Feeling Good: What helps children & teenagers feel good about themselves as donor conceived people?

What makes us the sort of people that we are? How much are we influenced by our parents when it is our parents who bring us up? How much is down to our genes? And how much is down to the environment that we live in?
This is a summary of Marilyn Crawshaw’s presentation to the DC Network Meeting held in Birmingham on 2 October 2004

What makes us the sort of people that we are? How much are we influenced by our parents when it is our parents who bring us up? How much is down to our genes? And how much is down to the environment that we live in?
This talk looks at what current research says about what contributes to emotional security and resilience in order to help us to understand what the risks to the emotional well-being of donor-conceived people might be if:
* they are brought up knowing of their (genetic) origins from birth/early infancy
* they are told in middle childhood or adolescence
* they have not (yet) found out formally or consciously
The significance of having a clear and positive sense of identity It is widely accepted that we are more likely to be emotionally healthy and secure if we have a clear and positive sense of identity, a high level of self esteem and a belief that we can influence what happens in our lives enough of the time (self efficacy).
Our sense of identity is intricately caught up with:
* what we look like
* what roles we play in our lives
* what qualities, attitudes and beliefs we have
Those brought up knowing of their (genetic) origins from birth/early infancy have formulated their identity with that knowledge from the beginning and it will be one fact about themselves among many.
This aspect of their identity is there throughout their conscious life. Those brought up and being told in middle childhood or adolescence have the added psychological and social tasks of adapting their identity to accommodate this new information about themselves. Its significance is likely to be high for at least some period of time as this fact has been (actively) introduced into their life and identity rather than absorbed into it.

Those who have not (yet) found out formally or consciously do not (yet) have the task of adapting their identity, although they may be having to manage its impact in a less conscious way. If the fact is disclosed (especially if accidentally or unplanned) it has the potential to undermine the whole of their identity and sense of personal history and this is likely to increase with age. The meaning and significance of the fact that the person is donor conceived is likely to be influenced by the their personality plus the messages that significant others (including parents) convey when it was disclosed (for the middle group) and whenever it is referred to or thought about (for all groups).

The latter two groups have the added risks to their emotional wellbeing that attach to managing new information about their identity. What’s in a Name? Our identity is also caught up in our name as this is one of the marks by which we identify ourselves and are identified by others. Our names are usually linked to the kinship systemthat we think is ours. Those brought up knowing of their (genetic) origins from birth/early infancy will have accommodated the knowledge that their name is not wholly linked to their genetic heritage.

Those brought up and being told in middle childhood or adolescence and Those who have not (yet) found out formally or consciously have the task of learning that their name is not linked to their whole genetic heritage and have to manage any resulting significance to them. What is most likely to encourage emotional security and resilience? Firstly , as we grow we become more aware of ourselves in comparison to others. Our self esteem is thought to be increasingly affected by our direct experience of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ in relation to others in different arenas.

A key second major influence is thought to be our overall sense of how much we are loved and supported by those around us (especially key people such as parents, partners, peers). Both influences are thought to be important . For those brought up knowing of their (genetic) origins from birth/early infancy – it is likely that their parents feel OK about them being donor conceived and growing up with that knowledge. Their parents’ full emotional energy can go to managing any issues arising from the knowledge.

For those brought up and being told in middle childhood or adolescence and those who have not (yet) found out formally or consciously - their parents have to use emotional energy in managing the fact that they are withholding information and not (yet) telling or in helping their children incorporate the information once it is disclosed. Energy therefore has to be spread more widely. A range of behaviours are claimed to be influenced by genetic heredity and this was briefly touched on.

Whatever the facts about genetic transmission, family and social dialogues are likely to reflect assumptions about the influence of nature and nurture. Whether there is openness or not in the family, parents need to feel as comfortable as they can with the fact that their child shares some genetic characteristics with their donor so that they can accept this part of their child and transmit that acceptance to them.

Pulling it all together
Perhaps four main types of secrets can be created in families:
* sweet secrets - the intention being to benefit another person, e.g. surprise birthday party
* essential secrets - special to a relationship and contributing positively to it
* dangerous secrets - which hide harm which has already taken place or might take place
* toxic secrets - about actions in the past which remain untold and have the power to negatively affect relationships and individual wellbeing in the present and future

Not telling children about the fact that they were conceived using a donor and helping them feel good about themselves in that knowledge has the potential to be both dangerous and toxic. Children and young people are more likely to be secure if they have had an opportunity to process their experiences and recount them in a coherent way which makes sense of their past.
Hence the importance of tools to help with that such as the ‘Our Story’ books.

Personal story category: