Guest blog: Should we be honest with our children - even if the truth is awful?

(41 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Fri 02-Aug-13 14:36:37

Suzanne Harrington's The Liberty Tree, which was published last month, is a searingly honest account of her first chaotic years as a parent - including her alcoholism, her husband's eventual suicide, and the slow journey to sobriety and an 'emotionally present' relationship with her two small children.

While the book has been widely-praised, some critics have questioned the wisdom of writing it: it's addressed directly to her children, and doesn't flinch from describing her chaotic emotional state in often-painful detail. Here, she explains why she feels that brutal honesty was the only way to heal her family's pain.

Tell us what you think here on the thread - and if you blog on it, don't forget to post your URL.

"In September 2006, my husband, from whom I'd been separated for 18 months, hanged himself. He'd had untreated depression. I hadn't seen it coming, and he didn't leave a note. Our children were three and five when he died. The following year, I told them what had really happened - up until that point, I had said he'd become very ill, and suddenly died. I knew that this would not be a good enough answer for much longer - but I was not going to lie and say 'heart attack' or 'car crash'. I could not dishonour them with a lie that big.

After speaking with child psychologists at Winston's Wish, the charity for traumatically bereaved children, who suggested I tell them right away without hesitation, I went ahead with my gut instinct and told them - in an age appropriate way, using lots of stories (like the story of Van Gogh, in the children's book Camille and the Sunflowers). I told them how sometimes the mind can become ill, just like the body, and that this can make a person's thinking all muddled, and that sometimes in extreme cases, the person can even die. I didn't drop all of this information on them at once, obviously, but slowly built up a picture of the idea of depression, and compared it to having a cold that if untreated can turn into pneumonia.

They got it. The older one asked me if this is how Dad had died. When I said yes, they asked lots of questions about where and when and how, and I was able to tell them truthfully. Gently. Honestly. They said they were glad, because they had not felt clear about things, and now they did. And at no point would I have to drop a terrible revelation on them later in life, like an unexploded bomb - actually kids, it wasn't a heart attack after all - so that they would look at everything else I had ever told them and wonder if that wasn't a big fat lie as well.

Then we got on with life. We recovered, in many senses. I wrote a book about it, The Liberty Tree, which was published last month. In this book, which I've addressed directly to my kids, who are now 10 and 12, but won't be reading it until they are adults (I've told them it's like an 18 film, not suitable for children), I tell them a lot of stuff about the seven years their dad and I were together.

Like how a few months before my husband's unexpected death, I had gone into recovery for alcoholism, and was very newly sober (which as any recovering alcoholic will tell you, is shorthand for 'still mental') when he died. How my alcoholism made me emotionally distant from everybody, including them, even though I was physically present and at home all the time when they were babies. How it took a while to thaw out emotionally, and how angry I was at their dad when he died, and how it took a while to find compassion for him.

They know all of this stuff already, because I have told them - the book is just a more grown up version, that goes into the nitty gritty of addiction, as well as telling them the good stuff - like how lovely their dad was, and the good times we had together before his depression and my alcoholism and our basic incompatibility brought the marriage to an end.

Why did I tell them all of this? Should I have kept my mouth shut, so that they have no inkling that the relationship between their dad and I was one of two ill people seeking rescue in the other, and it not working out at all? Was it self-indulgent to tell them everything? Why did I write the book in the first place?

I'll tell you why. Secrecy and putting on a show of everything being fine ended up killing their father, and would have killed their mother too had I not been lucky enough to have found abstinence based recovery before my alcoholism finished me off. Secrets and lies, emotional dishonesty, sugar-coated reality - nobody deserves that, least of all children. I grew up in a culture of secrecy, of the unspoken, of unanswered questions - even about everyday stuff like where babies come from. When you don't tell a child the answer to their question, even if they are too young to articulate it properly in words, they will feel it. They will sense it. Children are emotionally fluent beings - they have not yet learned to lie to themselves, the way adults do.

