There can be a lot of ‘secrets’ in some families, such as health or relationship issues, that family members simply do not speak about or refer to. At times children don’t know the content of the secret, they just know it is something they don’t talk or ask about.
Do you remember what it was like for you as a child to have a secret? If it was your fun secret to have, that could be great! If, however, it was a secret in your family – something hidden or hushed – it probably often left you feeling very confused and with many questions. Children can carry this as a heavy burden. They may ask people outside of your family to help them understand, or they may never ask yet listen intently to adult conversations for a clue as to what is going on.
This week in our ’10 Ways’ parenting tips series, we explore how the types of secrets that parents tell can cause challenges within their families, and how to communicate openly with children about them.
- Many parents, when they separate or leading up to a separation, try to keep it secret for a length of time. Children may find this very challenging. It would be better if children had permission from parents to talk about what is going on at home with close friends and family if they wished to. It can be hard at times like this for children to talk with parents, when they can see how upset parents may be.
- Children who don’t know one of their parents can have great curiosity around this. It may be a secret as to who the parent is; maybe the child is told fairy tales to explain where they came from. However, children are clever. They know they have two parents and leaving them without this information can lead to great confusion and identity challenges. Also it can create challenges in the playground as other children may see them as an easy target for bullying. Children usually want to be the same as every other child. They need information to feel confident about their family form.
- Children who are adopted often don’t know this to be the case, even though other family members will know. Children always tell other children what they know about them. It doesn’t take much in a small community for children to overhear stories about class mates. Telling children the truth about where they came from and who their family is equips them for a more confident passage through childhood.
- When there is abuse of any form in the home, addiction issues, or mental health problems, it can leave children confused and worried. It is really important that one parent can help a child to understand what is going on in their family. Children need permission to talk with trusted adults about things that worry them, be they other family members or child and family support professionals. It is okay for them to ask about why parents fight, to ask why one parent may stay in bed a lot, or what death is.
- Try to adopt a policy in your home of talking, voicing concerns and sharing worries with trusted people. Don’t ask children to keep things a secret. Don’t tell them not to talk about certain things. Share with them what is appropriate about their family life.
- So many times children have told me that they know the truth about something in their family but that their parent doesn’t know they do, or they don’t want to upset their parent by telling them that they know. Give them support or ask someone in your family or circle of friends to help them to understand.
- Children need to be free to grow, to live and to laugh. Holding onto so many secrets can only impede their journey through childhood. Think about what secrets your family holds and what this may be like for your child.
- Try to talk with them, be open about the difficult, awkward or sensitive issues that exist. Often once you start talking, these issues are no longer as big as they seemed.
- Once children have age appropriate levels of information, they will not be as inclined to worry and they will feel safer. Children are resilient once they are equipped with what they need.
- Trust is the foundation of positive relationships. Build your relationship based on trust and you will not go wrong.
Next you might like to read Talking to Your Children about Your Family.
This week’s ‘10 Ways’ parenting tips is written by Geraldine Kelly, One Family’s Director of Children and Parenting Services.