How to Talk to Your Kids About "Unsecrets" From Your Past
How to talk to your kids about difficult topics you don’t want to keep secret from them.
When I told my friend Tobi that I was writing an article about how to talk to kids about family “unsecrets”—things you want your kids to know about your life rather than hide from them, such as a prior divorce—Tobi smiled.
Then she told me about how her daughter unexpectedly discovered that her dad had been married before. They were at a dinner party with several families and one guy said something to Tobi’s husband about his “ex.” Their daughter was in her late teens at the time and was shocked to learn that her dad was married before. This was the first she’d ever heard of it.
Tobi said she and her husband never thought about mentioning his earlier marriage because it didn’t seem like an issue. It was over and done and so brief, it didn’t matter. At least to him.
Luckily, it wasn’t a major concern to their daughter either, but it was a surprise, and it could have turned out differently if the three of them didn’t have such solid relationships.
Ever since my daughter was born, I’d thought on and off about when and how to tell her that I had been married once before. I did not want to make a big deal about it, but at the same time, I wanted her to know. Or maybe, what I really wanted most was for it not to be a deep dark secret I had kept from her.
I did not think about this issue obsessively or worry about it, rather I was aware that I wanted to tell her and was waiting for the right time to do so—a time when she was old enough and mature enough to understand and for us to talk about it.
Once, when she was about seven and my son was three, the two of them were playing with my old notary embosser. It had my name from my first marriage on it.
“Oh-oh,” I thought to myself. “This is it.”
But they never even bothered to try to read the scrunched up lettering they embossed over and over again on that piece of paper. And seven seemed too young to tell her, so I let it go. And then I tossed the obsolete embosser in the trash.
As my daughter approached the age of eleven, I started thinking she was ready. I just had to wait to for the right moment.
It so happened we had dinner with friends where the dad was married once before. The kids from his first marriage lived with them along with younger kids from the newer union.
After we left their house, my daughter asked me to explain about step-children, step-sisters and the like. This gave me a chance to talk about marriage and divorce, to explain that sometimes people marry too young, or marry the wrong person, or fall out of love. We talked about the many kinds of families we know, including divorced, remarried, single-parent and same-sex, and how lots of people marry more than once.
A week or so later we were riding in the car together, just the two of us. It struck me as a good time.
“Em,” I said. “I have something I want to tell you.”
“Ok,” she said.
“Before I married dad, I was married to someone else. It didn’t last long and we did not have any kids. I’ll be happy to tell you all about it when you are a little older, but for now, I just wanted you to know.”
“OK,” she said. And that was it. She hasn’t asked much about it since.
I know at some point, she’ll want to know more. I’ll be glad to tell her. I was young and madly in love for the first time. I’ll share that happiness with her and then the sadness of what our marriage turned into—something unhealthy, unbalanced and unpleasant. I’ll tell her as much or as little as she wants to know.
I feel good just knowing she knows. Now if she uncovers a photo in the attic, or someone happens to ask about my ex, she’ll never feel like I had a secret I kept from her.
Now I’m looking for the right time to tell my nine-year-old son.
How to talk with your kids about something in your past:
- Consider talking with each of your children separately, especially if they are not the same age. If you have twins or multiples, it is probably best to tell them on the same day.
- Consider discussing the issue with your younger child at another time. Let the older one know your plan so he or she doesn’t tell the sibling(s) first. Emphasize that it is very important to you that you be the one to tell them.
- Make sure your child is old enough to understand what you are telling them. Telling a three year old about your divorce won’t make any sense to them. At nine or ten, they may be ready to understand, but this will likely depend on the maturity of your child.
- Choose a good time. Do not try to talk with them when they are tired or distracted by a new Wii game. Find a quiet time when you and your child. The car is an excellent place.
- Be aware that most young kids don’t realize you existed or had a life before they came along. This is just how kids think. It takes a while for them to understand that you even have a past.
- Set the tone: Don’t burst into tears or make a big deal about it and most likely it won’t be a big deal to them.
What about a BIG issue?
If you are spilling really big news about something which will have an immediate impact, you and your spouse divorcing or your child being adopted, for example, this IS a big deal. For these kinds of events, talk with a therapist, child development specialist, psychologist or even your child’s pediatrician about how to tell your kids. Or consult your priest, pastor, rabbi or close friend for advice.