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Ancestry.com launched their genealogy company in 1983, allowing millions of people to research their family history.[1] Since that time, Ancestry.com and similar companies like 23andMe have added additional features. You can find out your entire genetic code by simply taking their saliva swab test. Within a few short weeks, you will receive your genealogical makeup and access to their social media account. This allows you to “match” with previous individuals who have taken the test to find your genetic connection. Although these tests seem intriguing, they leave out one crucial aspect: unexpected matches. Here’s my story on how my unexpected match changed my life.

How does it work?

For $99 you can mail in a saliva sample and, six weeks later, receive your 99.9% accurate DNA report.[2] Features of Ancestry.com and 23andMe saliva swab test include:

  • An ethnicity estimate
  • Updates of new DNA matchups as new information comes out
  • Social media connection to members who have already taken the test
  • Estimated relationship to matches (sister, aunt, great-grandma, etc.)
  • Regions in which your DNA is predominant

It Can Happen to Anyone

Here is a personal experience from my GKIS intern, Kaitlin. In December 2018 I got a phone call from my father. He was happier than usual, and I could tell he had important news to share. He told me he had taken the Ancestry DNA swab test and received a notification stating an estimated relationship – his previously unknown twenty-seven-year-old daughter!

At first, I felt devastated for a woman who had missed out on a relationship with her biological father. I realized how lucky I was to have had my father in my life. My father was really sick and at the end of his life. Meeting this new person meant incorporating her into one of the hardest moments of my family’s life.

The timeline of when she was born and when my parents got married was extremely close. The family was shocked. The news created problems between my parents at the end of his life.

My newly discovered sister had reached out to someone she thought was her father years prior to the discovery of my father and was brutally rejected. She was traumatized from his reaction. Once Ancestry DNA became popular, she decided to take the test to find the answer to this life-long identity question.

Upon learning the news, I felt obligated to encourage their relationship while also comforting my mom. I was confused and didn’t know how to react. I reached out to my new sister, but she seemed more interested in getting to know her biological father than getting involved with me.

That didn’t bother me as much as how she reacted when my dad passed away this year. After not talking to each other, despite several attempts to get to know her, she said some extremely hurtful things about what my father would’ve wanted and how I wasn’t fulfilling his final wishes. It seemed she thought her six months with my father meant more than my twenty-four years. It broke my heart and left me feeling resentful towards my biological sister. Now that my father is gone, I honestly just wish he never took the test.

That’s what they don’t warn you about before taking these tests. The possibility of finding the information you might not be ready for. 

Why don’t they warn us?

Both 23andMe and Ancestry craft their advertising to intrigue and draw customers in. Their entire marketing strategy is solely focused on finding your genetic makeup and finding yourself. Ironically, you might find an entirely new person as well.

Absolutely nothing is said about the risky possibilities.

I couldn’t even find a warning in the “What to expect from AncestryDNA” post on Ancestry.com.[3] Identity can be fragile, and learning something as life altering and traumatic as an unexpected connection can change your entire life[4] One can only imagine how hard it must be for people to find out the parent that raised them isn’t actually their biological parent. There is also a possibility of finding out about infidelity or sexual assault. There was even a news story about a woman finding out that her biological father was her mother’s infertility specialist!

We at GKIS believe that these companies owe their customers more than they’re giving. Customers would be better served if there was a warning about the serious and potentially unintended psychological consequences of the information provided. Preparing customers for the unexpected at least offers an opportunity for making an informed opinion.

Online Support Groups

If you’ve had a psychological trauma resulting from DNA testing, you don’t have to go through it alone. There are several Facebook support groups available.  For example, the NPE Friends Fellowship is an organization dedicated to people who have received answers they weren’t expecting.[5] The goals of these groups include receiving recognition and validation and finding a supportive community of people who understand and help each other heal.  These groups allow the option of anonymity, along with a vulnerability backed by trust amongst peers who have experienced similar stories.

NPE Fellowship

Facebook DNA NPE Gateway Group

DNA Suprise Support Group

AncestryDNA Matching

The Donor Conception Network

Families are complicated and so are the reasons behind family secrets. My family decided to handle this with open arms and offer support for my new sister. If something like this has happened to you or a friend, here are some options for you:

  • Stay calm and supportive.
  • Talk it out with your family members.
  • Join a Facebook support group.
  • Consult with a clinical psychologist like Dr. Bennett!

Thank you to CSUCI Intern, Kaitlin Hoover for telling her story. If you or someone you know is struggling with trauma from a DNA test result and you aren’t sure what steps to take please read the article, If Your Child Has Clinical Distress, Social Media May Lead Them to Safety.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty

Works Cited

[1] Ancestry celebrates 25 years. (2008, June 25). Retrieved February 15, 2018, from https://blogs.ancestry.com/ancestry/2008/06/25/ancestry-celebrates-25-years/

[2]Ancestry. (1997-2019). Retrieved February 15, 2018, from https://www.ancestry.com/

[3] NPE friends. (2018). Retrieved February 15, 2019,  from https://www.npefellowship.org/projects/

[4] Before You Buy (N.D.) What to Expect from AncestryDNA. Retrieved February 15, 2019, https://support.ancestry.com/s/article/US-What-to-Expect-from-AncestryDNA

[5] Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2014). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavorial Health Services.Retrieved February 15, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207201/

Photo Credits

Photo by Kelsey Knighton Unsplash

Photo by Ousa Cheaon Unsplash

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Photo by Raj Eiamworakul on Unsplash

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