Friday, October 12, 2007

Secrets and Therapy

I had no idea people still held onto them, secrets. (smiley emoticon here).

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.

Yourselves, silly.

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) . . .

Well, yeah.


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 the

body memories
whispers of others
unwanted tattoos
traumas after traumas

and other inevitable consequences."
Sounding like great family therapy stuff to me, all that tempting unresolved baggage.

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 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.

Imperfectly-in-so-many-ways yours,



Anonymous said...

"smoked, drank, shot up, slept around..."

What if you did all of those things and it didn't make you feel worse, it made you feel good? What do we tell our kids then?

therapydoc said...

To answer that, I'd need a lot more information. If there was/is no shame associated with those behaviors that could indicate an understanding of where they came from, which would probably have come from good therapy.

I'd definitely consult my local family therapist before talking to my kids in that case. It's not even a maybe. It's a definitely.

Anonymous said...

Do you have any posts on emotional incest? I would love to read them and any additional thoughts you have on the subject. I know I was incested in this way, and God love them, they still do it, even though they are now in their 80's. Love your blog, btw.

therapydoc said...

You know, I'm not sure that I do. I really should, right? Okay. One day. I'm not the greatest with requests, pretty much go where the spirit moves me, but I'll keep it in mind. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

The reason Bree is pretending to be pregnant is because her teenage daughter is pregnant. So they're hiding the daughter, and when the baby is born, they will pretend it is Bree's baby.
I love your post, by the way. When I was 15, out of nowhere, my mother blurted out to me that she had been married once before. I had NO idea and was so astounded I remember crying just from the shock of it. Part of the problem was how she told me (In the car one day, really out of nowhere) and we didnt have such a close relationship to begin with. To this day I still feel uncomfortable asking her questions about it. (I am in my 20's). I'm so glad she told me, but it was painful, which doesn't really make sense because the marriage had been 25 years beforehand and didn't really affect me. I think it was so painful because it was really the first time she had confided in me, or made any sort of "close relationship" move, and it was a BIG secret to start off with. I think it would have been less painful if we had had a close, honest relationship beforehand.

therapydoc said...

Perfect example of how and why this kind of revelation needs to be thought out ahead of time.

Thanks for sharing it with us.

doctor a said...

When I was 33, my mom told me she had briefly been married before she met and married my dad. My dad knew about it, but his parents didn't (& died never knowing this secret.) I remember thinking when she told me that I wish I had known that secret a lot earlier because it would have made the dynamics of our family a lot more understandable.

therapydoc said...

Secrets create a certain mist, like a fog. You think you see something, but you can't make it out.

Kids can handle reality, is the point. They go right back to what they were doing when they can file it all away intelligibly.

Anonymous said...

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@interesting health articles


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