When Telling the Truth is a Bad Idea

Emotional honesty is a great concept – in relation to adults that is. Some parenting experts advocate being honest with our children and communicating our emotions with them.  Sharing our adult feelings with our children is thought to be a means of teaching them how to be emotionally sensitive and aware, goals that most parents would agree on. The problem is not with the goal but how we go about it.

If you put yourself in a child’s place and look at emotional honesty, the problems become apparent. If the child sees you as being mad at them, they may define their relationship with you on the basis of this emotion (especially young children). They may come to see themselves as bad or that something is wrong with them. If a parent is scared, this only serves to increase their anxiety and alarm. Parents are a child’s anchor to life, their home base, and if you are shaken then their world becomes less safe and the child all the more anxious. I remember Dr. Neufeld telling how he was consulted helping children face the aftermath of 911. His advice was to shield them from it and convey a sense they were safe and that you believed nothing like this would ever happen to them.

The big problem with emotional honesty is that it treats children as if they were adults. This does not work for them because of their need for strong and secure attachments. A child’s attachment to us is supposed to render them dependent, that is how we essentially have any power to parent or teach them. When you start talking to them as if they were an adult in terms of emotional honesty then this does not support a dependent relationship. In fact, this approach contributes to children assuming an alpha position and thinking they have to take the lead in taking care of themselves. Children who assume the alpha role don’t feel at rest, are highly alarmed, and difficult to parent.

So what is a parent to do when a child is angry, sad, disappointed or scared? Whatever we are feeling, the most important thing we want to convey is that our relationship is intact, we are still their parent, our love hasn’t changed, and we aren’t going anywhere. We might say we are having a hard time if this is obvious to the child but affirm that things will work out and that we will get through it. The principle is that we don’t want them to feel alarmed because the relationship isn’t intact or is threatened.

So what do we say when we are faced with questions about death and dying – how honest should we be?  Again the principle is the same – affirm the connection and bridge any distance they might be feeling.  For example, we can say, “I will always be your Mother/Father”, “I am not planning on going anywhere”. When our tenant’s dog died my eldest daughter was full of questions about where the dog went. We talked our memories of him and the pictures we had. We agreed that when we wanted to remember him he was only a picture away or that we could send a little message up to heaven and he would hear it.  To reveal to her at age 4 the existential realities of human existence would be too much and render her insecure in the provision of my care.

When my daughters are mature enough we will deal with these questions together, but for now, I shield them from the insecurity that abounds. For now emotional honesty for the sake of teaching emotions and in learning to ‘face the harsh realities of life’ does not give them the safe base they need to mature and develop.


Copyright Deborah MacNamara, PhD, Kid’s Best Bet – Dr. Deborah MacNamara is a counsellor in private practice and on faculty at the Neufeld Institute. She works with parents, educators, child-care and mental health professionals in making sense of kids from the inside out. See www.macnamara.wpengine.com or www.neufeldinstitute.com for more information.