Spilling The Family Secrets

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Parents often try to hide family secrets from their children. But if a family member has a terminal illness, is an alcoholic, adopted, about to be divorced, or commits suicide, experts say it's healthier to discuss it with your children rather than ignoring the problem. Mike Riera has tips on the best way to talk about family secrets with your kids.

Here is part of his advice:

When we were growing up our parents didn't share family secrets with us. What is the matter with that?

It sabotages a kid's intuition when he thinks something is wrong but his parents act like everything is normal. If children sense something is amiss without confirmation (or denial), they will act out. Discussing family secrets prepares them to deal and confront real problems they may encounter: addiction, divorce, death, illness, financial worries, homosexuality, mental illness. They will be angry and resentful with parents when they learn the truth. That is, the kid that never was told the truth that grandma was terminally ill may never forgive you.

If you have a question for Mike Riera about dealing with your teen, send an email to sat@cbsnews.com with "Ask Mike" in the subject line. Or write to "Ask Mike" The Saturday Early Show, 514 West 57th St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10019. Your question may be featured on future shows.

Should you wait for kids to start asking questions before you tell them their aunt has cancer? When and how?

Tell them when it is starting to affect your behavior, if you are cranky or on edge, or when they ask. Otherwise, kids will personalize it; that is, they'll try to figure out the reason for your edgy behavior, because they can't put up with the uncertainty. Generally, they'll figure it out incorrectly. Expect the topic to resurface at odd times for days and weeks afterwards: at bedtime, on car rides, etc.

How much should you tell your children if, for example, a parent has just lost a job?

  • Give age-appropriate information.
  • Convey in a non-judgmental way and with love: "Your dad has lost his job. He's going to be around the house more. We may have to cut back."
  • Let kids ask questions. Show them you are willing to answer. Make eye contact. Don't clean the kitchen nervously and send body language that says you don't actually want to talk.
  • If you don't know, tell them. It's important for kids to see that parents don't know everything. It sets up a realistic expectation for themselves.
  • Apologize when you make a mistake.
  • Tell them it's difficult to discuss. Kids know more than we think.
What are the long-term benefits of telling your children family secrets?

Kids will understand your behavior better. If their father is alwas concerned when his son is sad, kids will understand this better if they know their father is depressed. If they understand their aunt and grandmother died of cancer, they'll understand better why their mother wants them to eat veggies. It helps kids sort through other problems that come along and teaches them honesty and compassion, as well as how to wrestle with complex issues and problems.

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