I want my kids to know about my past, but …
If you are a parent recovering from a difficult or traumatic past, you’ve probably had this thought countless times. One of the most challenging parts of being a parent in recovery is practicing mindful parenting and knowing what to say to your kids about your past. They may have seen you struggle at times; they may have heard bits and pieces along the way. They might even be asking questions.
What should you tell them? How much should you tell them? Should you even tell them at all? These are real issues that every parent has to wrestle with.
Addressing Your Past
Before we talk about your kids, let’s talk about you. Whether you’re in recovery or trying to start treatment, you’ve arrived at a place of change, and that should be celebrated and honored. You are doing your best to heal and parent your children in healthy ways.
At some point, you may find yourself faced with questions from your children. How do you decide what to share? Is total honesty and transparency always the best policy? How much is too much?
These are important questions to consider. Conversations with your children can be healing and strengthen your bond. Before you open up to them, it’s essential to understand how trauma can affect the parent-child relationship and your readiness to share.
Before You Have “The Talk”
Trauma, once experienced, will forever be a part of your truth. Trauma doesn’t change who you are, but it becomes a part of your life experience like any significant life event. Treatment doesn’t make trauma “go away,” instead, it helps you to reach a place where your trauma no longer dominates your life. As you heal, you cultivate an awareness that allows you to make decisions from a position of strength and wellness.
Before you share your trauma history with your kids, you must be emotionally ready to do so. Your kids will probably ask a lot of hard questions, and those questions may stir some deep emotions. Before you proceed, you may find it helpful to have a coping plan in place in case difficult feelings emerge.
It’s also important to consider why you’ve decided to share. Are you sharing now because it’s in the best interest of your children, or is it to ease your own distress? The difference matters. When deciding when or if to share, it’s vital to ensure that parent-child boundaries are maintained.
Preparing to Talk to Your Kids About Your Past
Sharing to alleviate your own distress can place children in the role of confidante. Over time, this type of sharing can shift the parent-child dynamic, and children may take on roles similar to that of a “friend” or “therapist” through a process known as parentification¹. In short, they take on mature roles that they are not mentally or emotionally prepared for.
Parentification can have long-term effects on a child well into adulthood and is associated with anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. This doesn’t mean that you should never share your past with your children. On the contrary, authenticity is essential for both your children’s well-being and your own well-being.
The most important factor is how you share information.
Deciding What to Share
Before you sit down with your kids, think about precisely what you want to share. When the time comes, emotions will probably be running high, and you may struggle to organize your thoughts. A helpful practice is to spend some time in advance to think about where you want to set your boundaries for sharing. Ask yourself:
- What information will be most beneficial or important for my kids to know?
- What details might be inappropriate or scary, or too personal?
- Are there some things I just don’t want them to know?
There aren’t any right or wrong answers. Your family is unique, and you will decide based on the needs of each of your children.
Once you’ve had some time to think about it, make notes about what you want to share and how. When the time comes for the initial conversation, you’ll feel more prepared and less likely to give in to the urge to avoid any discomfort.
Healing Conversations Start Here
Authentic, loving conversations with your children can be a powerful vehicle for change and healing. When you feel ready to discuss your past with your kids, you want to do so in a way that is supportive and appropriate for them. There is no one-size-fits-all for talking to your kids. Each child is different in what they need to know based on their emotional maturity and emotional capacity.
Below are some additional tips for talking to your children about your past.
Use Age-Appropriate Language and Information
What might be appropriate to tell your 16-year-old is usually not appropriate for your 7-year-old — they are in different places developmentally. Little ones generally need fewer details and think in simple terms. Older kids may feel safe with more complexity and may need more information for context. You want to share information that will make sense for your child’s age; this might mean you need to have separate conversations if you have kids in different age groups.
Along with age, you also want to consider the maturity of each child. Some kids are more mature emotionally and are much better prepared to handle complex information. If you’re not sure, you can err on the side of caution and use simple language.
Be Mindful of Your Boundaries
One of the questions parents often have is, “How much do I tell my kids?” While there is no hard and fast answer, a good rule of thumb is to share as much as is necessary and no more than that. You can keep certain details private while still communicating basic concepts, and there is no need for full disclosure. Unless it would benefit your children to know certain details, it’s safe to keep them private.
