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Should you reveal family secrets to your children?

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Many families have skeletons in the closet — how can we break the cycle of silence in a way that is helpful?

Family secrets surround births, deaths, and infamous deeds. They can make honest family dialogue difficult, and revealing them requires the right words and circumstances, says French psychiatrist Serge Tisseron, who has some advice below.

What exactly are family secrets?

We can talk about family secrets in three ways. First, there is, of course, the unsaid. Families leave a lot of things unsaid, including little things — they don’t always tell each other of how they’ve spent their day, or share all of their thoughts and dreams. Second, revealing it is taboo  – people say it’s either something they’ll divulge later on, or that there’s nothing there. Finally, there’s a third criterion: family secrets are a burden for those in the know. They are never a throwback to happy times or incidents. People never know whether they should share them. Their doubt or hesitation, visible to others, is manifested through gestures, attitudes and facial expression.  

What kind of skeletons do families generally try to hide in their closet?

Usually they concern the circumstances of birth or death: the adoption of a child, procreation methods (either a surrogate birth or a donation of sperm), or an illegitimate birth. In terms of death, suicides, particularly unseemly and terrible deaths are often concealed. The person can’t talk or forget about it. They can also be fearful of the psychological damage such revelations might cause. 

Additional reasons might involve the family’s desire to protect its supposedly most vulnerable members: children, parents, or grandparents. Unfortunately, these secrets intended to preserve peace within the family are the very thing threatening it because of rules imposed to preserve them. For example, in a family where a grandfather’s suicide is kept secret, it would be required that no one mentions the circumstances of his death. This subject becomes taboo: no questions are asked and the whole family is affected. 

Are there less and more terrible secrets?

The gravity of each secret consists in its emotional charge. The more terrible it is, the more the person thinks about it and manifests his anxiety. It “takes hold” of him making him fear that it might be discovered. Keeping secrets today is all the more problematic since our culture constantly takes us back to it through books and news on television that tell stories so similar to our own. 

What can be the effects of a secret on those around us, especially our children?

A parent, keeping a secret, can behave unpredictably. Its faint “glints” can betray him. Children can see this and feel threatened by this ambiguity. In trying to guess the nature of this secret they might imagine something far worse than what it actually is. There are no specific symptoms they might manifest, but problems at school, irrational fears, feelings of guilt and shame could surface. Secrets, in general, are a heavy load to carry and can sometimes haunt several generations.  

What are the right circumstances for revealing a secret? 

We are not talking of revealing a secret. Rather it’s a confirmation, because often children suspect something has been hidden from them. It could be good to do this once this obsession has made you angry and unhappy. Explain your behavior, because it’s always important to tell the child that it’s not his fault. Until around the age of four and a half, children actually have a tendency to assume that they are responsible: “It’s my fault!” they think.

What is the right time to reveal a family secret?

It’s hard to say. Whenever your child asks you a question, you should always be able to answer it. The problem is how you go about it – often adults don’t know where to start. Before you talk, it could be good to consult a third party – a friend, a priest, or a therapist. Otherwise, you might become confused and tearful, which can be disturbing. It’s important that you find the right words to speak clearly and calmly with as little apprehension as possible.  

Does revealing a secret allows things to get back to normal?

The pain never disappears as if by magic. It’s important that various family members can get over the psychological consequences this revelation will inevitably provoke. No truth is therapeutic, but every secret is toxic. It’s a paradox you must learn to deal with. To heal, you simply need to accept that secrets are not so much an obstacle to truth that must be uncovered as to an honest family dialogue. Working on secrets makes the gears of family machine run smoother. The rules governing it evolve just enough for everyone to find his or her place. 

Contrary to how things were in the past, don’t we tend to reveal too much?

Forty years ago, it was the law of silence. Today’s tendency is to divulge rather than to hide. Celebrities and ordinary people have in common the desire to reveal their life, and many are those who dream of turning it into a best-seller. Sometime, it seems that silence, which so long enveloped family secrets, has given place to the exact opposite – a kind of openness verging on exhibitionism. So, this evolution is of a rather ambiguous nature.

Interview by Cyril Douillet

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