THE BLOG
12/08/2014 11:40 am ET Updated Feb 07, 2015

Is Your Family Keeping a Secret?

Camilla Bandeira via Getty Images

Every family has at least one secret, and some have many more than that. You may recall secrets from your childhood about an aunt who had "something wrong," though you never knew what, exactly. Perhaps you have a secret yourself that you've never shared with your children. Maybe, when you were in your 20s, you had an unplanned pregnancy, had a minor drug-related scuffle with the law or were so depressed that you required hospitalization.

We tend to worry that if our secrets were revealed to even our closest friends that they would drop us or that, if our children learned about those youthful difficulties, they would think less of us. It's also possible, though, that our family secrets involve truths about our children that we would rather not let those in our friendship circles or broader communities find out about. If this is true of you, then, you might be given strength from learning the story shared by psychologist Rachnel Pruchno in her book, Surrounded by Madness: A Memoir of Mental Illness and Family Secrets. I reviewed this book in depth in my Psychology Today blog, but here I'd like to focus on its implications for midlife, 50-something, parents here.

We tend to think of our children as reflections of ourselves. When something goes "wrong" with them, we feel that there's something "wrong" with us. Pruchno's first-person narrative tells us that it's the keeping of these secrets that takes its toll on our own mental health. Her adoptive daughter, Sophie, struggled her entire life with symptoms ranging from ADHD to bipolar disorder. At the time of the book's writing, Sophie would have been 22, but Rachel hadn't been in contact with her for an agonizing three years.

Pruchno hoped that by sharing her story, she would encourage all of us with family secrets not to hold onto them forever. You might be surprised when you reveal those secrets (assuming you don't violate their personal rights), that you run into support, not scorn, from those you care about the most.

Moving beyond secrets of such a deeply personal and troubling nature, though, it's also helpful for midlife parents to examine their own feelings about the success, or lack thereof, of their children. One study published a number of years ago (Ryff et al., 1996) argued that parents tended to be threatened by the success of their children -- rooting for them to fail, not succeed. However, the considered wisdom since the publication of the Ryff et al. work is the opposite- that parents become distressed when their children fail, not when they succeed (Cichy et al., 2013).

It's the shame, then, that midlife parents need to try to combat when their own children's outcomes in life don't meet their expectations. Rather than cover it up, though, you can gain not only catharsis, but emotional support when you allow those who are close to you to help you in the coping process.

References:

Cichy, K. E., Lefkowitz, E. S., Davis, E. M., & Fingerman, K. L. (2013). 'You are such a disappointment!': Negative emotions and parents' perceptions of adult children's lack of success. The Journals Of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences And Social Sciences, 68B(6), 893-901. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbt053

Pruchno, R. (2014). Surrounded by madness: A memoir of mental illness and family secrets. Indianapolis IN: Dog Ear Publishing.

Ryff, C. D., Schmutte, P. S., & Lee, Y. H. (1996). How children turn out: Implications for parental self-evaluation. In C. D. Ryff, M. M. Seltzer (Eds.) , The parental experience in midlife (pp. 383-422). Chicago, IL, US: University of Chicago Press.