Secrets about biological parentage: experiences of concealment and revelation; a qualitative study

Pettle, Sharon A. (1999). Secrets about biological parentage: experiences of concealment and revelation; a qualitative study. PhD thesis The Open University.



This qualitative study investigated the experiences of twelve adults who discovered new information about the identity of one or both parents in adolescence or later. Some had grown up in adoptive or step-families; others had been conceived using donated sperm. Participants were interviewed once about their experiences when the information was revealed, and the effect they perceived it had over time. The transcribed interviews were analysed using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999).

The findings indicated that for many participants the impact of unplanned revelations was considerable, and the emotional repercussions often persisted for many years. The information affected participant's perceptions of their sense of self, and who they were in relation to others. The effects of this appeared to reverberate through many parts of the family system. It was suggested that concealment may have affected early parent-child relationships and contributed to feelings of difference or not belonging. The secret was perceived to have affected family communication before the revelation, and this was often difficult afterwards.

Findings were considered in relation to identity development, attachment theory and social constructionist perspectives. A tentative model of the processes by which people integrate this information was proposed. Suggestions were made regarding therapeutic work with individuals and families after revelations of this nature, and those considering the opening of such secrets. Further research in this area is indicated and is particularly relevant to families created through gamete donation.

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