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We all have secrets we want to keep from our children, maybe because we think it’s personal, maybe because our children are too young, maybe because we’re not clear about how we feel about it ourselves. There are also many things we’d like to protect them from because let’s face it, our world is full of ugliness.
And there are secrets we don’t even know we keep. Family secrets, childhood wounds, traumas, that influence our reactions and behaviors without us even noticing.
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We Often Lie To Protect Our Children
Lying and secrets go hand in hand. I learned that the common way, with pain and regrets. When my children were younger, their dad had periods where he was depressed, which resulted in a short temper and bad moods. In those periods, after their dad would lose it and eventually go out for a walk, the kids would look at me expectantly and wait for an explanation on this weird and scary behavior. And now that I look back, I can see how my answers were unsatisfying, and, actually, lies: « daddy is tired », « daddy just needs some air ».
I wanted to protect them. I wanted them not to resent their father or me. I was feeling guilty somehow.
One day, when my husband was in a bad mood, my daughter asked him “are you not fine?” to which he answered, “I’m perfectly fine”. I could see that my daughter didn’t know what to make of that, with her father’s body language and tone being everything but fine. And I realized we were doing more wrong than good by lying to them.
Children can tell/feel when someone is lying. As Françoise Dolto, a revolutionary French psychoanalyst said, you cannot lie to the subconscious. Since they know we lie, they can only wonder why we do it, and what is the big secret behind the lie. Often working their imagination in something far worse than the actual truth.
But we don’t only lie to protect our children, we also lie to protect ourselves, from a difficult conversation, from guilt, from lack of explanations. Behind every lie, every secret, there is a pain. And while our children don’t know the origin of the pain, they witness it, they live with it.
Witnessing their parent’s emotional pain but not knowing where it comes from can have several effects on children:
- If they’re very young, they might think they are responsible for their parent’s pain, because young children are egocentrics.
- As they grow older, they might start to distrust their parents, imagining them guilty of terrible things, that they are lying to hide, and losing confidence in them.
- A third effect can be a loss of confidence in themselves if their parents tell them that what they saw or heard, is not as they believe it is. The children will therefore second-guess their own abilities. Think of the child who enters his parent’s room, see them making love, and the parents saying that they weren’t doing anything.
« We think that hiding the truth is the best way to help children, but when we explain to them what happens, we give them the opportunity to build their resilience. We equip them for life ». – Berenice Goin
I cannot stress that enough: children know when we lie to them, or when we hide things from them. It is often our own cowardice or feeling of powerlessness that makes us lie. It doesn’t mean that you cannot adapt the message to the age of your child, or give the information little by little. But the truth gives them a chance to understand, accept, and feel trusted.
A Good Reason You Better Not Lie To Your Children
There are things that we don’t want to tell children. A friend of mine was molested by her grandfather as a child. After that, the grandfather was never to be spoken of, nor what happened should be mentioned to cousins, for it would traumatize them to know their grandfather could do such a horrible thing. Of course, those same cousins must have found it very strange that their grandfather just disappeared.
Family secrets aren’t always about abuse though. I used to work with several refugee families from ex-Yougoslavia who fled the war and the whole wartime, the family members who disappeared, the violence, was never to be spoken of. When trauma is too big, we tend to try and bury it.
« When can we make use of truth, and when is truth too much? How is it that a truth which we could not handle, or we were afraid would overwhelm and possibly cause one to fall to pieces, one day becomes something ordinary, if sad? » – Grant Hilary Brenner MD, FAPA
In order for an overwhelming truth to become more acceptable, your best option is to speak about it. Think about it this way: no matter how hard is the truth you have to say (mom had a miscarriage, daddy has cancer, grandma is dead, the bank is taking our house, …) at least, once it is said, you can speak about it, as a family and start processing emotions.
Telling the truth shows your children that you have faith in their ability to cope with it, and giving them room to speak about it together tells them that they can trust you with any secret.
Remember my friend who was molested? How can we ask children to keep no secrets from us if we keep some from them? They will wonder in which category their secret falls: the ones we say or the ones we keep quiet about?
Telling the truth is fundamental in a family, remember it with our cheat sheet
Big Lies And Little Lies
Nowadays a lot of parents agree that telling the truth is important, but according to different research, this desire for transparency disappears when the topics are more important, like origins, death, adoption, or medically assisted procreation.
