How to Find and Connect with Biological Family Using a DNA Test

Infographic on the five main steps of connecting with DNA relatives included in the article text

In the midst of World War II, a young sailor returned to the United States for temporary leave. The sailor met an intriguing young woman aboard an evening train ride. The two strangers conversed, recited some poetry, and booked a hotel room on W57th NYC. The WWII sailor was gone before dawn, only to be rediscovered years later through a DNA test. 

After WWII, around 800,000 Americans were left to question their biological origin. John (name changed for anonymity) discovered his father’s story through Ancestry.com. 

John concludes that “The need to know one’s birth parent is a natural force.” In a quest to learn from about his father, John started a serious study of WWII and even went on to write several books on U.S. WWII history.

The above story illustrates our subconscious desire to know where we belong within the human family. This curiosity causes many adoptees to seek contact with their biological family. However, fears and expectations associated with contacting a biological family member may impede your efforts to continue the search. 

With the proper information and correct mindset, you can determine how you want to approach the new information and connections from a DNA test. This guide outlines a step-by-step approach to navigating the process of purchasing a DNA test to contacting your DNA matches. We’ve compiled information from some of the top experts in DNA testing, genealogy and psychology to help you find the best practices.  

Check out our mindfulness workbook download for additional resources in making smooth contact with your biological relative. 

Topics

Step 1: Choose the right DNA test

Popular DNA testing companies such as 23andMe, AncestryDNA, and FamilyTreeDNA offer a relative finder feature that allows you to connect with DNA matches. This feature is always optional and requires users to opt-in for their own safety.

Choosing a DNA testing company with a large database will improve your chances of finding close family connections. Below you will find three of the top DNA testing companies that offer a relative finder feature. If you have already taken a DNA test, you can improve your chances of finding relatives by signing up for GEDmatch. 

AncestryDNA

AncestryDNA has the largest DNA database and currently ranks #1 for DNA testing companies on BestCompany.com. As a popular genealogy research site, Ancestry.com also has the advantage in the number of family tree networks. Users can connect and message other family members through the Ancestry platform. The site will also tell you how close you are related to your DNA matches. Matches can be viewed through the desktop or mobile app version. 

Learn more about AncestryDNA’s testing options with our expert review

23andMe 

23andMe offers a competitive DNA relative tool. Customers can directly message family members through the 23andMe app or online portal. The app also shows a map of your family tree of family members who are your third cousins or closer. You can compare your DNA results to family members to find similarities and differences in your DNA makeup. 23andMe allows you to set your own privacy options. 

A 23andMe spokesperson says, “23andMe's DNA Relatives tool helps people find and connect with participating genetic relatives. This feature is completely optional, meaning customers must actively choose to participate. We are increasingly hearing stories of families discovering and reuniting with newfound relatives through the tool.”

Learn more about 23andMe’s testing options with our expert review. 

FamilyTreeDNA

FamilyTreeDNA (ftDNA) provides a database of over two million users. The database is significantly smaller than AncestryDNA and 23andMe; however, the family finder test is less expensive than other DNA companies. ftDNA provides users with DNA matching services that outline matches through the maternal and paternal sides. FamilyTreeDNA also provides a chromosome browser tool that allows users to pinpoint which DNA segments they have in common with their matches. Users can contact relatives through the online platform. 

Learn more about FamilyTreeDNA’s testing options with our expert review

GEDmatch

Gedmatch is a free DNA upload site that allows you to connect with DNA matches who have used different DNA testing services. The interface is not as user friendly as other DNA testing sites. However, the free service makes it possible to expand your family tree and potentially find other living relatives. 

Learn more about Gedmatch’s DNA matching service with our expert review

Step 2: Review your matches

Once you have received your DNA test results, you can start looking through your relative matches. The results will specify your percentage of DNA match with a given user. You may see this metric expressed as a Centimorgan.

A centimorgan is a unit measurement of genetic linkage that indicates how closely related you are to any given individual. These metrics will help determine if you have found immediate or distant relatives. A result of 30–65 cMs suggests a high likelihood of sharing a common ancestor. 

