by Suzanne Handler
It’s true every family has its secrets, but every secret isn’t equal. It is the content of the secret that really counts. Secrets can be small and insignificant, such as planning a surprise birthday celebration for a loved one, or concealing the fact it’s actually mom and dad, and not Santa Claus, who buys and wraps the kid’s holiday gifts and places them under the tree. In such cases, secrets and those who keep them cause no harm. On the other hand, secrets that are traumatic, painful for any number of reasons or life changing can be potentially damaging to the mental health and well-being of an entire family, both in the present and for many years in the future. The most frequently kept secrets within a family include, but are not limited to, finances, serious health issues and death, and impending divorce. Keeping family secrets from children may be the most harmful practice of all. Here are five reasons why:
1. Keeping secrets can destroy relationships
Keeping secrets can cause a breakdown in communication and trust. The result is the bond between parents and children can be weakened permanently. “If you didn’t tell me about X, then why should I believe you about Y? And why should I bother telling you about Z?” That’s the question you’ll face when your children are young, and even as they grow into adults, if you choose to keep important secrets from them.
2. Keeping secrets can impact the lives of children
Children are extremely perceptive and may become alarmed or anxious if they sense something of a serious nature is being hidden from them. The most damaging scenario, as is sometimes the case, would be if one or more children in the family believe they are somehow personally responsible for whatever undercurrent is going on in the home.
3. Keeping secrets can cause suspicion and resentment
Keeping secrets within a family can ignite feelings of suspicion and resentment among family members. We would all like to believe the adults closest to us can be trusted, those we love and respect say what they mean, and what they say is truthful. Trust is severely compromised when younger family members learn a secret, especially one compounded by a lie, has been hidden from them.
4. Keeping secrets can create a false sense of reality
Keeping secrets within a family can create a false sense of reality, especially among children. Children learn about the world from the adults in their lives. When a parent, or someone outside the family, eventually tells children the truth, their world may feel shattered. Regardless of the child’s age, it should not be overlooked the impact of secrets on children can be profound. Parents who habitually keep secrets from their children should keep in mind the possibility they’re modeling behaviors for their children that can affect future generations, as well.
5. Keeping secrets can cause illness
Keeping traumatic secrets can result in excessive stress and guilt for the person carrying the burden of knowledge, even when that silence is thought to be the best possible option for all concerned. Physical symptoms such as anxiety, headaches, backaches and digestive problems can often occur when disturbing secrets are internalized, rather than shared, especially over a long period of time. Persons harboring such discomfort often turn to alcohol, or other addictive substances, to mask their pain. It’s important to remember both the person keeping the secret, as well as those who live with the secret-keeper, including young children, can experience similar physical and mental-health issues.
Choosing the right time and place to reveal a devastating or painful family secret is a difficult task for most parents and must be carefully done, ideally with the help of a mental-health professional. In the case of very young children, they need not know the details of long-held secrets that don’t directly involve them until they are capable of understanding exactly what they are being told. However, they should also be given age-appropriate information as soon as they’re old enough to understand. That way, they won’t be shocked or disappointed later on. By adolescence, details about some family secrets can safely be revealed, depending on the maturity level of the young person in question. And certainly by the time children reach adulthood, they are entitled to know most of the family secrets that have been kept from them, yet have influenced their lives in ways both known and unknown.
Suzanne Handler is the author of “The Secrets They Kept: The True Story of a Mercy Killing That Shocked a Town and Shamed a Family.” Visit her online at http://www.suzannehandler.com.