Family secrets: what do we tell the children ?

I am a keeper of secrets. Like a priest in a confession booth,  I have the responsibility of  holding and handling people’s most sacred and often times,  shameful secrets. One of the first contractual agreements I, like every therapist, enters into with a client/clients, is that of confidentiality. I commit to being the  professional secret keeper. There are times , however, when I am struck with a conundrum: should this  particular secret be revealed in the best interests of the family/partner/children, or is it more useful for me  to enable the person/people to manage holding this secret?

A couple arrived dishevelled, distraught and  in a state of dilemma. The night before her husband of many years had disclosed he was in love with another woman with whom he had been having an affair for the past year. Their  primary dilemma was whether or not to tell the children . I wondered why this  took me by surprise. It concretised a  known fact: that  today’s parents prioritise children over and above their relationship. So naturally their go to place when faced with such a  huge crisis is : lets call in the kids!

I say No kids! This is when parents have to be parents,  actually adults, and work out their own lives without co opting children into this space. Not yet anyway .. The look on their faces let me know they had a different view.  They were initially relieved . The perpetrator was relieved- he got to maintain his Superhero status with his kids a little longer whilst the mom, feeling as all  victims feel , longed for the support and exposure of dad as a cad , proof that is no hero at all. At the same time she felt protective towards this life long mate of hers . And as shame and humiliation seeped into her, she wanted to keep the secret to avoid her children seeing her as a failure.

I turn to the law , human  and sexual rights and social sciences for answers. And am often left empty handed and left to my own collective wisdom , values and devices on how to manage  family secrets from children.

What I do know is the impact of keeping a secret can cause alienation, distrust, and be a barrier to intimacy. I also know that a secrets have always existed but today’s families face special dilemmas about secrecy, privacy, silence, and openness. Google has to be the prime enemy of every family trying to keep a secret, right ?! Its easy for Generation X and Z to google whether or not a parent really has a degree from a particular institution , has more children reaching out to them on FaceBook or a police record.

The assumption is  that telling secrets–no matter how, when, or to whom–is morally superior to keeping them and that it is automatically healing. Clinically I have  learned that telling secrets in the wrong way or at the wrong time can be remarkably painful–and destructive.

Important considerations :

When should I keep a secret?

How do I tell a secret without hurting anyone?

How do I know the time is right?

I want to lead you down a path that will reveal to you that keeping   a secret is not a betrayal, rather a necessity. However you must maturely  weigh up the cost to benefit of disclosure. Confusing, right ?!

Im going to give you a few common secrets families keep and invite you to share your responses on to tell or not to tell, when to tell and how to tell.. with motivations for your answers.

  1. Your past sexual life – sex worker , multiple relationships, virginity status
  2. HIV status
  3. Child given up for adoption or child from another partner
  4. Infidelity
  5. Financial concerns
  6. Parental illness – physical or mental
  7. Parental childhood traumas, example a family suicide
  8. Rape /sexual violence/Childhood sexual abuse
  9. Criminal record
  10. Past alcohol /drug use

Ideally  we ought to avoid unnecessarily hurting our children at all costs. But bear in mind that the children are witness to your pain, said and unsaid. Your children are exposed to the tension you carry in your body as a result of shame, humiliation and trauma you have perpetrated or has been perpetrated against you.  The harm done to the children is in your withdrawal, disconnection , anger, or over protectiveness.  Telling the child may put an ugly name on why a parent has pulled away from the family, but it is, ultimately, naming a truth.

Family values include respect, honesty, trust, the right of everyone to dignity and  to privacy. Holding family secrets is the antithesis of these values. I believe you want to honour your values. This is the long term investment you place into your children . Here are a few points to consider , to guide you in your decision on whether or not to tell your family secrets to your children .

  1. Clarify why you feel compelled to share this information with your kids. If it’s out of anger or revenge toward an unfaithful partner , a deceased or living parent, and done to influence the children into your camp,  that’s obviously the wrong thing to do and damaging to the children.Separate the hurt and anger you personally feel toward the unfaithful spouse, abusive parent, your own shamed parts,  and their relationship with the children. Ensure you explain to the children that there are parts in all of us that have capacity to hurt ourselves and others, yet there are other parts which are loving and caring.
  2. Is this conversation even age-appropriate for the children?   

Consider the child’s age , their developmental level and their relationship with the parent who cheated, family member who abused you. Share in an appropriate manner, with just enough information that the child gets to understand your pain.

3. Consider what kind of relationship you want to have with your spouse (or ex-spouse), family members ,  in the future. 

Clear up your children’s confusion as they see you continue to engage /be married to a man who hurt you with infidelity, a parent who harmed you in childhood or a drug /alcohol, problem that needs ongoing rehabilitation .

Holding family secrets from children can  be terribly painful due to the feelings of exclusion and confusion  they experience. Use your own past behaviour to teach them your family values. Focus on this rather than the behaviour that caused you harm or shame. Your work is to find   peace  with your own actions and perpetrated harms. Your children will be relieved to know and even empathise with your pain /shame if you present it to them in a manner that is adult, contained and allows them to feel safe.

For more information on family secrets, contact me