BY KAREN L. RANCOURT
I am often asked for advice by grandparents whose grandchildren ask them about some family secret.
Families keep secrets for a variety of reasons, including: divorce; mental illness; alcoholism or drug addiction; rape; extra-marital affairs; sexual issues and various types of sexually transmitted diseases; adoption; prison sentences; job loss; gambling; suicide; abuse.
Julie Tilsner, humorist and author, has written an article, “Why It’s Okay to Lie to Your Child (Sometimes)”. She differentiates between white lies or little whites (“No, that’s not chocolate on my breath; you are smelling raisons. Want one?”), social lies (“Just say you like Aunt Carol’s purple hair so you don’t hurt her feelings”), protective lies (saying “Yes” when a three-year-old child asks her mother if she will live forever).
Although a lie may fall into the category of a protective lie, family secrets can be a double-edged sword. Good intentions are often initially behind family secrets, perhaps trying to protect someone from being either physically or emotionally hurt. However, maintaining those secrets often leads to lies, and lies can lead to family members who are being lied to feeling powerless, angry, and distrustful, especially younger family members when they sense something is being kept from them.
As educator and counselor John Bradshaw, known for developing the PBS series Family Secrets points out, while there are dysfunctional family secrets, there are also family secrets that help a family function well.
I agree with Mr. Bradshaw that most family secrets can survive the light of day, but in deciding whether to shine a light, I think a critical factor is who has ultimate responsibility for maintaining or exposing a family secret. A grandparent does not want to lie or deceive a grandchild in any way, but by the same token, some family secrets are not up to a grandparent to disclose.
In these situations, a grandparent can say that they don’t have an answer for the grandchild, and they will do what needs to be done to get him/her an answer. Then the grandparent can inform the appropriate parties of their grandchild’s questions, and a response can be formulated that takes into account the circumstances, the grandchild’s age and level of maturity, and the short- and long-term implications of what should and should not be shared.
As counter-intuitive as it may seem, there are times when the use of deflection and/or omission is the initial best course of action in responding to a grandchild’s inquiry about a family secret.
About the Author
Karen L. Rancourt, Ph.D., writes an advice column for parents and grandparents at Mommybites.com and is the author of Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Help Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts