We recommend telling donor-conceived people the truth about their conception very early on (pre-verbal) so that there is never a traumatic “telling” or “finding out” event. When your child understands how they were created right from the beginning, it just becomes a part of who they are. And additionally, having the opportunity to connect and know their first and second-degree genetic relatives right from the start can be enriching. We don’t wait for our child to be grown before introducing them to their aunts, uncles, cousins or grandparents, so why not let them grow up knowing their half siblings and even their other biological parent and his or her family?
But some parents don’t know how to tell (see my new children’s book) or are fearful of telling because they’re protecting a non-biological parent, afraid of disrupting the family dynamic, and/or afraid their children will feel anger or pain, so they wait and wait, until their children are teens, or even older. As a result, many families who have kept the secret are now struggling as donor offspring are now finding out the shocking truth via DNA testing.
There is a remarkable difference in how older children and adults respond to the news depending on how much parental support they get after they’re told or find out on their own.
don’t want to talk about it
dismiss or negate any upset feelings that the child has
don’t acknowledge the child’s desire to know her biological relatives
minimize the importance and weight of the information
express their own discomfort with the information
don’t apologize for not telling sooner
don’t acknowledge that some family counseling may be needed
or generally just tune out
then that child may have a much more difficult time. Older children, teens, and adults should not be left to process this new information on their own. They need to know that any feelings they might have, including confusion and anger, are to be expected and will be fully acknowledged. If they are fearful about expressing their true feelings because they’re afraid of hurting their parents that could cause a harmful disconnect in the parent-child relationship.
If your older child says that she doesn’t want to talk about it and shuts off all communication about it, then you need to be checking in on her regularly, as internalizing any distress can be harmful in the long run. Refusing to talk about it may indicate that there is some family work to do together. Your prior secrecy might imply that there was something shameful about the way your child was created. It is your job to make sure that this is not a fact about herself that she is ashamed or embarrassed about. It’s also your job to normalize this news, frame it in the most positive way possible, and then be willing to support your child as she processes the information. If your child is angry with you, that’s not something to be turned away from, but something to face, full on. Apologize. Own it. Ask your child how you can best support them so that you can move forward together. You can and will work through it.
I regularly counsel with people who are just about to tell and with those who have just told, so I know that telling can be a very healing experience for the family – when parents are prepared to put the feelings of their child ahead of their own. The burden of this secret is not for the parents to carry, and the truth is owed to the child.
Some donor-conceived people weigh-in:
My mother told me when I was 18 and as soon as she told me it all made sense – it was the big secret that was ever present my whole childhood. I think that had they told me earlier many things would have been different for me and for both of my parents. My parents are smart, free-thinking individuals, who have a history of challenging authority in different ways, and yet where donor conception was concerned, they followed the doctors’ advice and kept it a secret. I believe now that they regret this but that it is engrained for them. They have more guilt around this than I do. And they still have a really really hard time talking about it openly. I think that one major way that it has influenced my life is my deep-seated believe that in meaningful close family or friend relationships it is essential to not hide anything.
I found out at 15. I’m 34 now, and FINALLY getting my life together. I’ve felt lost and alone and felt like I had my identity ripped from me. Teenagers are ALL going through identity issues. Teenage years are when kids really establish their identity.
I was told that I was donor conceived when I was 12 or 13 years old. I remember at the time both my parents were upset and crying, but as a pre-teen, I acted like I was fine and didn’t really ask any questions, just said it was fine and did not change anything and hugged my parents and went to my room.
I knew about it from the time I knew about anything else in my life–it was a part of me. I’ve always considered my dad my dad just as my mom is my mom. I’m close to my half siblings.
I only just found out I was donor conceived about 3 months ago. I am 33 years old now, so it was completely shocking. Learning this turned my whole world upside down. I am doing better with it now, but I believe it has influenced me my whole life without me knowing it. I also think it’s insane to lie to your child about such a basic and fundamental truth, and can only begin to imagine the way this shaped my relationship with my parents. I took a DNA test 3 years ago, and was really surprised by my results. I never would have imagined my Dad wasn’t my biological father. I feel sorry for the little girl in me that wasn’t allowed to have access to her truth. I think the betrayal is the worst part, but I can imagine that even if my parent’s had been honest with me it would have been very confusing to learn this as a child or teen.
Hi! I’m 24 and recently found out I was donor conceived less than a year ago from 23andme when I very unexpectedly matched with a half sister – so this is my take on this. Like you, my parents did not tell my brother nor I, and although they “wanted” to (and I say this loosely because I think they only really said this after they got caught – but I do know their doctor advised them not to tell), they didn’t want to upset me during my teenage years. Fast forward to now….I was devastated and am still devastated. My mom was my best friend and to this day I feel completely and utterly betrayed, and it put a huge rift in our relationship that I feel will never be fixed.
I thought and told my parents that I was adopted from a very young age (~5). I figured out I was donor conceived on my own 21 years later. I definitely had a weird feeling that I didn’t belong to my parents but they were very convincing that it was just in my head. As soon as I realized I was DC, it all clicked.
I always wondered if I was adopted or my mom had an affair. There was definitely a weird feeling, like I was unlike the rest of my family. I thought I was a fluke.
Tell her now, the longer you wait the harder it is for everyone–especially her, which, should be most important considering she is the one who has a right to know who she is and knowledge of her own genetic composition!! Read Wendy’s book and tell her. No other way around it. The only good time is when they’re little and they grow up knowing it. As a 35 yo DC just told, what I wouldn’t have given to have known sooner, especially as we go through our growing years and choosing careers and lives moving forward. Just do it.
My parents tried at various points to tell me that I was donor conceived but it obviously bothered them and it was one of many things we didn’t talk about. It seemed like a secret they were ashamed of. I don’t mind people knowing but given how much they hate it I usually keep quiet about it. My parents are both loving and it’s clear they wanted me, but they react inconsistently so it’s difficult to talk to them about difficult things, this being one of them.
I guessed [my dad] was not my biological father at age 10-11. When I had guessed he wasn’t my bio father, my mom had simply said “I didn’t tell you that, don’t ever bring it up again”. It was life-altering for me. I all but convinced myself as a teenager that the reason my mom had told me to never bring it up again was because if my dad found out I knew, he wouldn’t have to pretend to love me anymore. A lot to think through as a teenager!
And finally, two of my son Ryan’s new half siblings weigh in:
I found out at age 28 through AncestryDNA, which I signed up for because I had suspected my dad wasn’t my biological father my entire life. I wish so badly that my parents had just told me as a child because growing up I was so different from them and my siblings but didn’t have any way of explaining why. It made me feel like an outsider in my own family, and I felt like I was crazy. Having this information from an early age could have drastically improved my quality of life growing up. This is an important truth of our existence. The shame or discomfort you may feel about telling your child is nothing compared to the gaslighting and distress we experience from being lied to our whole lives.
My mother told me at age 18 very abruptly. After the initial first discussion, it was never brought up again. I felt alone, angry, sad, and confused. I had no one to talk to about what I was going through. I have spent the past five years of my life trying to process those emotions and thoughts alone with no follow up from either of my parents. I was scared to ask questions. I didn’t know where to start or what to ask. Not only is bringing to the truth to life important but also being there for your child after they know is. There will never be a “perfect” or “right” time to tell your children. I wish that someone had chosen to be honest with me when I was younger because we could have avoided these past five years of intense emotions and confusion for me. P.S. Follow up with them!
Do not wait for your child to do a DNA test and find out on their on that you withheld this information.
Secrets are like landmines you know. They can go off at any time, but until they go off you’re sort of treading around them. – Barry Stevens, Donor-Conceived Person