Like you, I love and respect my kids above all else. The reality today is that they are happy, ordinary, well-adjusted. The proof of my decision to be honest with them is in their happy, ordinary lives, filled with happy, ordinary stuff like friends, horses, football, sleepovers. They trust me, I trust them. We value openness. Obviously, this openness happens within age-appropriate parameters - blurting stuff out uncensored would be unfair on two levels: it would overburden them in terms of having to be responsible for too much inappropriate information, and it would gross them out. They are still just kids.

And while I have regretted my earlier emotional absence when they were very young, and wish their dad had not died so desperately alone, the reality, the here and now, is this: truth, told with gentleness and love, makes for normal, loving, emotionally close family life. That's my experience anyway."

The Liberty Tree, published by Atlantic Books, is available here.

pilotbecky Fri 02-Aug-13 16:15:30

My view is that Suzanne did absolutely the right thing. She took advice from the right source (Winston's Wish are fabulous) about how to tell her children and acted on it. I cannot begin to think how tough it must have been for her. And I agree that secrets can be killers.

Oblomov Fri 02-Aug-13 16:30:24

How can you argue against this?
She told them the truth, in a loving, age appropriate way. They accepted this. And you can tell that they accepted it and were not traumatised by it, because they went on to ask more questions, and they requested more detail.

Is the author being criticised (I can only assume she is, from some quarters), that she did the wrong thing, by not molly-coddling them, and wrapping them in cotton wool?

indyandlara Fri 02-Aug-13 20:31:08

We are yet to tell my daughter about the stillbirth of her older brother. She is 4. We will and we will need to do it soon as she is asking about having a sibling etc and we will probably never be brave enough to have another pregnancy. The truth is awfully important. You did the right thing Suzanne.

CMOTDibbler Fri 02-Aug-13 20:37:09

I think that telling children the truth is really, really important. My grandmother was in and out of psychiatric hospital all my childhood, but I never knew what was going on as my parents kept it all from me. Unfortunatly, the point that I found out was when the police came and said that she'd disappeared again - and this time she'd gone in the river and died. So at 12 I suddenly had to find out a lot.
As an adult, learning about what went on in my dad (and his sisters) childhood and after has explained an awful lot of things, and though its terrible to hear some of it, I feel closer to dad for knowing it

TeWiSavesTheDay Fri 02-Aug-13 21:39:29

It is important to be truthful.

I find it very hard though. I grew up in an extremely secretive house and I'm just not used to being open. Trivial, but I totally fluffed DD asking me how babies come out of tummies ( she asked again so I got a second chance later) the bloody hell I'm going to introduce 'you only have supervised contact with your grandmother due to child protection issues' in an age appropriate way I haven't got a fucking clue.

SunnyIntervals Fri 02-Aug-13 21:46:57

I think mediated versions of the truth tbh. I was told about the holocaust far too young because many of our family died. Otherwise my mother could never have answered questions like 'what were your grandparents like?' honestly. It really affected me, unfortunately, as I found it very frightening but bottled everything up. I don't know what would have been better though.

The author seems very confident they won't read it yet. When I was a teen this would have been forbidden fruit and I would have made sure I read it - they may well do the same.

ReginaPhilangie Fri 02-Aug-13 22:17:44

I always think telling children the truth in an age appropriate way is by far the best way to deal with things. I grew up in house full of lies, deceit and secrets. It's made me very messed up and I don't trust easily. I'm trying to be as honest with my kids about things as I can.

Shiraztastic Fri 02-Aug-13 22:26:49

Telling the truth in an age-appropriate way is one thing. Publishing a book for the whole world incuding all their friends to read with every gory detail is totally different. Likewise, telling children more than they need to know about things that happened before they can remember can be more for the parent's benefit than the child's. Ask yourself the question, how will it benefit the child to be told this?

ballstoit Fri 02-Aug-13 22:47:11

A childhood friend of mine's father commited suicide. We grew up in a smallish village, and by our teens, most of our peer group were aware of how he'd died. My friend, however, had been told he'd died in a car crash.

I wasn't close to her when she found out the truth, but know (again from the village grapevine) that she went off the rails in a big way, drinking, taking drugs and sleepig around. I'm still in touch with her through Facebook. She has children and is soon to be married for the third time (we're early 30s).

I don't know how her life may have been different, but to be lies to by those closest to you for more than 10 years and to have all your peers know family secrets that you don't, is likely to result in trust issues IMO.

The times I remember being frightened as a child are often when I was aware that things were going on but not quite what. I tell my dc the age appropriate truth, and believe (and hope) that's the right thing to do.

I Agee with SunnyIntervals and Shiraztastic when they say that age appropriate truth is of course the way to go but publishing the book is self indulgent and naive. Of course they will read it before time and it will not enhance their understanding at all.

GW297 Sat 03-Aug-13 00:08:58

I think she absolutely did the right thing and agree that seeking advice and guidance from Winston's Wish was a sensible thing to do. It sounds like the author told her children and answered their questions in a very age appropriate way. It is she who knows them best after all. I think it is better that they find out from their mother who loves them the most than by any other means and at least then she knows exactly what they know and don't yet know about events. I expect writing the book was very cathartic for the author. I certainly find writing about significant events helps me.

My parents were never very open with me, nor was I encouraged to tell them anything in return and I find it difficult to cope with having unanswered questions and distrust them, mainly due to the fact that my mother has openly lied to me about things in the past. I haven't been through anything like what the author and her children have though and cannot begin to imagine how difficult things have been for each of them.

You hear about people all the time who only discover they were adopted in adulthood or that their dad is not their biological dad or their birth mother is actually their older sister or that a parent has been in prison/married before with other siblings/had issues with alcohol/drugs etc and the consequences for them upon discovering such information as a previous poster has said.

I would be really interested to read the book myself.

2Retts Sat 03-Aug-13 01:29:02

This is a huge subject and there are so many perspectives.

It seems as thought the writer did indeed seek sound advice about how to broach the matter with her children and followed through. What else can a responsible parent do?

I think we all see lies and liars all wrong in society today. It is indeed about age appropriate advice and answers but isn't parenting the most hypocritcal of all the occupations in least on some levels?

Jinsei Sat 03-Aug-13 08:21:59

I definitely go for honesty with dd. Sometimes I wonder if I might burden her by telling her stuff that she isn't ready to deal with, but I knew there were secrets when I was growing up, and I hated it. So far, I have no regrets.

RubySparks Sat 03-Aug-13 08:29:39

Just to add that age appropriateness is just as important as not hiding things. I had experience as a child of too much truth and being my mother's confidante and supporter through my father's alcoholism and sister's illness, she was protected from much of what went on. I also had the experience of finding things out much too late!

When registering my father's death, it came out that he had been married before which I never knew. It was a few hours later that I started to wonder if there were any children as a result of the marriage... My mother says not, but if she lied about the marriage she could lie about that? Really being open and honest and not giving too much to handle is the only way to go.

I think honesty and openess is a good thing as long as it is age appropriate.

I come at it from the otherside of the coin to most posters do far. I grew up with a father with a drink problem and sometimes I think we were overly involved. We were often still up for his eventual return and then the fallout. The things I saw and heard as I child had a huge affect on me and I very nearly chose not to have children as I didn't want thst level of potential to hurt.

I am not saying don't tell the truth, but I would want to be sure the balance was right.

RubySparks Sat 03-Aug-13 09:08:39

We are in agreement fan!

Yes, x posts there Ruby!

fanof - i think the key is that this is telling the truth after things have been resolved - when the damage is done and cannot be taken back but you have dealt with things and are in the healing process.

the seeing too much (which i can relate to sadly) is awful and god knows we want to avoid it but once it has been seen the only way to heal in my opinion is for the adults to be honest and take ownership of their mistakes and explain and make sense of the bad that has been gone through.

i never got that end of things sadly and for me personally it would have made all the difference.

JaquelineHyde Sat 03-Aug-13 13:58:50

I think this is when we remind ourselves that one size does not fit all.

