To Tell Or Not To Tell: Self-Disclosure With Kids

A 2013 study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that teenagers whose parents talked to them about the negative effects of their own drug use were actually less likely to adopt antidrug attitudes than teenagers whose parents did not volunteer such information.

 

This begs the question: To tell or not to tell?

 

I’m not just talking about drug use here. I’m talking about self-disclosure in general.

 

How much should parents tell their kids about themselves?

 

As a social worker and therapist, the concept of self-disclosure is something I’ve had to deal with quite a bit. Judicious and carefully used self-disclosure in therapy can provide empathy and also facilitate the client’s own self-disclosure. But too much information about one’s therapist is not only unnecessary, it can be a little disturbing!

 

Obviously, parents are not their children’s therapists (nor should they be). However, it's a good idea for parents to have some boundaries around what they choose to share with their children.

 

Kids look to their parents for leadership and as role models. We’ve all made mistakes and done things we aren’t proud of — and sometimes telling our children about those experiences can bring us closer together. Other times, however, they're better left unsaid.

 

 

So, how do we decide what to tell and when? It's important to think about our children's ages and developmental stages when considering what's appropriate and ask ourselves: What purpose will it serve for me to tell my child this? Below are a few guidelines:

 

When to consider using self-disclosure:

  • To convey empathy, compassion, and understanding
  • To build connection
  • To help your child feel more comfortable opening up to you about something
  • To provide insight and guidance about how you handled a struggle similar to hers

 

When to skip self-disclosure:

  • When the self-disclosure will burden the child
  • If you are concerned your child might share the information with friends or siblings
  • When you feel coerced into sharing something (listen to your intuition!)
  • When you suspect your child is trying to shift focus away from himself and onto you
  • If you are trying to get your own needs met by telling your child (in other words, you want sympathy, comfort, admiration, etc.)
  • If you think the disclosure will make it harder for your child to trust and/or respect you in the future

 

Below I’ve listed some topics that you can think about ahead of time so that you are clear where you stand on whether or not you think it is appropriate to share with your kids.

 

I know that there are unique circumstances in every family and the decision to share is ultimately up to you. However, it may be helpful to think about some of these before a situation arises so you can be prepared.

 

  • Your current and past alcohol/drug use
  • Your past romantic relationships
  • How you and your spouse met
  • Times you have been dishonest
  • Your fears, worries, regrets
  • When you lost your virginity
  • Your health status
  • Your religious and political beliefs
  • Your financial situation
  • Your judgments about other people
  • Conflicts with your spouse and other relatives/friends

 

There's a difference between lying to your kids and not telling them everything. I'm not suggesting that you lie to your kids. Instead, here are some helpful phrases to use when your child asks you a personal question and you don’t want to share:

 

  • “I’d rather not say.”
  • “That’s private.”
  • “I’ll tell you about that another time.”
  • Turn the question around. Ask, “Why would you like to know?” or “What difference does it make?”

 

To paraphrase a quote by the Indian guru Shirdi Sai Baba: Before you speak, ask yourself 3 questions…Is it true?  Is it kind?  Is it necessary? 

 

There will be many opportunities to share things with your kids, but once you’ve shared something, you can’t take it back. So, choose carefully and remember that oftentimes, LESS is MORE.

 

Have there been times when using self-disclosure with your kids has been really helpful? Are there things you’ve told your children that you wish you could take back? Leave a comment below and let us know. Your experiences may help other parents!

 

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Showing 4 comments
  • Mary
    Reply

    My husband’s ex-wife had an affair, and they split up when their child was very young. My husband and I have committed that we will not share this information with him. He is now 10 and has been told his parents divorced because they could not get along/were not right for each other (which is true). I dread the day when he asks me outright if there was infidelity. I have planned for this and will say “Your father did not cheat” and make sure he knows that I met his dad after they separated. If he presses on Mom, I will direct him to talk to her about it, but he might press us on this topic. This is something I worry about on occasion. I guess we’ll just have to see what happens when/if the time comes. I also have to balance my selfish desire for him to know the truth about what his mother did, and the fact that this knowledge will likely hurt him deeply, which is why I am hoping I am never in the position of having to answer direct questions about it.

    • Pam Howard
      Reply

      Hi Mary,
      It’s great that you’re aware of your own thoughts about wanting your stepson to know/not know. I think simply stating some version of, “I can’t answer that. That’s a question for your mom.” is a good way to go.

  • Lori
    Reply

    I don’t disclose that for many years I had a phobia – or st least an extremely intense fear – of vomiting (and I’m not 100% over it but much better) or that in my teens I had a near eating disorder. It would be too suggestive to share that with my child and I don’t want him to go there if at all possible. He is 9 and I told him I did smoke cigarettes for about a year in my teens because I quit for good and we both hate the smell of cigarette smoke. My husband and I – unusual as it is – have never tried an illegal drug and likely never will. When the drugs topic comes up I will tell him that. I like your list of factors – good guideline – and I think people vary on the spectrum of tight lipped and let it all hang out.

    • Pam Howard
      Reply

      Hey Lori,
      I appreciate you for sharing here. Having healthy boundaries with kids can be so tricky!

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