One question I often get asked is, “Should I tell my child about (some difficult topic)?” In order to answer, I often go back to a book by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. where she describes the childhood environment of individuals who are diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.
People diagnosed with BPD had an “invalidating environment” or they had to demonstrate a higher level of emotional control than they were capable of at the time. What does an invalidating environment mean? If the child says, “I’m cold” and the parent responds, “No you’re not, you’re fine!” (because maybe the parent wants to stay longer at the party or wants the child to get out there and finish the swim lesson) then they are creating a discrepancy inside the child where the child learns not to listen to themselves. Or in another example, the child overhears that someone in the family has passed away, but the parent doesn’t tell the child because they are protecting the child from the uncomfortable information and then the child asks if anything is wrong and the parent says “no”, they are creating the invalidating environment. It’s actually one way but they are saying it’s another way.
What happens in the psyche at this point? The child begins to ping pong back and forth in their mind, creating an unrest. They can’t trust themselves and they can’t trust other people because they sense those people aren’t being honest. They can’t act normally or talk openly because everyone is pretending instead of being real. Now they have to pretend and this pressure becomes unbearable and can create mental illness. This is the definition of having to display a higher level of emotional control than is age-appropriate or natural given the circumstances.
With the exception of telling your child the more intimate details about your life; i.e. things that are actually adult business like the intimate details of what your ex-spouse is saying to you or how you believe they may actually be a horrible person, it’s best to be honest about how you feel about what is happening. “There’s a divorce happening, and I’m upset about that. I’m sad that things are changing. I miss that person sometimes.” If someone is sick, be open about it. If someone is going to therapy, talk about it. If someone is intoxicated, acknowledge it.
Pretending things aren’t happening that are happening is detrimental because you are implying that something is happening that is so bad, we can’t even speak about it and we sure as hell aren’t going to deal with it and make the environment tolerable again.
When you are honest, you are teaching your child that their feelings are appropriate to the situation, that feelings are manageable and can be processed and also that you are trustworthy. If you hide your feelings or information from your child, you are teaching them that life and feelings are something that can’t be managed and that there could be things that are so bad we can’t even speak of them. That’s the same as saying life can’t be managed. That sounds pretty scary to me. Also, everyone knows when we use our imagination to try and fill in the gaps as to what might be happening we might fill it in worse than reality actually is.
So, happy communicating!