Joanne Stern, Ph.D.

Joanne Stern Ph.D.

Parenting Is a Contact Sport

Talking with Your Kids about Your Past

Should your kids know about your past?

Posted Apr 12, 2010

  At some point your teen will probably ask you about your troubled past. I remember the day my daughters, wide-eyed and expectant, asked me, "Mommy, what is the worst thing you ever did when you were young?" Not only were they curious, but I think they were testing me to see how I would respond-if I'd tell them the truth.

I knew it was important to keep my parent/child boundaries crisp and clear and to also share at age appropriate levels and depths. Before they hit the inquisitive teen period, I responded briefly to their questions, and that satisfied them. It set the stage for much deeper conversations as they got older-about boyfriends I'd had, about drug experimentation, about drinking. I was truthful because I couldn't figure out why my daughters would share honestly with me if I didn't share honestly with them.

If you are initially put off by your teens' intrusive questions, understand that this inquisitiveness is an invite and a wonderful opportunity for them to be more connected with you. Your children want to know who you are because you are one of the most influential people at a critical time in their lives. They are most interested in how you dealt with sex, drugs and alcohol because these are the topics that come up for them, that baffle them-even when they are very young. They also want to know about the stupid mistakes you made, the devious pranks you pulled and the trouble you got into as a kid. How you answer them when they ask about your past sets the framework for how they will interact with you as they grow into adulthood.

Here are the key do's and don'ts of talking to your teens about your past experiences.

1. Don't avoid or change the subject.

I've seen parents get knocked off kilter when their child asks an unexpected question. What would you say if your child asked, "Mommy, did you ever smoke pot?" Would you him and haw, avoid or change the subject? Would you say, "You're too young; we'll talk about it later?" Sadly, with many parents, later never comes.

And your child learns a big lesson:
• "Don't ask Mom about drugs."
• "I can't talk to my parents about what's going on in my life."
• "If my parents don't share with me, why should I share with them?"
• "I guess there are certain things we don't talk about in this family."

The gulf between you widens. Not because your child is bad or rebellious, but because you're not keeping up, you're uncomfortable, you're afraid. Soon he stops talking to you, quits asking questions. Now you've lost contact, you've damaged your relationship and you're no longer connected. You've destroyed your ability to be your child's mentor, coach and guide.

The fear of most parents is losing their kids-to their peers, to drugs and alcohol, to technology and media. The more you treat your kids with respect, refrain from judgment and criticism and practice appropriate mutual sharing, the more likely your kids will talk with you. You'll be in their loop, not strangled by the loop they create with their peers. You'll have the chance to be involved in their daily lives in a caring and meaningful way.

2. Don't lie or fabricate the truth.

A client recently told me, "Oh, I would never tell my kids what I did when I was young. I was so wild and crazy, I'm just lucky to be alive." Parents are often afraid that if they tell their kids what they did, their kids will run right out and do the same things. I understand parents' fear of an if-Mom-and-Dad-can-do-it-so-can-I frame of mind. They think it gives kids permission. But not to share appropriately when they ask closes the door between you and leaves them alone on the other side

If you get into the habit of telling untruths to your kids when it's difficult to be honest, you're riding a very slippery slope.
• You run the risk of damaging their trust in you irreparably.
• You give them the message that it's ok to lie when the truth is painful.
• You have to surrender your expectation that they will tell you the truth about the difficult things in their lives.
• You abandon the goal of open communication with them.

When you talk with your kids about your own failures and experimentations, be sure to emphasize that you don't condone the things you did. It's not just what you say, but how you say it that matters. You can share with them that there are some things in your past that you're not proud of, and you want to help them learn from your experiences. They will respect you for being truthful, and your honesty will be a model for them.

3. Do keep communication lines open whether your teen is acting appropriately or not.

Even when your child shuns you or chooses not to share with you, it's your responsibility to keep the door open and continue to let him know you're there for him.
• When you continue to share, it demonstrates that you are human and approachable because you once had the same kinds of feelings and curiosities about sex, drugs, etc... as your teen does.
• Though you hope your teen doesn't have to learn the hard way, you can still let him know you are still going to be there to listen and not judge.
• You can use your own past experimentations to warn your child about dangers he faces and to teach him how to make better decisions than you did.

By reinforcing the concept that no one is perfect, your kids will feel less afraid to talk with you when they make a mistake. When they trust you-because they know you've been there and you know how hard it is-you will have the opportunity to help them navigate the predicaments of their lives.

4. Do always tell them the truth.

Your kids tend to do what you model for them. When you are honest with them, you can expect them to be honest with you. If you tell them the truth:
• You will build strong, positive relationships based on trust. They will feel more comfortable coming to you in the future with their problems
• You will show respect to your kids by trusting them with your "stuff" as you want them to trust you with theirs. It will bolster their self-esteem and make them feel more mature and confident
• You will reinforce the importance and the value of honest of communication in your family.

Telling the truth isn't just a moral thing to do, it's also a psychologically healthy thing to do. The more honest your relationship with your kids, the more you teach them to live with emotional health and integrity. The bonus is that you will be able to have more involvement in their lives.

5. Do talk about your past with appropriate boundaries and common sense.

Some parents find it easy to open up about their troubled past to their kids, but others have made huge mistakes that still produce guilt and shame. Even though the mistakes are painful, it might still be important to share them. Remember these tips for sharing your past with your kids:
• If you've gone through some unsavory experiences that you'd like to blot out of your history and there's nothing beneficial your kids could learn from hearing the details, then spare them.
• You can still own up to the fact that you made big blunders. Tell them how you feel about those blunders and that you've worked through them emotionally, moved beyond them and think there would be no merit in sharing them.
• Your openness and honesty will let your kids know they can trust you with their own experiences.

It's a balancing act to know what to share and what to keep to yourself because every parent-and also every child-has a right to a private life. A guideline for determining where to set your boundary is to think carefully about what would be useful or valuable to your children and also consider what could be detrimental to them, frighten them or simply creep them out. It might be helpful to make a list of things you want to share with your children about your past and your experiences so you're ready when they are. You can make the list right now, no matter what ages your kids are, because there are no topics that can't be talked about at any age. No topic is inappropriate. It's only the depth and detail of the conversation that needs to be tailored to meet your child's age.

With these boundaries, you can build a strong relationship with your kids, a foundation of rich mutual sharing and a level of trust that makes you the one they talk to-and listen to-even during the tough times.

Please see my latest book, "Parenting Is a Contact Sport: 8 Ways to Stay Connected to Your Kids for Life" 

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