Privacy, Secrets and Shame–Part XII: How to Reveal a Secret–When Kids Have the Right to Know

Posted on December 19, 2011 by

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So we left off with the concept that if a secret affects children, those children have the right to know.

This does not mean that you can use children to unburden yourself, like my patient did with her eldest daughter and her husband’s affair. That will yield only damage; your child is not your father-confessor.

But the same reason we use now to excuse not telling children  (‘it will only hurt/scare the child’) was used in my parents’ day to excuse not sharing information “with the kinder” that we would think outrageous not to share with kids today. Think back to Jennifer–born into a family where she was the only individual with her last name. No one ever explained this scenario to Jennifer, assumedly to spare her. But in honesty, isn’t a child more likely hurt–and quite aware of her isolation, despite the quiet–by not explaining her background, so obviously different from her siblings’?

It’s true that some of this issues are terribly scary. Who does want their child to think their parent can go under financially, can leave the child’s other parent, or, above all, can die and leave them? But the secrecy surrounding these topics only adds to the child’s sense of being ill-at-ease and afraid, and, as I’ve pointed out, this information should, by all rights, come from you.

I recommend that you generally broach the topic with an honest but simple piece of information, and–unless you must go on–reveal more gradually, thus opening the secret by degrees. And you will know how much and when to share by following your child’s lead.  You can wait for your child to ask before revealing all the gory details–that is how you know when the time is right.

I saw a couple in therapy who debated how to tell their young children about their upcoming divorce. So they decided on Sunday breakfast, and, with each parent and each of the two children in their usual seats, with cereal poured, Dad said, simply, “Your mother and I are going to be separating.” The daughter, the older one, more sensitive and a bit clingy, burst into tears and crawled into her father’s lap. The four-year-old son was silent as he chewed his soggy flakes, and then queried, “Dad?”

“Yes, son,” replied Dad, gently and encouragingly.

“Could you please pass the Raisin Bran?”

With a deeper interest in getting his sugared dried grapes than in perpetuating the conversation, let’s just say that this boy was not ready for a detailed explanation of who would be living where, what type of guys Mom was interested in dating, or when Dad would be bribing him with Chuck E. Cheese to cooperate ‘like he did at Mom’s.’

Parents usually know in advance that children will have different reactions to major news, and are well aware who will respond ‘well,’ who will act like a clod, and who will fall apart. So the parents will tell the child who will handle it best or the older child/ren, and then keep the secret from the younger or more emotionally vulnerable ones. But that is merely creating the unhealthy triangle discussed in the last post. It is in the same sense using a secret to collude against a third (and fourth and fifth, etc) person as the mother’s telling her daughter about the father’s affair.

And here’s a hard one: When you tell your children your bad news, don’t make promises you can’t keep just to comfort them. I saw a woman who had crushing headaches, truly debilitating. No medicine touched them, and she would curl up in agony when they struck, even in her car. Her husband was petrified as Leanne searched for an answer to her misery, but the parents did their best to keep the pain–as well as testing dates, doctor appointments, treatments, the whole nine yards–hidden from the children, two sons, 12 and 11. Needless to say this was something less than a success, for when pain and sickness dominate a household, it really isn’t a secret, no matter what doesn’t get said.

The answer to the headaches was some of the worst news possible–Leanne had lung cancer, and the cancer had metastasized to her brain. The time had come to tell the children that Leanne was truly sick. The elder son, Brian, was due to have his bar mitzvah in September, and Leanne, ever plucky and optimistic, pushed for not telling the boy until six months later, when the special day was over.  Her husband, George, much more the realist, insisted the time had come.

Leanne wanted to start treatment first, so it was not until the end of April that Leanne and George sat down the two boys and put to words the amorphous fear and suffering that pervaded the house, despite the parents’ quiet. Always sensitive and close to their mother, both boys broke down in tears when Leanne shared the news, and Leanne and George weren’t far behind. Leanne cradled her sons like she had when they were babies, and then held Brian’s face close to hers, looked him intently in the eye, and said, “Brian, I promise you, with all the fight I have in me, that I will be there for your bar mitzvah.”

In a coma by early July, Leanne passed away on August 1st, 6 weeks before the day she had sworn to Brian she was to be there for.

Tell your children what they need to know. Yes, tell them. And then tell them you’ll do your best, tell them you’ll try your hardest–but don’t promise your children something you can’t give.

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