It is true that every family has its secrets; however, it is the content of the secret that really counts.

Secrets can be small and insignificant, (planning a surprise birthday celebration or a trip to Disneyland for spring break). Those types of secrets — and their keepers — cause no harm.

On the other hand, traumatic, painful, or life-changing secrets potentially can damage an entire family’s mental health and well-being for some time.

So should you keep your family’s secrets? Here’s why it might be harmful to continue doing so.

The most frequently kept secrets within a family include, but are not limited to, finances, serious health issues and death, and impending divorce.

While keeping a family secret from the outside world may be advisable in some instances for privacy or protection, keeping secrets within the family can prove problematic. Here are five reasons why:

  1. Keeping secrets can destroy relationships.

    Keeping secrets within a marriage, or any significant adult relationship, can cause a breakdown in communication. The bond between the adults may be irreparably harmed, causing harm to any children as well.

  2. Keeping secrets can affect children’s lives.

    Keeping secrets from children should be carefully thought through. Children are extremely perceptive and may become alarmed or anxious if they sense something of a serous nature is being hidden from them. The most damaging scenario, as is sometimes the case, would be if one or more children in the family believe that they are somehow personally responsible for whatever undercurrent is going on in the home.

  3. Keeping secrets can cause suspicion and resentment.

    Keeping secrets within a family can ignite feelings of suspicion and resentment among family members. We would all like to believe that those closest to us can be trusted, that those we love and respect say what they mean, and that what they say is truthful. Trust is severely compromised when family members learn that a secret, especially one that is compounded by a lie, has been hidden from them.

  4. Keeping secrets can create a false sense of reality.

    Keeping secrets within a family can create a false sense of reality, especially among children. Children learn about the world from the adults in their lives. When eventually told the truth, either by a parent, or even worse by someone outside the family, their world may feel shattered.Secrets’ impact on children can be profound, regardless of their age. Parents who habitually keep secrets from their children should keep in mind the possibility that such behavior could very well be repeated in future generations.

  5. Keeping secrets can cause illness.

    Keeping traumatic secrets can result in excessive stress and guilt for the person carrying the burden of knowledge, even when that silence is thought to be the best possible option for all concerned. Physical symptoms such as anxiety, headaches, backaches, and digestive problems often can occur when disturbing secrets are internalized, rather than shared, especially over a long period of time. Persons harboring such discomfort often turn to alcohol, or other addictive substances, to mask their pain. It is important to remember that both the person keeping the secret, as well as those who live with the secret-keeper, including young children, can experience similar physical and mental health issues.

At what age should family secrets be shared with children? Choosing the right time and place to reveal a devastating or painful family secret is a difficult task for most parents and must be carefully done, ideally with the help of a mental health professional.

In the case of very young children, they need not know the details of long-held secrets that don’t directly involve them until they are capable of understanding exactly what they are being told. By adolescence, some family secrets can safely be revealed, depending on the maturity level of the young person in question.

And certainly by the time children reach adulthood, they are entitled to know most of the family secrets that have been kept from them, yet influenced their lives in ways both known and unknown.

Filling in the missing puzzle pieces of a family’s history, current or past, is an adult responsibility and one that should not be taken lightly. All of us long to feel whole, to understand why we are the way we are. Secrets that fester, unspoken and misunderstood, can erode the very foundation of a family, sometimes beyond repair.