Genealogy testing: Prepare for the emotional reaction

The availability of home genealogy testing has made exploring genealogy popular and easy to do. This has led to many interesting stories of people meeting long lost relatives, learning that their heritage is not what they thought, and even discovering that they are not genetically related to people they thought were blood relatives.

While much has been written about privacy concerns related to DNA genealogy testing and how that information is shared, it seems there is little attention paid to preparing people for the emotions they may experience in reaction to what they may discover. This preparation includes considering what people’s expectations are for the testing, and how best to handle surprising results (“good” or “bad”).

Genealogy testing and family connections

Discovering “new” family members through DNA genealogy testing can trigger a wide range of emotions, including happiness, anxiety, sadness, or even anger. In fact, the emotional experience may be so intense that many genealogy sites state they are not liable for any “emotional distress” that may result from using the service.

If you are considering consumer  genealogy testing, think carefully about your motivation for your search. What do you hope to learn? What are you curious about? What will you do if you receive unexpected results (for example, your DNA suggests that your roots are not in Ireland as you thought, or that it is unlikely that you are biologically related to your family)? Do you anticipate trying to connect with relatives you never knew you had? What will you do if you can’t make those connections? What will you do if you can? How will these new people fit into your life and the family you’ve always known?

What happens if the results are disappointing?

Don’t go genealogy testing alone

Whatever you hope to learn, ground your search in the life you have. Consider talking with family members about your interest in testing before you take the plunge. Share your goals for exploring your family tree, and invite family members to share their thoughts as well. Provide space for family members to express their worries and fears as well as curiosity. This conversation offers the opportunity to explore family history in a new way. Be prepared for it to also raise information that was previously undisclosed or difficult to talk about.

Prepare for genealogy testing results

It can take weeks to months to process the test and get results, so think about how you will manage the time waiting for the results. You may choose to spend the time gathering data about your family. Continue to reflect on the reasons for your interest in your family history, and plan ahead for how you will view the results. Alone? With family? With friends?

Take time to consider whether or not you want your results to be shared with others on the genealogy site. Think about whether or not you would like to be contacted by strangers with whom you may share some DNA, and whether you would want to reach out to others.

Proactively make a plan to cope with potential strong emotional responses. Plan how much time you will allocate when you log on to the genealogy site. Make sure you have other activities scheduled for your day, and do not ignore other plans you have made to spend additional time on the genealogy site.

Getting (and acting on) the results of genealogy testing

Once you receive your results, you may at first find the amount of data you receive overwhelming. For example, you might receive information about your ethnicity, and hundreds (or thousands) of people with whom you share a significant amount of DNA. Make a point to tend to the emotions you experience. Are you happy? Anxious? Sad? Is this what you expected to find? If it starts to feel like too much to process, take a break from mining the data. Update family and friends on how you are doing, and let them know if you need support.

For some people, the results of genealogy testing prompt them to reach out to strangers with whom they share DNA. This may lead to a new and positive connection. This may also lead to a connection that is disappointing. And perhaps it may be hardest to cope with no response. Some people you attempt to contact on the site will not write back to you. Consider how many times you will reach out to someone who does not respond.

Moving forward after genealogy testing

DNA genealogy testing can yield information about your heritage that you never knew and never even thought about. This can be exciting and can broaden your thinking. It can also be disconcerting to learn about discrepancies between what you thought you knew about your family and what the results from the testing provided. And for some people, it may not bring the insight and direction they had hoped for, or may raise issues around family relationships that are hard to handle.

In the end, the results of genealogy testing do not change who you are as a person. But it may provide interesting information about your family tree and result in a powerful emotional experience. Be prepared with a plan and a support system.

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