But I watched the season premiere of Desperate Housewives, all about secrets, confirming that we do keep them. And then something random happened. A couple came in the very next day to discuss a few that they had deliberately kept from the children.
I exclaimed, You two are missing out on the most powerful parenting tool in the universe!
"What! What's that?" the marital dyad cried in unison.
Indeed. They looked at me incredulously and said, "Like we're going to tell the kids we. . ."
smoked, drank, shot up, slept around, gambled, cheated, lied (add to the list) . . .
So you're all thinking, TherapyDoc is out of the TherapyDoc mind, or couldn't possibly mean this. (That's what my patients thought). No, I really mean it. You don't have to tell all, of course. But something. Say something.
You do it when they're old enough to appreciate the pain and consequences associated with those behaviors. That's usually early adolescence, maybe even earlier, depending upon the child. The hard part is determining the child's readiness.
In the case above I could suggest that the couple bring in little Joey or Joleen to see me (not real names) so I could make that determination. If you don't have a family therapist you're really stuck making the call on your own. You could ask friends or relatives their opinions. But they may not know your secret, either, and frankly, it's none of their business.
If you tell a child your secret, beware, do it judiciously. You can beg for confidentiality, but need to be ready to lose it. That's why it's nice to have this orchestrated by your local family therapist who can assess the child's capacity for that. It's generally limited.
But say you're not in family therapy and don't want to be. Then I'd suggest that the best time to tell kids about something embarrassing is about the age when kids are beginning to really struggle with individuation. Early adolescence. Between 12 and 14.
At this age they're already seeing their friends grasping at feel-good opportunities and they want to grasp at feel- good opportunities, too.
It helps to have the kind of relationship with your child in which he or she actually talks to you about peers. Then you already know which heroes are only acting out to try to feel good because they really feel bad.
And you can discuss with your child how those friends feel worse, eventually, as a consequence of trying too hard to feel good. Yet don't know why they're feeling worse, usually, and before anyone can spit
they're cutting, using "better" drugs, and complaining that they're REALLY depressed.
"Wanna' go that route?" you ask your kid, and continue, "Of course not. So learn from my mistakes. Doing (such and such) can hurt in so many unpredictable ways. There are theSounding like great family therapy stuff to me, all that tempting unresolved baggage.
whispers of others
traumas after traumas
and other inevitable consequences."
So back to television. You surely want to know what happened on that season premiere that got me going here.
Since I don't catch every episode and taping is always an experiment (yes, too cheap to pop for a digital TV and Tivo) I don't know exactly what's going on in the show. Like why is Bree pretending to be pregnant? These are things I count on you people to explain to me.
Still, I did manage to tape the season opener and Lynette has cancer and she's bald.
(Felicity Huffman is simply amazing in this episode, it's really worth watching just to see her. You can probably go to abc.com and watch this spot on your computer, of course.)
Anyway, in the opening sequence Lynette is in bed and wakes up and grabs for her wig because one of her kids is At The Bedroom Door and she doesn't want them, or anyone else for that matter, to know about her cancer.
She's been hiding it for months. At one point she's so sick from the chemo that she vomits in another parent's purse at a school production (she thought it was her mother's bag). The other parent had been nagging her to do her fair share of the work for a third grade PTA project (I may have the details wrong here and elsewhere). Lynette takes on the project rather than admit to this woman that it will probably be too much for her or why.
Later on, at a barbecue, the other mother accuses Lynette of still not doing the PTA job. She will hear no excuses, she says, pointing her finger at Lynette and blathering on about her own migraines and knee surgeries. Despite her problems, she does her bit for the school.
Lynette can stand it no longer and blithely removes her wig.
I have cancer, she says. Trump.
Reaction shot, "Oh. I'll find someone else." Exit. Stage left.
Lynette's friends have been looking on all the while. They're shocked, confused, upset. Hurt. How could she not tell us? Doesn't she know we love her? How could she keep this to herself.
Lynette tells them that she likes their friendship as it is, fun, special down-time. She enjoys the heck out of them, she doesn't want to become an object of pity. She wants to be with them and simply have a nice time. She uses them as a respite from her cancer.
Again. They're hurt. This is unacceptable.
They make a pact. No more secrets. We're friends. You couldn't have talked to us about this?
Secrets are a theme in the movies, dramas, comedies, and reality TV (I'm guessing about the reality TV; I get enough reality at work). And they're a theme in the therapeutic literature, too. And surely, I am suggesting thoughtful sharing of secrets with children.
Parents are people, not saints, not usually. Our kids know that. They suspect that. They want to know our histories, probably so that they don't repeat them. They want different lives. Not necessarily significantly different, but different. But more than anything, they want the respect that says, I trust you with my secrets. You're saying, I was ashamed here, don't shame me more. I trust that you won't. That's tremendous respect.
And they don't violate your trust. It's an intimacy thing. They're flattered. They feel closer to you. They know you.
Am I saying emotionally incest your child? Overwhelm a child with your problems? No, No, No. Obviously you have to be careful. You have to be sure to communicate that you're okay, that you're an adult and that you have worked through your childhood, and you are not laying an emotional trip on him to psychologically entrap him, damage him.
You have to be sure you're not doing that. You have to be sure, when you do this, that this isn't something that is going to interrupt your kid's studies, personal growth. Your life can't become your child's obsession.
So it's complicated, isn't it? But worth the discussion, perhaps.
There's a book by some family therapists on this subject, I think by Walsh & McGoldrick, who are family therapy "mothers." The book is about shame. I read it years and years ago. The point of the book is that there's something predictable about a family secret. If it doesn't come out in one generation, it will manifest in the next. It's one of those transgenerational things.
Your children really might repeat your mistakes if you don't discuss them.
So are you perfect? Or are you human? And will they love you if you're not perfect but are perfectly human? I think so.
By the way. October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Find a pink ribbon somewhere.