While the age old question of how much of what makes us who we are is due to nature and how much to nurture has still not received a definite scientific answer, nobody can deny that our DNA plays a crucial role in our existence and becoming. Living with uncertainty about our genetic inheritance can feel like a piece of our own biological puzzle is missing. However, when it comes to making the decision to search for one’s birth family, it’s often the psychological and sociological aspects that drive our curiosity, rather than the biological ones. Each of us needs to be part of a greater narrative, to feel deeply rooted, to understand where they fit in that unbroken chain of life which started with the first humans and has resiliently moved forward through millions of years of evolution, leading to where we stand today. And just as importantly, it is inherently human to need to know the circumstances of one’s birth and the reasons why the connection to one’s birth family was severed in the first place.

But daring to ask these questions is an extremely difficult and brave thing to do. There is an abundance of powerful emotions surrounding the decision to find one’s birth family and everyone experiences this quest differently. Moreover, the path to a much-anticipated reunion can sometimes be frustratingly blocked by bureaucratic red tape or insufficient information regarding their identity and whereabouts. In heartbreaking cases, biological relatives can spend years looking for each other without finding the right pathways to reconnection. If you have been entertaining the desire to start searching for your biological relatives, this guide will walk you through some of the most important emotional aspects to consider before embarking on this journey. But just as importantly, it will provide you with practical information regarding the options available to you for locating your biological family members and initiating communication with them.

Step 1. Carefully review your motives and emotions

Considering a possible reconnection with one’s biological family can bring about a whirlwind of emotions. It is not uncommon to experience excitement, anticipation and eagerness, while at the same time feeling fear, anxiety, resentment or guilt. It is important to listen to what each of these feelings are telling you and to try to answer the following questions:

Why have you chosen this particular moment for starting your search?

Perhaps you have always hoped to understand more about the circumstances of your adoption and have finally worked up the courage to put your plans into action. Perhaps you have recently discovered new information about your biological family or have found support in taking this step. Or perhaps you have just been through a life-changing event, such as having a child of your own, which has made you reflect on your origins. Any of these reasons, and many more are valid for starting to search for your biological relatives. If, however, this desire has intensified in the context of familial conflict or unusual hardship, you may want to ask yourself if what you truly desire is reconnecting with your birth family or simply regaining the feeling of being part of nurturing family. If the latter is true, you are possibly placing too many expectations on this search.

Where are you right now from an emotional standpoint?

Searching for one’s biological relatives is a taxing feat from a psychological standpoint, regardless of its outcome. It can unearth buried emotional scars, cause you to relieve painful moments and significantly raise your levels of anxiety. It can sometimes also put strain on your other family relationships. That is why it is important to embark on this journey when you are confident that you are in a good and stable mental state and can face any outcome with resilience and a positive outlook. While being in a bad place emotionally - such as depression, loneliness or grief - can at times trigger existential questions and the need to go seeking for answers, please be mindful of your wellbeing. An undesired outcome, a shocking discovery or simply the stress of wondering what you will find can deepen your inner turmoil and be damaging to your mental health. This is why, if you are feeling predominantly negative emotions lately - such as:

  • Persistent sadness
  • Anger
  • Emptiness
  • Hopelessness
  • Low self-worth
  • Anxiety
  • Guilt
  • Loss of purpose/direction
  • Grief

...it is recommendable to seek the assistance of a therapist or spiritual guide in finding your emotional balance before starting this complex process. Times of uncertainty, with potentially life-changing prospects, can be stressful for anyone. It is a good idea to recognize and acknowledge that you need to take extra good care of yourself during such times. Make sure that you are getting enough rest, that you are eating healthily and that you are allowing yourself more time for relaxation than usual. Meditation can also help you clear your head when you feel that your emotions are overwhelming or that stress is getting to you.

What do you hope to achieve with this reunion?

The answer to this question may seem simple: you may just want to learn who your birth parents are and why they decided to become separated from you. Or you may want to be reassured that the child you have put up for adoption has grown well and to discover the person they have become. But placing further thought into analyzing this desire can make it easier for you to manage your own expectations and to communicate your intentions to your biological relatives should you be able to reconnect.

Would you like them to become part of your life in the long term or simply to provide you with some answers or closure?

