So You've Taken A DNA Test To Find Your Birth Family... Now What?

Updated: Sep 29, 2021

Easily the most beneficial step in the search for your biological family is taking a DNA test. But when the results come in, how do you make sense of the information overload?

As we wrote about in our last post, the single best thing you can do—especially if you're not sure where to begin or if your current search is leading you nowhere—is take a DNA test. Start with AncestryDNA, and if you can, test with 23andMe, too.

What happens next comes down to chance. There is absolutely no way to know what type of DNA matches will show up in your test results. It depends on several factors, but mainly it boils down to whether or not any of your close biological relatives will have already tested—and if they have tested with the same company that you did.

Some extraordinarily lucky DNA testers will actually find a parent in their DNA test results! But here's the reality of it: In all the cases I have worked over the years, I have seen this happen a grand total of one time. That's right...once. And it wasn't even on AncestryDNA or 23andMe. It's not that it doesn't happen, it's just that it probably won't. And that's OK! That's what we're here for.

Step #1: See if you recognize anyone in your DNA match list.

This may sound obvious, but it isn't always every DNA tester's first instinct.

Here's why: not all those looking for biological family can be put in the same box.

For instance, there are adoptees who are looking for both birth parents vs. adoptees who are looking for just one birth parent because they may already know the identity of one parent. There are those who were raised by one biological parent but are searching for the identity of the parent they never knew. Then there are those who took a DNA test "just for fun"and learned that one or both biological parents is not the person or people they had always believed them to be. And then there is every other scenario in between.

So. Ignore all the relationship estimates and mysterious numbers next to each of the names in your DNA match list. Take a moment to simply scroll through your DNA matches and see if you think you might recognize anyone.

If you already know the identity of one of your birth parents, you may find that you recognize a few cousins on the known parent's side. This way you can have a pretty good idea of which of your matches are on the unknown parent's side.

If you don't know the identity of either of your birth parents, this is still worth the 5 minutes it will take you to run through your list. You never know who you may find that you didn't know you were genetically related to!

Also, if you happen to come from a smaller or particularly close-knit community, you may be surprised to find the names of people you know or names that sound familiar in your DNA match list.

Step #2: Ignore the relationship estimates. (Mostly.)

Remember a second ago when I said to ignore the relationship estimates for a few minutes while you scroll through your DNA match list? Yeah... You're going to want to go ahead and throw them all out the window, basically forever. (I'm only halfway kidding.)

Here's why: All of the testing companies—every single one—is making their best guess as to how you are related to each one of your DNA matches. Yes, really. ...But for good reason.

Before I continue, there is one* big exception to this and that is in the case of a parent/child relationship. If you do happen to see a person at the very top of your list who is marked as "Parent/Child" then you can most definitely trust it because that is not an estimate—it's good ol' fashioned science. You are either that person's parent or their child. Period.

The gist of it is this (fair warning, it's about to get geeky): DNA is measured in centiMorgans (cM). Every DNA testing company utilizes different methods of analysis and different technologies, and they even test a very different assortment of genetic markers to produce the total cM numbers you see next to each of your DNA matches.

That said, the most important thing to remember is that the amount of shared DNA between you and a biological relative is a fixed number. (At least for the purposes of this very basic explanation.) That cM number can vary somewhat depending on what company you test with, but it will never vary by much.

However, what can and absolutely DOES vary is the number of ways you and that DNA relative could be related.

For instance, if you're seeing "Half-Sibling" next to one of your DNA match's names, take it with a grain of salt until you know for sure how the two of you are actually related. Because technically that person is equally as likely to be your Half-Sibling as they are to be your Aunt, Uncle, Niece, Nephew, Grandparent, or Grandchild.

Head spinning yet? Trust me when I say it gets much more complicated from there.

Essentially, the more distantly you are related to someone—in other words, the lower the total shared cM between you—the more myriad ways you two could potentially be related. If that seems like a lot to wrap your head around, it's because it is.

*There is actually a second exception and that is in the case of identical twins. Should you get your DNA test results back and find that your top match is listed as "Self"—and you are 100% certain you have never taken a DNA test before—then get ready for a wild ride, because we've got a Parent Trap situation on our hands: Chances are you've got an identical twin out there that you didn't know about!

Step #3: Ask for help.

You are not alone.

Seriously. It is my personal mission each day to make sure every one of our clients knows they have someone in their corner. I genuinely want each person I work with to feel the burden of trying to figure all of this out on their own being lifted. So yes, you can hire professionals like us, but there are some tactics you can try first if you're not quite ready to hand over the reins.

If you find your DNA results are just too confusing and you don't know where to start, try messaging a DNA match or two. They may have already done family history research that they'd be willing to share.

Just remember to keep your expectations in check because 99% of the time, your DNA matches are not going to be genetic genealogists or private detectives. In fact, many of them could be in the same boat as you, and could be searching for family and for answers, themselves. Sometimes just talking through the details of your search can help bring a bit of clarity in surprising ways.

Another thing you must not overlook is checking out your genetic heritage! This is called an admixture and it is a breakdown of all the cultural and geographical origins that were found in your unique set of genes.

Often this information is organized by showing you the specific percentages of your DNA and the countries and/or world regions where each portion of your genes originate. It's fascinating, to say the least, and may very well be a whole new world of information you never knew about yourself!


Finally, if you've already taken a DNA test, then you've already made an incredibly brave decision and one that could open your mind and your heart to all sorts of new information and new family members.

When you're ready for us, we're always right here and we can't wait to meet you!

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