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Outing Family Secrets

By Linda Sapadin, Ph.D
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Many things were simply not spoken about years ago. As a result, many children suffered silently, too frightened or too ignorant to open up to anyone about what was troubling them. Or, if they developed the courage to speak up, they were shut down with a few choice words.

For Annette, it was wondering if she had been adopted. After all, she looked like no one in her family. Even more significantly, her temperament was like no one else's either. When she brought up the subject, her parents closed down the conversation, saying, “What, are you crazy? You are our child; of course, you aren't adopted.” It wasn’t until she was in her 40’s when her last parent passed, that she discovered the adoption papers. She was furious; not only about the lie that she was repeatedly told but also about her parents making her think she was crazy for thinking the truth.

For Gil, it was finding out that his father had committed suicide when he was 12 years old. All he knew was that his father had died suddenly. Of course, he wanted to know "how," "why," "what." He needed details but his mother was so distraught, she couldn’t respond to anything he asked. When he queried his grandparents, they told him “his father is dead and that's all you need to know.” So, being the "good son," he stayed quiet. He discovered the truth, years later, when an aunt inadvertently mentioned “the suicide” to another aunt. He felt so betrayed. Yes, it would have upset him if he knew at the time. But now, 15 years later, all he felt was rage. Couldn’t anyone have told him the truth?

For Joseph, it was wondering about that evening when his Uncle Pete was babysitting. “It only happened once,” he said, “but I’ll never forget it. After my bath, I told my uncle my back hurt. He said to go to bed and he’d come in soon to make it feel better. When he came in, I remember him stroking my back. It felt good at first. But then in a moment, everything changed. What he was doing felt wrong. But I didn’t know if it was wrong. This was my Uncle Pete; I loved him, he loved me; he would never do anything to hurt me. I closed my eyes, told myself to lie still and everything would be okay.

It was my little sister who saved me from anything worse happening. She woke up, screaming for my mother. I remember my uncle telling me, ‘I have to go. No one will ever know. Go to sleep now.’ And no one ever did know. The next morning, everything was back to normal. I knew I could never speak about what happened; I wouldn’t even know what to say. Until now, 32 years later. Now that I know what sexual abuse is. And now that I know that it wasn’t my fault.

Family secrets still abound. Yet, not nearly as much as they used to. This is true for several reasons...

  1. Today, many behaviors that are labeled criminal used to be viewed as "family business" to be hushed up. Nobody had any right to poke their nose into what was going on behind closed doors.
  2. The media, the schools and the Internet have made kids much more knowledgeable about human behavior than they were in the past.
  3. Kids speak up today. They ask questions and are not as easily shut down or intimidated by authority figures, parents included.

Still, it takes courage for kids, and even adults, to begin to open up about unsettling events in their families. When they develop the courage to do so, however, it invariably feels right.

Copyright © 2017: Linda Sapadin, Ph.D
Linda Sapadin is a psychologist and personal coach in private practice who specializes in helping people enrich their lives, enhance their relationships and overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior. For more information about her work, contact her by email or visit her website at PsychWisdom.
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