Caring Currents

The Secret Life of Parents

Last updated: Dec 12, 2008

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When you're a parent, it's hard to know how much to tell your children about the hard realities of the adult world. Like any parent, I want to shield my children from news that will worry or frighten them. I furtively hid a magazine that featured lurid photos of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, for example, and I haven't told them the full story about a friend who committed suicide. At the same time, I know that when I was a kid I could always sense when my parents weren't telling me something important, and not-knowing made me worry more than the truth ever could have.

I was thinking about this recently because I have a number of friends and acquaintances whose parents concealed serious health concerns, or economic difficulties, because they didn't want their children to worry. One friend's mother was very ill, for example, and her father down-played the seriousness of her condition because, as her mother later told her, "There was nothing you could do, so what was the point of bothering you about it?"

Another friend's father was dying, and her mother didn't want her to come home because she thought it would be painful for my friend to see her father so ill. She also insisted there was nothing she could do to help. My friend wanted to say goodbye to her dad. She also wanted to support her mother, but her mother was so adamant that my friend put off going home, and her father died before she could see him again.

In many instances, parents keep secrets from their children out of life-long habit. It's a natural human instinct to protect one's child -- even if that child is now an adult. Most of our parents also grew up in an era when one was expected to endure difficult times with a stiff upper lip and a reverence for privacy. And many parents keep painful information from their children out of pride, because they don't want to appear needy or dependent.

But the trouble with secrets is that they create distance and alienation at a time when we most need support and connection. At the same time, just like young kids, adult children are likely to sense that something is wrong, whether their parents tell them or not, and that uncertainty creates it's own doubt and anxiety.

The reverse is also true: I have a friend who lost her job recently, and she didn't want to tell her parents because she was afraid it would worry them. But because she was withholding such a major secret, she avoided calling her parents altogether, which worried them so much that they tracked her down and demanded to know what was wrong.

There's an Alcoholics Anonymous slogan that goes something like this: "You're only as sick as your secrets."  When it comes to the secrets we keep from those we love, it's perhaps also true that you're only as lonely as your secrets.

Do your parents or other elderly relatives keep important information from you -- or vice versa?

Image by Flickr user Happiness, under the Creative Commons attribution license.