Many people have chapters of their life that they may be hesitant to tell their children about. Ask yourself 5 questions as you weigh the pros and cons.
Is my child very likely to hear about my past from another source?
When I was in middle school, my friend learned of her father’s affairs and pending divorce by overhearing adults talking at a family gathering. If family members, friends or neighbors know about your past, there is a good chance your child will eventually hear about it too. Is it important that they hear it from you?
Is there an uncomfortable secrecy in your family?
Not sharing such experiences can lead to an uncomfortable secrecy in some families. Obviously, what you share, how many details you give, and when you disclose them will be age and situation appropriate. Will your children feel empowered within your family from knowing what the others know? Will the initial upset they feel upon hearing it be less than the damaging effects of hiding secrets?
Am I clear about my motives for doing this?
- Children respect parents who are honest with them, but you have the right to your privacy. If you don’t want to reopen old wounds, don’t feel obligated to do so. Will you be sharing from a place of free choice, self-imposed pressure, or outward compulsion?
- David Sheff, comments on a parent’s common motivation for sharing about a past drug addiction:
Parents’ hands are tied. If you lie, you put your entire relationship on the line, risk being caught in a lie and ruin any trust you’ve built over the many years of parenting.
But if you come clean, you run the risk of showing your kid that it’s fine to try anything because, hey, you’re still here to talk about it.
Either way, “It’s not going to determine whether your kid uses or not,” says Sheff. “The reason kids are going to use or not use has almost nothing to do with what their parents say.”
Sheff continues, “It has to do with the relationship you have with your kids, and how open are they going to be with you,” he notes, “and how involved in their lives you are to perceive the struggles they’re having below the surface.”
Have I made peace with myself [and my God] about my actions?
“There are shameful things that parents feel, and they have to come to terms with that first,” says Eileen Bond, supervising faculty at the University of Michigan Center for Child and Family and a clinical social worker.“Shame should not contaminate their response. And that requires reflection.”
When making peace with past experiences, many people turn to a counselor, clergy person, chaplain, support group, or spiritual director. What are your resources for reflecting and processing toward a place of greater peace before discussing it with your children?
Is my child judging and criticizing others?
An anonymous mother says: My 12-year-old daughter had been flipping through television channels when she stopped on a talk show about women who’d had abortions. “Those women must be awful,” my daughter said scornfully. “How could anyone kill a baby like that?”
At that moment, I knew that I wanted to tell my daughter about my own past. I offered a silent prayer, then burst into my story.
“Those women aren’t necessarily awful,” I began. “Sometimes they’re simply trapped. I had an abortion when I was a teenager. I was young and scared, and I thought abortion was my only option. Eventually I met and married your awesome dad, and we were blessed to have you.”
My daughter was crushed. “She cried like a baby about my past. I felt terrible, but I knew I was right to tell her and I believe she won’t go on being judgmental toward women who’ve had abortions.”
Older children are insightful enough to know you have things you aren’t proud of. How will your honesty make you more believable and approachable? What will be the reward for self-disclosure?
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