After you have reviewed your matches, make a list of individuals who seem close enough to contact. You don’t have to decide yet which ones you will eventually contact. Just make a list so you can keep track of your new connections. Take some time to think about who you are most interested in connecting with. You can circle these names as "high priority" connections. 

Step 3: Prepare mentally before reaching out 

Reaching out to a biological family member can be anxiety-inducing for you and the person you are reaching out to. If you were placed for adoption at a young age, your biological parents may have a completely different life now. Contacting them could bring up an array of new emotions. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reach out. You just need to be mentally prepared for the possible outcomes. 

Conduct preliminary research on the new connection 

Social media and search engines have made it a lot easier to uncover information about a relative. You may consider conducting preliminary research to better understand the situation. Looking an individual up on social media may tell you if they are married, divorced, have more children, etc. You may not be able to find as much information on a member of the older generation if they are not involved in social media.

You can also look to see who else is related to this common relative. For example, you might find that you have a half-sibling of your biological father. They might have pictures posted with him or give you more information before directly contacting him. 

Reflect on your thoughts and feelings

Preparing mentally includes facing your fears and worries. You can recognize your thoughts and feelings by using mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of acknowledging your thoughts and feelings without passing judgment on them. Mindfulness can be effective in helping your pinpoint your feelings and reframe your thought patterns. Creating a list of your values may also help you determine why you are holding in stress. Heather Monroe, integrative psychotherapist, LCSW, and founder of Monroe Wellness, offers advice on how to calm our minds and bodies. 

Image headshot of Heather Monroe, psychology expert and founder of Monroe Wellness

Heather Monore

Psychology Expert

 

Expert Tip

"When reaching out to a newly discovered family member, it’s easy to let our fears and worries take control of the narrative. First, we need to be mindful of our experience. How is it making us feel in our body, and what types of thoughts are passing through our mind? As we practice mindfulness, we begin to calm our mind and body, and we start to have a clearer picture of the situation.”

Check out our mini mindfulness exercise workbook that can help you work through your thoughts and feelings. The guide includes some thought-provoking questions and breathing exercises to lower stress. Download the guide here.  

Seek moral support from a professional, family member, or friend 

Consider seeking outside moral support before reaching out. Find someone you trust who can offer moral support as you build new connections. This could be a therapist, friend, sibling, etc. Depending on how close the relationship is, you may encounter a lot of unexpected emotions.

A friend, family member, or professional can become a great sounding board as your work through some of the unknowns. They can also help you make decisions on appropriate responses and relationship boundaries. 

Step 4: Consider best practices for contact

The digital age has made it much easier to contact people through quick forms of communication. Many DNA testing sites allow you to message through the platform. Depending on the person, you may have access to other personal contact info such as telephone number, email, or mailing address. Narrowing down the best communication method takes some thought. Here are some questions to consider before deciding the contact method:

  • What is the age of the person you are reaching out to?
  • What kind of contact information is listed on the DNA testing site?
  • Which contact method provides sufficient time for the person to respond?

Evaluate your options such as email, online platform messaging, phone, or text

An email or hand-written letter is one of the best ways to initially contact a close relative. A written message gives your biological family member time to process the situation and think through an appropriate response. Brianne at Watershed DNA recommends sending a certified letter to ensure the message is received. She includes some helpful tips for choosing the best contact medium. 

"Plan on giving this individual an appropriate timeline to craft his or her response too. They may need some extra time to process and evaluate how they want to move forward. Calling or showing up on a doorstep is highly discouraged because it puts both individuals in an uncomfortable position. Set yourself up for success by starting small and lowering your expectations."

Once you initially reach out and receive a response, you will have more information on his or her level of interest to guide your future decisions. You can then arrange a future in-person meeting as the relationship naturally progresses. If the DNA match is distant, you could send a quick message over the DNA platform depending on which test you choose. 