It clearly depends what the truth is and what each individual child is able to cope with.

The idea that nothing but the truth is best for all children full stop is naïve and dangerous.

Timeforabiscuit Sun 04-Aug-13 14:19:39

The difference is being told in a safe, controlled and emotionally level environment with the parent able to put perspective and learning into their history, the way I've had it is the raw unending emotional roller coaster where you have no time to process as your being told is just a part of larger drama rather than an attempt to enlighten and heal.

I think she has done a fantastic thing, I haven't read the book - but publishing does serve a wider good, that secrets in families are a destructive force.

Solopower1 Sun 04-Aug-13 17:08:47

It sounds as if what Suzanne told her children was right for them.

But would you tell your children if your partner was cruel and/or abusive towards you? If so, when? Not all abuse is shouting and violence. Would you tell them if your partner was a criminal? Or if you were? If your partner were a paedophile? Or you were?

This blog raises a lot of questions - more than it answers, imo. But I suppose I just think, like Jaqueline, that each situation is so different it is very difficult to think along the lines of general principles.

MrsFrederickWentworth Sun 04-Aug-13 18:37:43

Following professional advice and using age appropriate language seems good.

But I worry that I have told Ds too much too young and he is too uncertain and responsible. It's hard, isn't it, when you have to drag children round hospitals and care for elderly parents. But it was an ( over) reaction to the secrets and fear I had not being told anything and then the worst happening, and being then told I was too upset over my father's death.

Perhaps our children will get the balance right.

I agree with those posters who say that the children will read the book younger than the author thinks. So I wouldn't have published it until they were at least 16. They will be in a horrid position because their friends and friends ' parents and their teachers will have read it soon, not them.

Littleen Sun 04-Aug-13 19:32:12

I think it's very important to tell children the truth in an age appropriate way, but be careful not to make them more anxious if they already are! And it's not always necessary. I think in this particular case it was necessary, and well done for doing it in such a way that the children understood. My parents told me about some other child's father (I did not know these people) who died when working at sea. For years I was terrified my own dad would die at sea like this man I only heard of once. (My dad was at sea every other month) - I still think that was totally unecessary of them to tell me, seeing as I had no connection with that family anyway. So I certainly believe that very careful judgement of the situation is crucial, and not telling kids everything that is bad with the world, because they will know it very soon anyway smile

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

yes but if they haven't had that, it's all been a mess and there is nothing secure under their feet then truth, ownership and explanation is as good as it gets imo.

we're talking as if we are on about dropping bombshells on otherwise idyllic childhoods when the reality of the context is a fairly shit situation with adults behaving confusingly and weirdly and then disappearing off the face of the earth (dead).

in some situations the status quo is better than truth in other the status quo is so fucked up that the truth is a million times better no matter how fucked up things are.


simple example - would you rather spend your life wondering if you were an unlovable inadequate creature who made your mother hate you or would you rather, once better, she explained to you that she had had depression and was so sorry and sad that she had been unable to be the mummy she wanted to be at that time?

it's not enid blyton or tim burton it's dark situation that is terrifying with no explanation or some explanation and understanding it wasn't you.

ZingWidge Mon 05-Aug-13 13:06:43

when I had an MC we told the kids. they asked lots of questions and we answered everything truthfully or just admitted that we had no answer.

honesty is the best policy and however much the truth hurts, lies are way worse.

i don't know if lies are way worse all the time but i do know that a vacuum is dangerous for kids. as in they know SOMETHING happened, is wrong etc but they don't know what. humans don't like uncertainty so will try to fill that vacuum and what they can come up with themselves may be far worse than the reality.

it's like kids blaming themselves for their parents divorce - i assume this happens when they haven't been told the truth and been able to talk about it and been helped to understand. so they fill that vacuum with 'it must have been my fault'.

ZingWidge Tue 06-Aug-13 09:34:21

swallowed the vacuum things it true - but then there's such thing as omission of truth, which is also lying.

