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What Secrets Should You Tell Your Kids?

Some family secrets need to stay that way, while others should be shared. Learn when and how to go for the big reveal.
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Illustration by Ellen Weinstein

On TV and online—practically anywhere—people are airing their dirty laundry. With so much personal information circulating for everyone to hear and see, it seems like telling all has become a national sport. But what's coming at us from those digital strangers is, in the end, just about ratings or attention. What goes on in real life is far different, says John P. Caughlin, Ph.D., professor of communication at the University of Illinois. "There isn't a family without at least one secret that never, ever gets discussed," he says. Maybe it's something smallish, like a cigarette snuck after the kids are asleep or a hangover passed off as the flu. Or it could involve bigger, tougher subjects—a health scare, a miscarriage, a bitter estrangement from a relative, a teen pregnancy or a dangerous adolescent escapade.

At first thought, it can seem sensible to maintain your privacy. After all, it's your right. And there are things your kids really don't need to know. But the truth has a way of revealing itself, and when that occurs in an unplanned way—a relative blurts it out, a conversation is overheard—there can be real, lasting damage. A child who stumbles onto a parent's lie is very likely to feel betrayed, or at least more skeptical about everything he's told from then on, according to a University of California, San Diego study. "There are some kids who will feel deeply hurt for a long time," says Gail Heyman, Ph.D., who conducted the research. "They'll think, 'If she lied about that, what else isn't she telling me?'" Or a child may come to the conclusion that his mom doesn't have much confidence or trust in him.

Even when nothing has been explicitly disclosed, the mystery can create relationship-damaging undercurrents of confusion and misunderstanding. "Kids sense something's being held back," says Evan Imber-Black, Ph.D., author of The Secret Life of Families (Bantam). "They'll notice when you change the subject abruptly or never bring up a certain topic." Your body language, too, is a giveaway. A boy who hasn't been told his uncle is clinically depressed might notice that his mom glances at the ground every time someone asks about her brother. The son may then conclude that his mother is being dishonest, and decide it's not safe to confide in her—especially if he has a similar problem, because he's learned that mental illness is so awful it can't be spoken about.

Ironically, shielding kids can cause more pain than actually knowing the specific secret would, because in the absence of solid facts, they'll invent their own. "I was counseling a couple who were splitting up but hadn't told their 8-year-old daughter," says Imber-Black. "She thought one of them was dying." Keeping children in the dark also prevents them from acquiring vital emotional tools. "Many of us are too afraid of having our kids experience negative emotions," says Heyman. "But being sad or upset when something troubling happens can be good for them. With us there to talk them through and offer comfort, they'll get practice in facing feelings and won't be so overwhelmed and devastated by losses and disappointments later in life."