Should You Tell Your Child Your Biggest Secret?

Some secrets can cause family tension.

Posted Dec 03, 2019

The following is a letter I received and the advice I provided.

Dear Dr. G.,

Keeping secrets is a real problem, isn't it? I really don't know how to manage my family secret. Let me explain. My husband and I are raising two daughters. The 15-year-old girl is actually my child from a relationship that I had prior to my marriage. My husband raised my daughter as his own since she was 6 months old. Her biological father wanted nothing to do with her. My husband adopted her. My 12-year-old daughter is the biological child of both me and my husband. The girls don't look anything alike. My younger daughter looks like my husband and my oldest daughter doesn't look like either of us. She has dark curly hair while the rest of us have lighter and straighter hair. She is also the shortest one in the family. 

You should know that the only ones who know the true story about my older daughter's father are my sister, my parents, my husband's parents, and of course, me and my husband. My husband and I have warned my sister and our parents to keep their mouths shut. We are always afraid that they are going to slip and make reference to our daughter's biological father, especially at family gatherings. I have had many arguments with our relatives about this. For some reason, my mother feels strongly that my daughter should know the truth. This Thanksgiving was particularly stressful because my mother was arguing with me (in the kitchen) about the problem with lies. I am thinking about starting to avoid my mother if she continues to push this issue. I am confused, though, because I know that my mother really loves both of my daughters.

You should also know that I have no idea where my daughter's biological father is currently living. He may or may not have a family and children. I met him when I was in high school. My parents and I moved away from that part of the country years ago. There is almost no chance that he will come looking for my daughter because he doesn't know where I live or my married name. I do, however, know about how people are connecting because of DNA tests and results and believe me that this is weighing heavily on my mind.

I really don't know what to do. Maybe we should have told my daughter years ago. If she finds out from another relative or from a DNA result, that will be a problem, right? We don't want her to see us as liars. On the other hand, maybe she has a right to the truth. Maybe, my other daughter should also know. This issue is causing family tension. And, I have also noticed that my older daughter has been acting a little differently lately. Maybe she is just being a teenager but my gut tells me that it is something more. She seems a little aggravated at me and my husband.

My husband and I have had a long discussion about what to do here and we have agreed to take your advice very seriously.

—A Confused Mom

Dear Mom,

I am so happy that you have reached out to me. Parents often ask me what to do about family secrets. I must start out by telling you that I am not and have never been a fan of secrets. Secrets breed tension and have the power to destroy families and trust in general. I have seen many families fall apart because of years of keeping secrets. On a more positive note, I have seen families become closer once secrets are revealed. 

Not all secrets are the same. Children need to know secrets about their own heritage. They do not, on the other hand, need to know that their parents had affairs. Here is the way to approach the decision about whether or not to make a secret public to your children. Ask yourself if your child has a right to know about themselves and if this secret will be beneficial to them by making things clearer. If the answer is yes then you should share the secret. If you want to tell your child a secret about your life simply to use your child as a confidante then please stop yourself. Find a therapist or a good friend instead.

Sharing secrets is never an easy thing and you must be very careful and thoughtful about the way that you do this. Your daughter has a right to know about her situation. She also has a right to your honesty. She will appreciate this. She will benefit from hearing the truth from you and your husband rather than from a DNA result or a slip of a relative's tongue. By the way, I wouldn't be surprised if she already suspects something but she may not be aware of what feels wrong to her. This may account for the recent change in her behavior that you have started to notice. You and your husband should also be aware of the recent research of Setoh, Zhao et al. (2020) which suggests that children who are lied to by parents have a trickier time with healthy life adjustment. This makes sense because children look to their parents for honesty and good role modeling.

Here is what I suggest in your situation. First, forgive yourself for holding on to this secret for so long. I am sure that you and your husband had the best of intentions and did not want to hurt your daughter. Next, arrange a time to sit down with your daughter to tell her the truth. Make sure to reassure her of your love. She will need that. She may cry and/or she may be angry. Allow her to express all of her emotions. Remain calm and loving. Answer any questions that she may have to the best of your ability. And, let her know that this is not a one-time conversation. She should be able to ask more questions over time. It is likely that her feelings and her questions will change over time. I suspect that she will feel some sense of relief because kids always sense tension and secrets. That is simply part of the human condition. 

Your daughter may or may not want to try to find her biological father. Curiosity is normal. Please reassure your husband that this is a possibility and this does not mean that he is not a good enough father. The two of you may want to support and help her in her pursuit. Ask your daughter if she wants to tell her sister what she has learned. After all, it is now her story to tell. I also think that telling your parents and in-laws that your daughter now knows the truth is a very good idea. Tell your daughter that you are going to do this. Over time, this will be quite beneficial. Tensions will decrease. I promise. In the short term, things may be a bit difficult because there will be a lot of emotional fallout but over time everyone will settle down and the family will begin to function in a much healthier way.

Good luck and please get back to me.

—Dr. G.

References

Setoh, Zhao et. al.,2020,Parenting by lying in childhood is associated with negative developmental outcomes in adulthood. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology,189.