(you know when in court people swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? the "whole truth" means that they are not allowed to omit anything or they would be lying!)

there are plenty of things we don't share with our kids, because it is simply none of their business (say our sex life) or we are in a process (say looking to move - they don't need to know just yet etc) or a "secret" (say what they are getting for Christmas) so of course we don't tell them everything.

but they should be informed and explained stuff that affects them directly and especially emotionally/physically IYSWIM.

on the other hand I do think that some parents over share when they are distressed, hurt , scared and are not thinking clearly. that's understandable and forgivable and although it might be scary for a child at the time, I think it is still better for kids to see their parents' emotional side and that they are real people with real feelings than to grow up with no emotions or explanations ever.

i agree with all that.

weregoingtothezoo Wed 07-Aug-13 11:43:24

I can't disagree with anything in that post - that some very tragic things have happened, and the children now have their explanation for it.

But I get envious when I read it - my daughter was removed from me and adopted as a result of my alcoholism, whereas the way this is written about, it's as if it's perfectly ok and normal for two small children to remain with their actively alcoholic mother after the separation from their deeply troubled father. And ok, she got into recovery before he died - I was 9 months into recovery before social services actually placed my daughter for adoption - not with me, her recovering, and longing to parent mother, but for adoption. Children should not be witnesses to active alcoholism. I agree with that. The children's needs come waaaay before the parents, however hard they are trying or however much pain they are in.

In terms of her knowing that "mummy being too ill to look after you" was actually "mummy was an alcoholic" - that's done gradually in safety, and I get to do some of that, in recovery, in my letters to her every 6 months.

So forgive me for thinking that this doesn't quite ring true. And that the book is self-indulgence. Now I blog, sure, but without any of my daughter's identifiers in it, so that I can use my experience to help others, but her life remains private and her truth remains hers. I don't really see either of those things going on here - like someone said, the children's teachers and friends get to know way too much about them, and it's naive to assume they won't read it, and think, why did my mum need to tell the world this stuff about me.

for her to be removed and put up for adoption there was more than just drinking going on no? every situation is assessed differently.

Lilka Wed 07-Aug-13 14:16:08

The truth is important, mosst especially when the 'secret' is having a direct impact on the child, or is about the child. She did the right thing by telling them in an age appropriate manner.

My 3 children are adopted and whilst my two older children have memories of their early childhoods all 3 have needed and (for my under 18's) will need more explanations of the why's. They need to be able to understand what has happened in their lives, so they can move forwards.

It can be really hard to work out when and how to broach various things (for instance in foster care/adoption sometimes things like sexual abuse, incest and murder need broaching) but luckily we now live in an age where telling children the age appropriate truth (whether that's about suicide, depression, divorce or anything else) is encouraged and there are resources for many situations out there.

And these resources are essential because parents may need lots of support in order to tell their children, and the children themselves may need support with it. There's nothing wrong with needing support and help to do it.

Alcoholism affects people very differently so I can see how a child could be removed for alcoholism in one person, but not in another person. It also sadly seriously affects the children. My DD2 has suffered permanent problems due to alcohol exposure in the womb. Another truth to explain

that was much better put lilka than i managed.

my point was that i have known a lot of women with alcohol problems through having attended aa for a while when i was concerned about my drinking. the vast majority of alcoholic women there had not needed their children to be taken away from them. the couple i met who had were the first to admit it had been necessary and it wasn't just because they drank too much but because of the way their drinking had led them to treat or neglect their child or the dangerous decisions and behaviour they had partaken in that had endangered their children and/or because they had a long history of repeatedly continuing said behaviour despite warnings.

many alcoholic women go on providing all the basics needed for their children and keep them safe, cared for etc but later realise they were emotionally absent for periods or just didn't do as well as they could have been doing for their family had they been sober but do not stray over into abuse, neglect or endangerment.

some need their children taking away for a short period during their recovery as their rock bottom realisation moment was public or messy or loud enough that social services had to step in and take the children for a short while whilst the mother began her recovery, proved herself able and then had the children returned.

