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

By Elizabeth Foy Larsen

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."

This doesn't mean you have to become a tell-all household. A couple of topics in particular fall into the category of TMI, says Katherine Yost, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in Bellevue, Washington. "Kids never, ever want to be burdened with the details of your sex life," she explains. "They also don't need to know specifically what led to a divorce, which invites them to take sides." And there's a difference between keeping something hidden and maintaining your privacy. "A secret is something that feels shameful," Yost says. "But everyone has areas labeled 'personal and off-limits.'"

For many parents the dilemma about full disclosure becomes problematic when the subject is their own youthful misadventures, especially if alcohol or drugs were involved. There's no hard-and-fast rule about what to reveal, says Heyman. "You're allowed to respond, if asked, 'That's private.' But it's not a good idea to lie. If you decide to tell, use your story to explain what you learned and want your kids to know, says Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes and a Family Circle columnist. "Say something like, 'Yes, when I was your age I did some things I regret, and this is what I now know,'" she says.

While there are valid reasons to be secretive, sometimes the justification is suspect or at least muddled. We may think we're protecting our kids, for example, but we may also be protecting ourselves, suggests Caughlin. "People worry that their children will lose respect for them," he says. That's what concerned Beth (names have been changed), a Minneapolis mother who only recently told her sons, 12 and 15, that she was previously married in her early twenties. "It was an impulsive thing and even though it was a long time ago, I was uneasy about it," she says. "I wondered if they'd see me differently if they knew the truth, but it didn't change a thing." Parents may also avoid topics because they've got more emotional work to do themselves, says Yost. "It's pretty tough to know what to talk about and how," she says, "when you're still not clear yourself."

In the end, though, the benefits of coming clean—in a thoughtful, careful way—may bring a family closer. In fact, says Caughlin, for most people, the outcome is better than anticipated. That was true for Greg when he confided to his 16-year-old son, Bryan, that he'd been married before. A few days later, coincidentally, Bryan bumped into a high school friend of Greg's who assumed Bryan's mom was Greg's first wife. "I was able to correct him," says Bryan. "But I would have been really confused if my folks hadn't already filled me in." The new openness also strengthened the relationship between father and son. "My dad has always been very shy and reserved," Bryan says. "I realized that doesn't mean he hasn't had experience. Now I feel like he might understand more of what I go through."

There could also be deeper long-term benefits. "Kids take their cues from us," says Yost. "If we make it safe to talk about uncomfortable subjects, they'll feel freer to come to us about important things when they need help." In fact, what may matter most is not the details of the story but the deepened bonds created when openness and honesty prevail.

Telling All

Every parent has to choose what to share with kids and what to withhold, but there are guidelines to assist you in the decision making.

Does my child have a right to know?

It depends. Facts related to your child's genetic makeup—for example, if she's adopted, was conceived with a donor egg or sperm, or is at risk for serious inherited conditions—need to be revealed because they could directly affect her health. Similarly, information concerning safety should be aired. If there's a relative who's not safe to be alone with, for example, she needs to know why. A teen should also be informed about family financial problems, especially if the truth will help her understand why you're steering her toward community college, cutting back on the sports lessons or complaining about her cell phone bill.

Is she likely to find out anyway?

When too many people already know, or evidence will be difficult to hide, the decision shouldn't be difficult to make. If you're divorced because your ex-husband had an affair and the entire neighborhood found out, that's probably something your child should hear from you and your ex. And anything ongoing, like a cancer diagnosis that will mean obvious changes to your health, mood and availability, should be disclosed.

Can he handle the information?

Maybe your 13-year-old son would be troubled or angry if he knew your first husband was physically abusive, in which case you may decide to stay silent. On the other hand, if he's figuring out his own personal ethics and is looking for feedback about bullying, this could be a good opportunity to share your personal perspective, provided you discuss it calmly and reveal only as much as is appropriate for his level of maturity.

Open Season

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.