Having a clearer answer to these questions can help you determine whether your expectations for this process are reasonable or whether you may need to adjust them in order to avoid disappointment or undue pressure for either yourself or the family member you are seeking.

Step 2. Prepare yourself for all the potential outcomes

While we are often told to think positive and always put the good in front of the bad, when it comes to such highly emotional events such as adoption reunion, it is best to be psychologically ready for either of the potential outcomes right from the start. While you might already be aware that there is a real chance that you might not be able to locate the lost family member you seek and are mentally preparing for that outcome, it is highly beneficial to also consider the following possibilities. If you have the opportunity and inclination, you can even roleplay these scenarios with a therapist or a supportive loved one, to make sure you are emotionally equipped to deal with any of the following frequently encountered situations.

The negative outcome

You are unable to find your lost biological relative. While this can be disheartening and frustrating, it is a relatively common occurrence in searching for one’s birth family. However, take comfort in the knowledge that the situation does not have to be permanent and new information may come to light any day.

The best-case scenario

You find your lost biological relative and they seem eager to reconnect with you. They may have even been looking for you themselves for a while. There are good indications that this experience might prove to be a very positive and life-enriching one.

The uncertain scenario

You find your lost biological relative, but they seem taken by surprise and unsure whether they want to reconnect with you. They may need time to deal with their emotions regarding your reappearance in their lives. They may harbor feelings of pain, anger, resentment, shame or guilt towards you and may need to resolve them before making their decision. Handling the situation tactfully and giving them space can lead to a more positive outcome.

The worst-case scenario

You find your lost biological relative, but they adamantly refuse contact with you. They may provide a reason that has to do with their own lifestyle or may even be openly hostile towards yourself personally. Rejection can be very painful, especially to someone who has been separated from family through adoption. While respecting their choice is mandatory, make sure you turn to your loved ones for support and a healthy outlet for the negative emotions you might be feeling as a consequence of this experience.

Other potential outcomes

You find your lost biological relative, but they are unable to connect with you because they are deceased or struggling with illness, disability or difficult personal circumstances. They may also wish to connect with you but not be allowed to do so if they are underage or dependent. Each of these circumstances needs to be approached specifically and can take their respective toll on your wellbeing so be sure to take good care of your physical and mental health throughout this experience.

Step 3. Share your decision with your loved ones

Finding your birth family could not only change your life, it could also change the lives of those closest to you, especially the members of your family. Adoptive parents and siblings in particular might experience anxiety and mixed emotions regarding your decision to find your biological family, fearing they may be replaced. If you have a spouse and/or children of your own, they might be concerned about how this experience might affect you and at the same time, they might experience anxiety about the possibility of gaining new relatives. Whenever possible, it helps to communicate your feelings, hopes and expectations regarding this process openly with those you love and to provide a safe space for them to do the same. Explaining your reasons for deciding to search for your birth family to your adoptive parents and siblings and reassuring them that it will not negatively affect your relationship with them might put their mind at ease and make them more supportive. Similarly, discussing with your spouse, children and other loved ones the potential outcomes of the search and their implications for your own life and that of your family can help you organize your own thoughts and feelings and at the same time, it can make your family feel included, heard and given a chance to support you.

Step 4. Collect your information

Once you feel confident and fully prepared on a psychological level to begin your quest to reconnect with your biological family, the first thing that you need to do is to identify them and obtain a way of contacting them. In recent years, most Western countries have been using an open adoption system, meaning that biological and adoptive parents have information about each other and may even choose to stay in contact. Adoptees who are over 18 years of age are, in this case, entitled to access to their own adoption records and may choose to contact their birth parents. If this is your case, you probably already have access to ways to identify and contact your lost biological relatives.

If, however, your adoption was a closed one, as it was the norm a few decades ago and still is in many parts of the world, your search will be more challenging. The records are, in this case, typically sealed, leaving no contact options for those who wish to reconnect. However, even in this case, there are multiple tools that can help you achieve a successful search and reunion.

Here are the most common 5 such tools, which can be combined as needed for optimum results.

