It can happen in a letter. Or via the Internet. Or over the phone. There are many different scenarios for how a person can contact their birth family but with all of them there is one guarantee: it will be an emotional experience.

Whether you’re an adopted child or a birth parent, it’s important to be prepared for when you’re contacted by someone who shares your DNA, because the likelihood is it will happen one day. According to the report “Openness in Adoption: From Secrecy and Stigma to Knowledge and Connections” almost 95 percent of U.S. infant adoptions now have some level of openness to them. And even if your adoption was a closed one, the proliferation of DNA matching services and social media platforms could mean you’ll be contacted at some point. So how best to be prepared? In this article we’ll look at what contact with your birth family member can look like and how to best navigate the questions and emotions that may arise.

What does “contact” with your birth family mean?

For the purposes of this article, we’ll define contact as any form of correspondence from a birth relative received by a family member in relation to an adoption. It could be a birth father reaching out to his adopted child; an adopted daughter communicating with her birth mother; or another relative trying to answer questions related to their own family history. There was a time when only three options existed for contacting one’s birth family:

  • by letter
  • over the phone
  • in person

Each case was the equivalent of a cold call, and in many instances, it was unclear whether mutual consent existed. In short, it was always surprising. With the onset of the Internet, that has changed. Today there are many ways someone can contact their birth family including:

  • email
  • social media
  • an adoption reunion registry

An adoption reunion registry such as Adopted.com is one of the few methods that allows both parties to be involved with the search. Social media platforms such as Facebook tend to be one-sided, while phone conversations or emails are a cold-call style approach. With Adopted.com, biological parents, siblings and children upload information that is useful to those who are looking to reunite with their relatives. It is free to create profiles and matches are made with the help of a questionnaire algorithm. Premium features also exist on the registry if you wish to access more of the site’s features, such as viewing others’ profiles.

Recommended ways people contact their birth family

The best way a member of your birth family can contact you is through an adoption reunion registry because it involves mutual consent. In other words, both parties are expecting to be contacted so the element of surprise is lessened. Not that surprise doesn’t exist, but because both individuals have taken the steps to connect, the experience tends to be a more positive one. The information you upload to the adoption reunion registry can be as little as a name or as much as the data from your DNA file. The algorithm then sets about finding matches and a messaging tool allows you to communicate with others.

Aside from using an adoption reunion registry, social media platforms such as Facebook have correspondence tools that can be helpful. Or you can follow and comment on threads appearing on Reddit. Email is another powerful way to make contact but sometimes it can be hard to track down a person’s email address. Of course, the old-school option of receiving a letter via the post is still a possibility.

Of all the ways someone may contact their birth family, two that might be avoided at the outset are the phone and face-to-face, because they don’t allow the parties involved any time to process the inevitable emotions that arise.

Step 1: When you’re first contacted by your birth family, pause to catch your breath

Whether you’ve been hoping to connect with your birth family for years, or the connection is a surprise, the most important thing you can do when first contacted by your birth family is to allow yourself a moment to pause and reflect. This is because you’ll be experiencing a range of emotions. Regardless, there are some practical matters to carry out beforehand. (See Steps 2 and 3.)

Your pause could last the duration of a cup of tea, or it could last much longer. Just know that by giving yourself some time to process your initial emotions, you’ll be better prepared to reply. Of course, this is easy when the contact is initially made by an online message or email but even if the initial contact is in the form of a phone call or a visit to your door, it’s perfectly reasonable to politely ask for the person’s information or ask for some space so that you can gather your thoughts and prepare for what’s ahead.

Step 2: When contacted by your birth family, always verify

If you’re contacted by your birth family, the second thing you should do after taking a break to catch your breath is ensure they are, in fact, a member of your birth family. This may seem obvious but because the experience is an emotional one, we sometimes forget to ask the important questions up front. If your adoption was a more open one, there are usually parameters in place with the agency or attorney that help with the proofing process. But closed adoptions can be more challenging to navigate. Here are some questions to ask when you’re contacted by your birth family:

  • How did they locate you? (If it’s via an adoption reunion registry or agency, chances are higher that the connection is legitimate.)
  • Do they have identification proving they are who they say they are?
  • Do they know the details surrounding the adoption?
  • Are they willing to share results of a DNA test?

Step 3: Determine the motives of why your birth family member is contacting you 

Once you’ve verified the identity of the family member, the next step is to determine their motives for reaching out. We’re touching on this before we get to the emotional elements because it’s important to acknowledge that your motives may be different from theirs. This is especially relevant in closed adoption cases, but even with open adoptions, the family member could be contacting you simply to learn about the family’s health history. Or they want to ensure your well-being. Or they’re hoping you’ll be a part of their life. Reasons vary and because being contacted by your birth family can bring up a range of emotions, it’s good to know at the outset whether the connection is intended to be a simple fact-finding mission or something deeper.

Step 4: Prepare for an emotional journey when you’re contacted by your birth family

No matter your age, gender, or personality, you’re guaranteed to experience some form of emotion when you’re contacted by your birth family. The feelings can be positive, negative or a mixture of both, so it’s important to be prepared. Here are the most common emotions people experience when being contacted by their birth family.

  • Joy and Excitement – This is the best-case scenario and one that plays out regularly with adoption reunion registries such as Adopted.com, because both parties are interested in making a connection.
  • Surprise and Shock – Surprise is always a factor in this process. Even if someone is prepared for being contacted by their birth family, it’s a pleasant surprise when it finally happens. If a person is caught off guard, they could negatively react to the shock, however, and this could hamper future connections. That’s why Step 1 is recommended: to allow some time for the news to sink in.
  • Anger and Frustration – Some birth parents and adoptees feel angry when contacted by their biological family. Negative emotions such as these are also normal, especially at the outset, which is why Step 1 is so important. In a lot of instances these negative feelings subside, but sometimes they do not, and you should be prepared for that. It may be difficult and sad, but it’s important to respect the other person’s feelings.
  • Anxiety and Fear – A sense of anxiousness is also a normal part of this process. What if they don’t like me? What if they want more from this relationship than I’m willing to give? There are innumerable “what if’s” and if your questions become overwhelming, try writing them down or speaking to a close friend or counsellor about them.
  • Peace and Closure – This is the ideal scenario in which both parties have all their questions asked and there’s a sense of completion to the mystery. Perhaps a relationship will continue after the initial contact but knowing who one’s birth family is helps bring about a sense of closure.

Step 5: How to maintain control of the contact phase with your birth family

Steps 1 to 4 are important for setting a solid foundation when preparing for being contacted by your birth family. The next step is maintaining that foundation. This is done by plainly stating your intentions. It’s perfectly acceptable to share with your birth family member where you’re at in terms of comfort level and what you’d like to get out of the relationship, if anything. They may want you to be a part of their lives, but you might not feel the same and that’s completely fine.

Be true to your wishes. If you’d prefer to limit contact, it’s recommended that you not meet the person face-to-face. Email or a phone call will suffice. Remember that you can set your own limits and you can be as closed or as open as you’d like. Ultimately you have the choice to end contact completely or, if you’d prefer, develop a long-lasting relationship.

Step 6: Where to find support after being contacted by your birth family

In some instances, the encouragement of friends or loved ones isn’t enough to cope with the range of emotions you can experience after being contacted by your birth family. As mentioned in Step 4, feelings of anger, frustration, anxiety, and fear can all be part of the process. If the anxiousness becomes too great, it’s recommended that you turn to other sources for help. These could include counselors, therapists, or even medical doctors if you’re experiencing physical conditions such as panic attacks. There are also agencies and support groups dedicated to those who have been contacted by their birth family based throughout the world.