Updated: Apr 26
So, What is Genetic Mirroring? These are the reflections of our inherited traits, be they physical or emotional, from our biological lineage.
Why is Genetic Mirroring Important in Adoption? Because it provides a basis of familiarity with your cultural, ethnic, and racial roots. And if you were adopted by a different culture, ethnic or racial root, you don’t receive the daily dose of genetic markers which helps you develop a healthy sense of your identity.
Watch this video I made to help better understand this experience for adoptees:
#1 - Genetics serve as guideposts, defining who you are and where you come from.
When you grow up in your biological family, you have guideposts to help you along. You can see bits of your own future reflected in your parents, and pieces of your own personality echoed in your parents and/or siblings.
When you grow up adopted, you don’t have these guideposts, there are no clues or crumbs to follow. These “genetic markers” do not exist, which brings upon a “genealogical bewilderment” of not knowing where you come from.
"Not knowing where one comes from, can hold an adoptee back from developing themselves.” – Jeanette Yoffe
And the question of identity: who I am and where do I come from? Remains a constant question and an endless "search for self, meaning, and purpose"."
It is a running "inside" joke in our community of adoptees that “we are not adoptees, we are adaptees!” Because we are always adapting to our environment, everything around us is like the little duckling in the book “Are You My Mother” because we don’t have a genetic marker to bounce off from!
#2 - Genetic Markers serve as inborn traits inherited from your family of origin which serve as mirrors.
Genetics means “origins.” Genetic markers are inborn traits, that we now know to be on each person’s genome, our DNA, such as:
talents and proclivities
inherent strengths and weaknesses
resilience to trauma
We learn these traits by being with our DNA genomes, and our birth families.
When you have this reflected back it is called “mirroring.” When you do not have this reflected back, an adoptee can feel alienated. The following is an exercise to do, to understand better what it feels like to have no biological reflection in their life...
Mirror Activity  : • GOAL: To help non-adopted people understand the problems in identity formation for adopted people. • Materials need: Small compact mirrors • Instructions: 1. Take out a small compact mirror or go look in a mirror. (If there are adoptees reading this article, they are not to look in a mirror.) 2. Look in the mirror and identify one characteristic that you know comes from a member of your family. For example, my nose is like my mom’s side of the family, my eyes are just like my uncle’s, and my sense of humor is just like my grandmother’s. 3. Name out loud one characteristic you have identified, and from whom you feel it came.
4. Note the joy you feel as you identify this information. 5. Now turn the mirror over. The mirror is blank.
This is what an adoptee sees when they look in a mirror and have never met their birth family or any biologically related individual.
6. What does it feel like to see no reflection? • anger? • frustration? • loss? • loneliness? • sadness? The display of mirroring often begins as early as infancy, as babies begin to mimic individuals around them and establish connections with particular body movements. The ability to mimic another person's actions allows the infant to establish a sense of empathy and thus begin to understand another person's emotions. The infant continues to establish connections with other individuals' emotions and subsequently mirrors their movements.
Mirroring can establish rapport with the individual who is being mirrored, as the similarities in nonverbal gestures allow the individual to feel more connected with the person exhibiting the mirrored behavior. As the two individuals in the situation display similar nonverbal gestures, they may believe that they share similar attitudes and ideas as well. Mirror neurons react to and cause these movements, allowing the individuals to feel a greater sense of engagement and belonging within the situation.
"The feeling of belonging is inherent when you grow up in your family of origin. When you do not grow up in your family of origin, the feeling is alienating," – Jeanette Yoffe
#3 - Genetic mirroring serves as a validation of an adoptee's existence.
Genetic mirroring is important. Don’t discount the importance of DNA.
Be grateful you have your family, who looks like and has similar traits to you.
This is me with my adoptive family:
And this is me with my birth mother:
Appearance is the most obvious form of difference. My difference in appearance stood out as a constant reminder that I was not born from my mother and father which colored my entire view of myself. I was critical and judgmental of myself because of my difference in appearance. I did not resemble anybody else, even when I knew it brought me favor. Being of brown hair and hazel eyes, I felt the privilege and favor, but it didn’t diminish my criticism of myself and my feelings of inferiority.
As a child, I couldn’t accept compliments. They made me uncomfortable. Because I didn’t like or approve of myself, I thought, so why should anybody else? I couldn’t accept my differences because I tried so hard to be like them. I also felt, sometimes, that their comments weren’t genuine: they were “just saying that to be nice” because they are my mom and dad or because I was adopted.
Judgments on appearance can seep deeper into judgments about one’s abilities or about one’s character. Learning to validate and accept differences, to see the strengths in being different becomes a challenge for both adoptees and adoptive parents.
You don’t know how important it is until it is gone and even then, so many adoptees are not even aware WHAT they missed. But something is defiantly missing.
#4 - Important ways for parents of adoptees to assist their child in identity development.
● Talk openly about their foster care and adoption story, about the positive and negative aspects of the birth parents’ situation that led to their separation. Give pictures. If you do not know facts, you can say “I don’t know . . . but I imagine your birth mother might have cultural/ethnic roots in . . . ” This is their genealogical LOSS. ● Create a symbol of the child’s ethnic and cultural background i.e. carving tools, feathers, rocks, scarves, necklaces, and artifacts, and create a collage of the objects to be placed in the child’s room.
● Let your child know he can love or identify with the positives of birth and their foster family. Be clear that your child does not need to choose between one or the other! Help your child to know that YOU are glad that some of his fine talents probably were given to him by his birth parents. Show respect for his cultural, ethnic, and racial roots.
Tip #5 - The lifelong process.
How one perceives their difference contributes to attitudes around one’s Self, which ultimately shapes how one engages their life moving forward. The search for self for the adoptee is a lifelong process of learning about one's past, in order to make sense of the present and to be open to the future...
And that’s why in my opinion, genetic mirroring is extremely powerful in our development.
For adoptees, learn more about your DNA, here are some resources:
Mirror Activity Created by Betsy Forrest, M.S.W., L.S.W.
Rochat, Philippe; Passos-Ferreira, Claudia (2008). "From Imitation to Reciprocation and Mutual Recognition" (PDF). In Pineda, J. (ed.). Mirror Neuron Systems. Springer. pp. 191–212. doi:10.1007/978-1-59745-479-7_9. ISBN 978-1-934115-34-3.