My husband was in his 40s when he learned he had an older half-sister, courtesy of 23andMe. It was a shock, as neither of his parents had ever disclosed the history of this long-lost sibling. It also put into doubt the history he had been told his whole childhood.
No family is free of these kinds of stories. When my father wanted to discourage me from moving in with a boyfriend, he recounted a live-in ex-girlfriend who had run off with all his belongings while he was at work as proof that you never really know someone.
Is there any value to secrecy within a family?
When I didn’t move in with my boyfriend, citing my father’s story, my mother told me that she had been unfamiliar with that story. I was shocked that my parents didn’t know everything about what had happened in each other’s lives before they met. It made me wonder about the value of secrecy, especially within families.
As parents, we are constantly faced with the conundrum of how much to tell our children about ourselves and our lives before them, our mistakes, and our own poor choices. I was raised by parents who only allowed me to see a fairytale version of their lives, stripped of all conflict, and that put tremendous pressure on me to make my life should follow suit.
When I hit roadblocks in my own life, I felt like a failure
When I hit my 20s and struggled to generate a successful career and struck out to maintain a long-term romantic relationship, I had a deep sense of failure that my life wasn’t working out like my parents’ lives had seemed to. The only version of their history they’d told me was that they met at a bowling alley one spring, fell in love, married that fall, and began a family the following year.
I didn’t know then that their beginnings, like most, weren’t so perfectly orchestrated, and they each had painful relationships before crossing paths with each other. If my parents had been more honest with me about the struggles and challenges they’d experienced, it might have helped alleviate my sense of failure or at least normalized the struggle so I didn’t feel so alone.
How much of our past should we tell our children?
So how much should we tell our children? Much of what we disclose is dependent upon age and need. Teenagers are beginning to navigate the complexities of crushes, dating, and adult behavior.
Does it matter how much of our own experiences we share with them? According to Carl Pickhardt, author of Holding on While Letting Go: Parenting Your Child Through the Four Freedoms of Adolescence, it matters more than you might think. Pickhardt asserts that self-disclosure is a skill we should model for our teenagers — essentially, if we want them to share what’s going on in their lives, we must reciprocate.
He also asserts that “just as the teenager’s life story is part of their story, their [parents’] story is part of the teenager’s story, and in a healthy relationship, both stories need to be told.” The more we are willing to share our lives with our kids, the more we’ll promote strong connections by allowing ourselves to be honest.
Talking about our struggles helps our kids realize they are not alone
Minimizing or failing to share our struggles can create a false history that may give the impression that we didn’t have similar challenges. This robs us of opportunities to engage in conversations and storytelling that might offer helpful insights or, at the very least, affirmation that our kids aren’t alone in their struggles.
This idea of sharing our struggles is a complicated and intimidating prospect. I worried that if my husband and I shared our foolish choices with our daughters, we might empower our kids to do the same stupid things themselves. This seems to be at the heart of our parents’ reluctance to share their struggles with us.
Parents need to find the right balance of how much to share
The answer may lie in how much we choose to share, according to Tchiki Davis, a PhD in Social and Personality Psychology. Davis says that disclosure is the “Goldilocks Tool” where “not too little, not too much, but just the right amount of sharing is what we’re aiming for.” Essentially it would be best to consider what level of truthfulness is helpful. It may not be necessary to fully share the gritty details of your experience to show empathy and create a bond with your teen.
Furthermore, it turns out that disclosure is a healthy activity for teenagers to engage in altogether. Deakin University and the University of Oregon found that self-disclosure in teen girls is linked to better mental health, stronger connectedness, and less overall anxiety. The behavior of self-disclosure isn’t something teens or their parents naturally tend to do. It takes practice.
I’ve certainly struggled with sharing my own experiences with my daughters. It’s hard to chip away at that idealized perception of me that was so easy to maintain when they were little. But I realize that as the realities and complications of life begin to stack up during adolescence, the last thing my kids need is a view of me that isn’t realistic or achievable.
The more I humanize my own struggles, the more my kids and I can find ways to connect. This ability to communicate with each other will be a far more potent tool to help them survive the struggles of adolescence than using secrecy to create an unattainable sense of perfection.
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