Piece together what you already know

Even if you don’t know anything about your birth family, you are still likely to have access to information such as:

Asking your adoptive family for further details might also be quite helpful, as they might be able to provide you with some more missing puzzle pieces, such as:

Furthermore, depending on your country of origin, you might be able to request a copy of your non-identifying information, which should be useful regardless of whether you are able to find your birth parents or not, as it may include:

Countries/states who provide this kind of information often do so upon the request of any adult who has been adopted. However, they will not include any information that might be of direct help in contacting your biological family.

Use a mutual consent adoption registry

This type of digital platform facilitates the reunion of biological families who have been separated by closed adoption by providing them with a place to search for each other. All they need to do is register and create a profile with their information and search for any other profiles matching the person they are looking for. The world’s largest online adoption registry is Adopted.com, with almost 1,000,000 people looking to reunite with lost family members. The condition for this tool to be efficient is for both parties to be actively looking for adoption reunion. This means that finding your biological family using such a registry makes it more likely when they are also interested in reconnecting. Furthermore, even if you don’t find your relative in the registry immediately, you will be notified as soon as someone who matches their description registers. Moreover, having your profile on such a platform means that they may one day find you by using the same tool.

Using DNA matches

You may have heard of companies who send you a home DNA kit which you use and send back in order to find out your genetic ancestry. This tool isn’t only used to determine whether or not you are a descendent of Genghis Khan. It is also frequently used to create your genetic profile and match it to any of your biological relatives who are already in their database. The best known providers of such genetic matching services are 23andMe, Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage DNA, and AncestryDNA.

The procedure is rather simple and not very costly. All you need to do is to register to their respective websites and follow a few simple steps.

After receiving the results (usually 2-4 weeks later), you can upload your information to Adopted.com’s DNA Matching service. If you don’t find a match at this junction, your DNA test provider may be able to provide a match for a close relative, affording you a lead for further investigation into your family tree. This process is made easier by the information gathered in Step 1.[1] [2]

Use a confidential intermediary program

While this program is not available in all countries or states, it can be very helpful if it is available in yours. A confidential intermediary is a person who is authorized by law to access closed adoption records on behalf of biological parents, adopted children over 18 years of age, or adoptive parents of siblings who have been separated by adoption. Using their services, you can gain access to contact information of the person you are looking for in a safe and legal fashion, even if the adoption records had previously been sealed.

Hire a private adoption detective

If none of the tools above have brought you closer to being reunited with your biological family, it might be time to leave the search up to the professionals. Private adoption detectives, or “investigative genealogists”, are well versed in using partial information to find people, sometimes even having access to databases unavailable to the public. Specific techniques employed by these investigators include:

  • Archive and desk research
  • Background checks
  • Database queries
  • Interviews
  • DNA matching

While hiring such a detective might be more expensive than the other search methods presented above, it is good to know that some of them will only charge you after they have found the person you are looking for.

Step 5. Unpack your emotions once the search is complete

There are two common ways a search for a lost biological relative might end: either by locating the person or by exhausting all leads available at the present time. Regardless of the outcome of your search, once you have completed it, it is time to take a moment to reflect on your journey. Be conscious of any emotional growth you experienced throughout your search.

These are some final tips on how to effectively cope with the outcome of your search, before you can channel your energy into making contact or, respectively, moving on with your life. In either case, taking at least a day for self-care and unwinding is advisable before progressing.

If you have found the one you are looking for:

  • Allow yourself to feel your emotions without judgment, be they euphoria, anticipation, fear, resentment or even cold feet.
  • Take some time to relax and explore your thoughts before making contact: letting go of all the built-up tension will allow you to communicate more clearly when reaching out.
  • Remember that your relative may not share your desire to reconnect at this time; if this happens, it is not a reflection of you, but another person’s life choice at this time.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your loved ones for support and to bring them in on the anticipation.

If you have not found the person you are looking for:

  • Allow yourself time to grieve, but take comfort in the hope that one day, circumstances may change, and you might still be reunited.
  • Remember that not being able to locate your lost relative is in no way a failure on your part.
  • Treat yourself kindly and take time to do things you love in the company of the loved ones who are beside you.
  • Write a letter to the person you never found and tell them everything you wish you could have told them having had the chance. Place it in an envelope, seal it and keep it in a safe place, in case you are one day reunited.

Regardless of the outcome of your quest, congratulate yourself for your courage and determination: it takes a strong person to weather the turmoil of searching for their past.