With any major family communication, it's wise to make a plan before proceeding.
Use outside support. Some secrets are so big or complicated that it's a good idea to see a family therapist first. The professional can help you decide whether you should divulge your information, and offer ways to tailor discussions to your child's age and personality.
Call for backup. It usually makes sense to have another adult with you. "Kids may feel more comfortable with one parent when talking about certain issues," says Joni Mantell, LCSW, director of the New Jersey-based Infertility and Adoption Counseling Center. "Involving Mom and Dad gives kids the option of whom they can follow up with." If you're single, Mantell suggests including someone your child feels close to and you both trust.
Pick a good time. Wait for a quiet weekend when you've cleared the schedule and can have a conversation that includes room for questions, says Imber-Black. Avoid divulging on holidays and around important family events, which are often already emotionally loaded.
Provide a shock absorber. Give your child some context and an early warning sign. Say, "I have something to tell you and I want you to know beforehand that it could be hard to hear." Then she won't feel blindsided and will understand that she has permission to be upset or mad.
Don't overshare. Skip explicit details in favor of general themes. A simple "I was hospitalized with anorexia when I was in college. I'll answer any questions you might have," allows your child to take in the information. Be sure to check in once in a while and let it be known you're available to talk.
Protect others. When a story doesn't belong to you, it's controlled solely by the person most affected. If a relative is ill and doesn't want the word leaking out, give the facts and then explain the need for confidentiality. You might say, "Grandma has Alzheimer's. We aren't ashamed of it, but it's private information. She wants to be the one to tell people when she's ready."
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.