Yet, it is in the important subjects that truth is more important than ever. If you’ve been watching Netflix and tell your kids you were working, they will read in your body language that something doesn’t add up but it won’t keep them from growing into healthy adults. But if you had several miscarriages before you got pregnant with them, this piece of information is important.
When I was one year old, my eldest brother died of leukemia. This was a terrible trauma for my family and they wouldn’t speak about it. I was not allowed to ask questions or mention my brother. There was one picture of him in the house and that was it. He was like a ghost.
But this brother had a big impact on my life. My parents were terrified something might happen to me. By 12, I was deeply convinced that my death would kill my parents, and my grand-parents of pain, hence I didn’t do many fun things that could be “dangerous”.
The thing is, I didn’t know why my parents were acting the way they did, and I grew up thinking that the world was a very dangerous place. It is still hard for me not to pass on those fears to my children.
Another example where truth is fundamental is adoption. As a social worker, I supported several families who had adopted a child. By the time I was supporting them, those children were teenagers. It was clear that the fewer secrets around their adoption, the better their mental health and general balance. It is not only the truth about their adoption itself but everything around it: the path of their adopting parents, the process, the birth parents, the situation in which he/she was adopted, the environment he’s/she’s from,… There is something special about truth in adoption, for knowing where we are from is an important part of our identity.
« A child always has the intuition of his history. If he’s told the truth, then this truth develops him as a person. » – F. Dolto
Children Are Truth Seekers
Humans in general are truth seekers. This is the way we work. Our thirst for truth has brought humanity to modernity, has given us technology and medical science. We left superstition and dark times behind.
Children are just like the rest of us and their mind works in a scientific way. When a baby is born, he is only sensation and emotions. To turn those into thoughts as he grows up, he will experiment. Trial and error, until a pattern, a law emerges and becomes the truth. Another way for children to learn is to ask their parents or observe them, to check if their assumption is correct.
“Thinking is driven by the human need to know the truth — the reality of who one is and what is occurring in one’s life » – Thomas Ogden
Denying any truth to our children is an obstacle to healthy development. Not only do we keep them from doing what they were born for, seeking the truth, but we hurt the relationship we have with them.
Most of the time, a child will not denounce a lie from a parent. Sometimes because he is not allowed to (think of illegal immigrants), but mostly because of the emotional bond a child has with their parent. A child cannot question the idealized image of their parent, because they need it, the loss would be too great.
So keep this in mind: if you lie to your child and he doesn’t say anything, it is not that you are a good liar, it is that they need to idealize you, even if it means bending the reality in order to do it.
How To Tell The Truth
At this point, you might consider being more honest with your children in the future but wondering how to achieve that!
For big things you would like to share with your children, I invite you to read this post: How To Set Up A Difficult Conversation With Children that explains the basics of communication between adults and children, how to pass on important information and gives you some keys about child ages and understanding abilities.
Of course, some secrets can go back generations and we might not even know the original situation. A death, a rape, a war, a move to another country, an alcoholic great-great-grandfather. Any kind of trauma, may it be familial or national, if not healed can have affected the way your mother was raised, you were raised, you raise your children,…
Take action to prevent secrets in your family
Be attentive in your daily life, to observe if some situation seems to trigger you and make you react more than you should. If so, you can mention it to your children, so that they know it is all right to speak about it. Let’s say you got very scared as a little girl because a man tried to molest you, and now, if your child touches your breast by accident (maybe when hugging you), you reject them.
You can also think of what is not acceptable in your family (the one you grew up with) or ask your husband if there ever was something that surprised him in your family.
Wondering what it could be? Let’s say your great-great-grandfather was as alcoholic, and violent on top of that. Maybe alcohol is not a must in your family and when one of your guests gets drunk you have a hard time with it. You might not know, nor anyone in your family, that your great-great-grandfather had an addiction, but you can spot the symptom, the result in your family habits.
Again, you can adapt the message to the age of your child and to your sensibility. To take back the example of you rejecting your child when they come for a hug, you can tell them that a man hurt you when you were little and that as a consequence you don’t like it when someone touches your breast. Your child might come up with questions or not, maybe it will be in months or years, but the conversation is open, and your child knows you are not rejecting THEM specifically.
Thanks for reading this article! As always, I hope it gave you some line of thoughts to explore as well as ideas to act and create a positive change in your parenting life.
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I wish you all the best with your kids, always remember that we all do the best we can at a given moment, so never judge yourself harshly. Be confident and listen to your intuition. If what you do comes from a place of love, then you’re on the right path.
See you next week for another exciting article!