Dear Dr. G.,
I am a 17 year-old girl. I am really mad at my parents. Apparently, my mother who makes most of the money for our family to live on, lost her job a year ago. My parents never told me or my brother. My mother even got up and pretended to go to work every day for the past year. I was suspicious that something was very wrong in my house when I started to overhear my parents argue about money. My brother and I talked about this and decided to talk about what was going on with my parents. During that emotional conversation, my mother admitted that she lost her job a year ago and that she didn’t want to tell me and my brother because she didn’t want us to worry. I think that this was such a stupid thing for my parents to do. They should have been honest with us. We knew that there was something wrong. We just didn’t know what it was. I am so mad at my parents for being so secretive. I wouldn’t have asked my parents to buy me things if I knew that they were having financial problems.
An Angry Daughter
I understand why you are angry. It is very difficult to live in a household full of lies because you can feel the tension and you have nothing to attribute it to. As a result, you may come up with all kinds of reasons that this tension exists that may even be worse than the truth. I am almost always of the opinion that we do better handling the truth than secrets. Secrets create tension and confusion. While the truth may be quite painful, it is almost always easier to deal with than lies and secrets. Human beings really dislike ambiguity and a lack of clarity. We want to know what is happening in our environments and what we might be able to do to help with the identified problem.
I hope that you told your parents what you are telling me. If you haven’t, then please find time to tell them that in the future you would like to be told the truth about any stressors going on in the family. You are certainly old enough to be told the truth. Children of most ages usually have a sense when something is not going well. I hope that you and your brother can rebuild trust with your parents and that your anger at your parents dissipates.
Perhaps you can use what happened in your family as a learning opportunity. There are many reasons why lying to children (or to other family members) is not a good idea. Let me explain.
1. Children almost always sense that there are stressors going on and the lack of knowledge about what is going on leads invariably to unnecessary tension and creative speculation. They may believe that the problem is actually worse than it is.
2. When parents withhold the truth in an effort to protect their kids, they are actually decreasing the trust level in the home. After all, when the truth inevitably surfaces the children will feel lied to and trust will be broken.
3. When parents lie to their kids, they are modeling that lying, is in fact, acceptable. This is never a good message to send.
4. When kids or anyone else for that matter is lied to, they feel irrelevant and unimportant. And, no one wants to feel this way, correct?
5. When parents are honest with their kids, this fosters better communication. And, we know that good communication leads to better relationships, better emotional and physical health and less susceptibility to peer pressure.
6. When parents lie to their kids, I have to wonder if they are doing this to protect themselves or their kids. In other words, think about what would be most helpful for your family as a system rather than easier for you as a parent. Sometimes, the more difficult thing to do is the right thing to do.
7. If family issues are not shared, then when they are revealed they may be experienced as shocking and alarming. This is why I suggest sharing issues with kids as they occur so that they don’t turn into bigger issues than they might actually be.
8. Kids in families want to have a role and be helpful. For example, if a family member is ill then the children can help out in a developmentally appropriate manner. If the stressor is dealt with as a secret, then kids cannot be given a helpful role. Everyone feels better and more important if they are needed.
9. By keeping secrets, parents inadvertently make their kids feel disconnected. It is very important for families to function as a team.
10. Dealing with stressors may actually facilitate the development of resiliency. So, in an effort to raise kids with grit, parents may do well to model how to deal with clearly identified stressors.
So, here’s to the telling the truth. I hope that you have learned from your parents’ missteps even if they were intended to protect you and your brother.
Dr. Barbara Greenberg, PhD is an adolescent, child and family psychologist who practices in Fairfield County, Connecticut, after 21 years of running an inpatient adolescent unit at a private psychiatric hospital in New York. She also blogs as “The Teen Doctor” for Psychology Today and is a consultant for other magazines on a variety of mental health and relationship issues, as well as frequently sharing her expertise on television news programs. You can find her at drbarbaragreenberg.com and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.