These conversations can strike a healthy balance between need to know information and oversharing. You can still have a healthy, honest relationship without revealing everything about your experience. Even without a trauma experience, we all have intimate details of our lives that we don’t share with others, and the same is true for children. Sharing mindfully is a powerful way to model appropriate personal boundaries.
Be Authentic and Transparent
When sharing personal experiences, it’s important to be honest and open. Kids are quite intuitive and sense when parents are being evasive. You don’t have to answer every single question or give every detail. You do want to address questions without avoiding or denying them. Chances are, even if they don’t know the details, your kids probably know that you’ve faced some challenges and have been working through some things. Acting like nothing ever happened is disingenuous, and they will pick up on it in a second.
One of the risks here is that they may actually take on the blame² for your struggles. Kids have an interesting way of assuming responsibility for their parents’ struggles and can even internalize some of those same symptoms. Acknowledging the issue sends a message that yes, it happened, and that you own that truth. Being authentic also models for them how to own their truth. It can be a powerful teachable moment.
You can communicate your boundaries from the start. Let your children know that you have something to share with them and that you want to be open and honest. Let them know that while you value honesty, you also want to protect them, so you are sharing safe information with them. If you are nervous, it’s okay to share that! Just don’t make them responsible for accommodating your feelings; they can be supportive, but they don’t have to rescue you from difficult emotions.
Honesty Is the Best Policy
The truth can be painful and, sometimes, embarrassing. It can be tempting to just re-write history. If you do that, you aren’t just doing a disservice to your kids, you are doing a disservice to yourself. You are a survivor of your lived experience, and you fought hard to be here in this moment. When you can own and speak your truth, you embrace your strength and reclaim your power. You can model that behavior for your children — you want them to learn that telling the truth is the right thing to do, even when it’s hard.
Being open and honest signals to your children that they can trust you and come to you with their own needs. If you set the precedent of not telling the truth because it’s hard, you’re jeopardizing your children’s trust. When that trust is violated, breakdowns in communication³ are usually not far behind.
Leave the Door Open
Chances are, sharing your experience with your kids won’t be a one-and-done conversation. It’s more likely that you’ll share your experience over time, sharing appropriately, a little bit at a time. Your kids may take time to process what they’re learning about your past and come back with more questions. If you have more than one child, one may have more questions, while the other might be satisfied with one conversation. You have no way of knowing in advance, and your children’s needs may change, but that’s okay! Families are all different in how they assimilate information.
The most loving thing you can do is keep the door open to more conversations. This allows your child to come to you as they feel ready. It sends the message that you are here and open to talking about whatever they bring to you.
Healing is a journey that you don’t have to take alone. Allowing yourself to be open and vulnerable can be unsettling, and knowing what and how to share with your children can be confusing. No parent has all the answers. Support and guidance from a trauma-informed therapist can help you explore options so that you can have those healing conversations with the ones you love most and feel confident about what and how you share.
Healing and Recovery as a Family
At All Points North Lodge, we understand the importance of including family in your recovery and healing process. If you or a loved one has experienced trauma and would like to learn more about our programs, our team of expert clinicians is ready to help you take the next step towards healing and recovery.
Nestled in the beautiful Rocky Mountains, All Points North Lodge offers a luxury rehab experience that provides the perfect environment for healing, personal growth, and recovery. Using evidence-based, client-centered treatment approaches, including individual and family therapy, our team of clinicians has the expertise to guide you through the process from referral through program completion.
To learn more about how we can support you in treatment and recovery, reach out to one of our Contact Center team members via or at 855-510-4585. Let us help you reclaim your voice and find your way forward.
- Jankowski, P. J., Hooper, L. M., Sandage, S. J., & Hannah, N. J. (2011). Parentification and mental health symptoms: Mediator effects of perceived unfairness and differentiation of self. Journal of Family Therapy, 35(1), 43-65. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6427.2011.00574.x
- Kouros, C. D., Wee, S. E., Carson, C. N., & Ekas, N. V. (2020). Children’s self-blame appraisals about their mothers’ depressive symptoms and risk for internalizing symptoms. Journal of Family Psychology, 34(5), 534–543. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000639
- Cava, M. J., Buelga, S., & Musitu, G. (2014). Parental communication and life satisfaction in adolescence. The Spanish journal of psychology, 17, E98. https://doi.org/10.1017/sjp.2014.107