The means to test DNA profiling is not a new science, having truly emerged in a small UK town in 1986 to aid a criminal investigation. Commercial DNA kits became available to the public in 2000 when Family Tree DNA was launched for genealogical research. However, it wasn’t until 2007 that the flashy marketing of 23andMe‘s direct-to-consumer kits became widely available, specifically testing autosomal DNA for ancestry and familial relationships.
The numbers of test kits sold since 2007 have steadily climbed, ultimately reaching 26 million kits according to recent 2019 data. Of that sizable number, approximately 10% are believed to be Non-Paternal Events (or Not Parent Expected), also referred to as NPE; those who learn they are not biologically related to a parent who raised them as such. My work as a psychotherapist, and through personal observation as an NPE myself, leads me to believe that 10% is conservative and is more accurately estimated to be 18-20% of kits sold.
Despite this emerging population of those discovering secret parentage, the mental health field has not yet caught up to the psychological impact of this discovery – even though all the elements of treatment exists independently. For the last 150 years, adoption work was considered to be the only and best source for the psychological impact of discovering secret paternity or maternity. Adoption is a thought out relinquishment, differing from the NPE journey in that the parents all participated in the relinquishment or its story. The DNA discovery resulting in NPE differs because many times one parent has no idea the child exists. Based on 2013 data stating 140,000 children are adopted by American families each year, it appears the NPW community is on target to pace if not surpass the adoption rate, therefore building a compelling mental health category.
My professional education as a master’s student in the 2000’s did not adequately prepare me to appropriately treat the conste
llation of three significant issues we now see in the NPE population: grief, trauma and identity. There was no dedicated coursework in grief in my graduate program, despite its presence in nearly every client that walks into my room. In some fashion, grief is present in every reason a person seeks therapy, most times it is simply an aspect of their problem, not the cause of it: the loss of a job, significant medical diagnoses, a loved one’s substance abuse, or infidelity all carry great capacity for grief. The loss of an attachment, however intangible, triggers a normal grief response – yet nowhere was it included in masters level training.
Identity was an abstract construct in my master’s program – mostly theoretical from the father’s of psychotherapy and analysis. From my perspective, many of the situations triggering grief are contributing factors to identity crises. Grief is painful because we have to adjust to losing a cherished attachment object, and redefining who you are without that attachment. We know identity is formed in our early childhood years, through the lens our family constructs for us to view the world and our place within it. Family systems theory is very well covered academically, but the influence family puts on identity is not.
Appallingly, trauma was never approached in the official coursework – period.
If the academic institutions are not providing essential and appropriate training in these three common therapeutic presentations, how can we expect mental health professionals to support the NPE community? In order to help your therapist relate to your needs, here are 5 questions NPE can ask to ensure you have good rapport (the best predictor for successful therapeutic outcome) as well as successful resolution of your presenting problem:
1. What kind of experience have you had with adoption?
Adoption is considered to be a niche in the professional community, not like depression or anxiety which denote typical or general practices. Therapists who have studied the impact and influence of adoption will have better empathy for the rejection sensitivity and attachment styles inherent to the DNA discovery.
2. How much experience do you have with narcissism?
Narcissism can also be a professional specialty but is an important element in the comprehensive treatment of DNA discovery. Anecdotally, the prevalence of narcissism in the family dynamic is quite high, particularly for the mothers of the NPE, creating sticking points for the NPE.
3. Are you trained in EMDR?
EMDR is the trauma intervention I choose to seek training for and comprises 60% of my practice. It is not the only trauma intervention out there but in my opinion it is the best choice for its efficiency and effectiveness. Trauma and grief are defining features of DNA discovery. If your trusted therapist has no training in EMDR (requires a multilevel certification), ask for a short term referral to carve out that treatment with one of their colleagues. It is ok to seek adjunct therapy when your therapist has reached the limit of their scope of practice.
4. Can you coach me on family dynamics and communication?
Most therapist will have some cursory education on family systems theory but truly working with family systems seems to be a dying breed – mostly because fewer consumers are interested in family therapy. For the NPE, family roles, cultural expectations, unresolved intergenerational traumas all play keep roles in the NPE journey and recovery. Boundaries and assertive communication skills are required interventions for the NPE’s toolbox, requiring action plans to successfully navigate the changing family dynamics and pull to status quo.
5. Don’t be afraid to tell them what you don’t want to hear
No doubt you have already experienced family or friend‘s well meaning but insensitive remarks – therapists are human too and sometimes miss the empathy mark. Some phrases that have never helped NPE include: "you’re still the same person", "he’s still your dad", "you’ll get over it", "this doesn’t change anything".
NPE’s shouldn’t have to educate their therapists on what they should already know professionally but DNA discovery is a new phenomenon requiring some collaboration between therapist and client. Another option for California residents is to ask your therapist to obtain training in a 3 unit continuing education course specific to the NPE constellation of behaviors. I developed Parental Identity Discovery™ to address this specific gap in professional training and provide comprehensive treatment to an emerging population.