for children to be removed and adoption to be resorted to implies a lot of serious issues in the parenting that weren't considered to be remediable or where many chances had been given to remedy them and all of those chances had been squandered.

i don't think it's fair to give the impression that an alcoholic woman will have her children taken away - that deters people from seeking the help they need and is for the vast majority completely innacurate.

also to get to the point where adoption is even possible for more than one child from a chaotic background implies a long stretch of time. it's not an overnight thing.

weregoingtothezoo Wed 07-Aug-13 20:54:34

No, "just drinking", and less than a year. Never missed school, or went unfed, unclothed. I was a single parent working in a professional job. Most women in AA - and I went for a good while - haven't had their children taken away because they got away with it. Nothing happened, nobody noticed or there was a second parent in the family. The extended family usually collude to make sure social services don't notice.
But "just drinking" is too much, I had blackouts where I couldn't remember putting her to bed, and we muddled through the days at weekends. I was drunk in front of her at times. I was erratic in my emotional availability. No toddler should have to see that.
You're right there there is usually more of a problem, and usually people don't get well, and usually family don't collude with social services. But there are cases that aren't usual. I agreed that I wasn't good enough, and that is bloody difficult.
I knew this would hurt. The story is here:
I am glad the lady in the initial post had the chance to keep her children with her, and write about it in this way, but... at what cost, I wonder.

weregoingtothezoo Wed 07-Aug-13 20:55:19

Sorry, that should be

ok so black outs with the child around, drunk in front of and in charge of a toddler etc and in a way that drew attention and with no other family around so all of this in front of the child.

so yes more than drinking. i don't know if family 'collude' - that's an interesting word you've chosen over the word 'support' or 'buffer' for examples. it does of course make a difference whether the woman in question has an extended support network able to also offer the children input and stability. even if social services were involved they would take that into account. i don't see that as 'collusion' but as being a family and it gives the impression you have a strange sense of family to call it collusion.

when i said more to it than drinking i didn't mean you had to be beating them or something but that there would have to be more factors involved to make the decision to take a child into care and for them to be adopted rather than fostered right off the bat.

i am really sorry that you lost your child through your disease but i do think you need to be aware that talking as if that is the automatic consequence would put women off seeking help for alcoholism and they already do as mothers because of extra stigma, fear the children will be taken away etc. so whilst not meaning to hurt you i think it's important others speak up to counter what you say with the broader context which is that seeking help for alcoholism will in the vast majority of cases not lead to losing your children. in fact it is 'not seeking help' or being engaged with services that will tend to be more of an alarm bell for SS if they are forced to get involved.

sewingmummy Wed 14-Aug-13 11:27:30

this is such an interesting thread and topic...I'm currently mulling over explaining to my 3 year old why she hasn't got any Grandpas (my Dad died in 2006 and my father-in-law died in 2011). At the moment she's only asked me one question "where does granddad live?" and I chickened out of giving her an honest response.
I need to read around a bit and see what 'age appropriate' means and then I'll tackle it head-on!
I think the author was right to be honest with her children, secrets rear their head years later and can be more painful then. Children who are sheltered from everything grow up with a skewed view of the world that can't be healthy in the long run...

working9while5 Fri 16-Aug-13 07:56:25

There is a massive difference depending on why you tell the truth. If you are inappropriately using it to seek support or approval from your children for adult matters, that is deeply wrong. If you are sharing because they will always have questions without this information (and they will of they have lived through this), then the truth can heal.

I've had both. My father was physically and sexually abused and leaned far too much on me and far too often, in fact, shared his story as a manipulative way of challenging any issues I had with his bad behaviour. I learned that other people's pain was always to be prioritised over my own and I was ungrateful and lacking in understanding of what REAL suffering looked like. How could I be upset about walking over his passed out body or having had him chase round the house roaring at me for being a narcissistic bitch etc when he never even hit me, let alone raped me?

Motivation is everything. I don't have an issue with a parent writing their story. It is important though never to compare a child's distress to adult experiences or to deny or minimise their suffering.

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