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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

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

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.

TheOneWithTheHair Fri 02-Aug-13 23:25:35

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.

fanoftheinvisibleman Sat 03-Aug-13 08:31:14

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!

fanoftheinvisibleman Sat 03-Aug-13 10:04:52

Yes, x posts there Ruby!

swallowedAfly Sat 03-Aug-13 13:35:38

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

LunaticFringe Sun 04-Aug-13 22:53:06

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

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