Craft your message 

The next step is to decide what exactly you are going to say. Your initial message should be warm and inviting. Including too much emotion or unrealistic requests could create a poor first impression. You likely have a lot of questions for this person, but relationships need time to progress naturally. Avoid divulging too much personal information before you verify the person's identity. Once you have a drafted a message, let a family member or friend read it over. This may help you feel more confident in your message and desired action. 

Brianne from DNA Watershed offers some additional advice on crafting the ideal message. 

Image headshot of Brianne Kirkpatrick, a DNA testing expert and founder of Watershed DNA

Brianne Kirkpatrick

DNA Testing Expert

 

Expert Tip

"Provide in the letter multiple ways for the recipient to respond because one person might feel more comfortable with texting while another one would prefer the phone. As you progress in communicating, things will naturally change. You can be clear about what you are hoping for and what you are not trying to get from them, but don’t feel the need to tell your whole life story in the initial letter, by the way. Keep it two pages or shorter."

Step 5: Set boundaries and build relationships

The overall goal of contacting a DNA match is to learn more about yourself and build a productive relationship. However, not all relationships will progress in the same way. You may click with a half-sibling but wait months to hear back from a biological parent. Don’t get discouraged. You can build appropriate expectations to safeguard your emotional wellbeing.

Build realistic expectations while awaiting a response

The truth is not everyone receives a quick response back. Some never hear back from their DNA match. This can cause a lot of hurt and unexpected emotions. You need to be prepared for all possible outcomes. Try to focus your time on other healthy relationships and connections. Find gratitude for the people placed in your life and how they have supported you.

Avoid becoming emotionally dependent on the expectation that your connection will fill a gap in your family structure. Letting the relationship progress naturally will help you identify realistic expectations for your new relationship. 

Kirkpatrick's work with DNA matches has led to some other helpful mindsets. She has seen how new connections can bring up feelings of grief for both individuals. She warns against giving up too early. 

“Don’t confuse 'no response' in the short term as no response forever. I have worked with many of the 'discovered' biological fathers and family members, and it is accurate to say that what they are going through upon discovering a DNA relative they never knew about is a shock and for some, it triggers the start of a grief or trauma process. Do not think of hearing back in terms of hours or days. Think of it in terms of months or years. There is a lot going on behind the scenes inside families that you do not see as an outsider.”

Think about who else may be impacted by your new connection

Every family situation is different. If you have other siblings or children, you need to think about how this new connection could affect their lives. This new connection may bring up a new social matrix that could cause conflicts in your current relationships. For example, if you are an adoptee with a family and kids, a biological parent may be interested in meeting their grandchildren. You need to be aware of their life choices and how they could influence your family. 

Here are some questions to consider: 

  • Is this new connection a good influence on my other family members?
  • Do they have my best interests in mind?
  • Will I be able to create healthy boundaries with my new connection?
  • Do they respect the new life I have built?

Slowly build your relationship with safe boundaries 

As you start building a relationship, be cautious as you open up and rely on this individual. This person may be a biological father, mother, sibling, etc., but the title does not earn them automatic family privileges. Openly communicate about your boundaries and expectations. Create a safe environment for discussing difficult topics such as why they decided to place you for adoption or other big life decisions. 

Because these conversations can spark deep emotion, Kirkpatrick advises individuals to use caution when assigning labels. You don't want to rush into any relationship without fully understanding who a person is and what his or her intentions are. 

“Set boundaries — meaning don’t rush into assigning a personal label like Dad or Mom or son or daughter until your relationship is a bit more established and both agree it is the best next-step to take. The intensity at the start of a reunion can be misunderstood to be intimacy and an immediate bond. So, slow it down! Read all that you can about healthy relationships, communication, boundary setting, and practice building your capacity for patience in whatever way you can.” 

Bonus: Mindfulness Guide

Looking for a resource to help you emotionally prepare for contacting a DNA match? Check out our mindfulness guide that includes breathing exercises and journaling questions. Click the button below to download and use the PDF guide.

Download the Free Guide
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