Parents try to protect children from distressing realities, such as illness, death or divorce. But if you don’t talk to them about the difficult stuff, they worry alone …
About a decade ago, a friend I knew and cared about deeply told me that she was having an affair with her child’s best friend’s father. “My God,” I said, swallowing hard. “That’s complicated.”
It was complicated all right. The families lived practically next door and were in and out of each other’s houses all the time. But neither marriage was good. And my friend swore that this was the real thing.
The problem was her daughter. She worshipped her mum, watched her like a hawk. And though she was only six, she was one of those strange, precocious children who gets inside adult heads and roams around, looking for stuff. Like the fact that her mother was madly in love with someone other than her dad.
“You can’t keep lying to her,” I said.
“No, no,” she assured me. “It’s not a problem. She doesn’t suspect a thing.”
I looked at her. “She knows. She doesn’t know what she knows, but she knows.”
And she did. If ever a child knew something was wrong with her family, it was Evie. She had developed a heartbreaking look of puzzlement in the company of her mother, searching her face for answers.
I notice those children now, the ones people lie to. Like all children, they are studying the world, struggling to learn the rules of engagement. Except that, for them, life doesn’t make sense because their instincts are negated. So they begin to twist in an attempt to accommodate a world full of half-truths.
An American woman visiting friends in London a few days after the school massacre in December 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut, asked the friend’s family (two adults, three teenagers) not to refer to Newtown for the duration of their visit and not to turn on the news in case her children might overhear distressing stories. “We’re going to talk to them about it when we feel they can handle it,” she said. Her children were 13 and nine.
I know about lies because at an important juncture in my own family life, my husband and I did not tell our daughter the whole truth, with difficult and enduring consequences.
I had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease that killed my youngest sister and for which my middle sister had just finished treatment. My daughter, Gloria, was seven. “I have cancer. But don’t worry, it’ll be fine,” we told her, failing to take into account her presence at my sister’s funeral a few years earlier. My husband and I didn’t say much more. Gloria didn’t ask any questions. To be honest, we were relieved. It was not at all definite that I would survive, and that’s not a conversation you want to have with a child. I didn’t even have it with my husband.
I went to hospital. And my daughter observed quietly when I returned, post-surgery, with a drain, stitches and bloody bandages, unable to lift my arm more than a few inches.
A week later, there was a second operation, followed by chemotherapy. I looked and felt awful.
It was about six months later that I realised two things. First, that although we’d been all jolly and casual at home about my illness, the other people in her life – her teachers and friends’ parents – were, quite innocently, showing nakedly shocked faces. “I hear your mother has cancer,” they whispered in voices that expressed to a sentient seven-year-old that something very awful indeed was going on. In addition, by not explaining the situation properly, we somehow neglected to make it clear that I was so ill because of the treatment rather than the disease. That was enormous.
Think about it. She heard I had cancer. Within days I was hospitalised. I went bald, lost weight, looked sick and exhausted, my right arm was covered with streaky bruises from the intravenous infusions. She had seen my sister in a similar condition a few months before she died.
Gloria, logically, thought that I was dying.
My husband and I didn’t set out to lie, but we certainly didn’t tell the whole truth. We didn’t tell because she didn’t ask. She didn’t ask because she sensed that it was a difficult subject.
Yet “protecting her” from what was going on turned out to be a gross underestimation of our child’s ability to measure atmosphere, to absorb pain and doubt and worry and convert it into a perfectly reasonable (but wrong) explanation.
Over the next decade, I learned that lies of omission can have consequences as devastating as “real” lies, the ones where you decide not to tell a child he’s adopted or that her sister is really her mother.
During those years, my bold, confident daughter became fearful. She began to experience night terrors, strange waking states in which she’d seem unable to connect and I’d be unable to console her. She became frightened of the dark, frightened of going to sleep, terrified of being the last person awake in the house.
Nowadays, as a writer of books for children and teenagers, I meet a lot of kids between 12 and 18 when I go into schools to talk about books. In those sessions, I started asking what frightened them. Spiders, they said, or death. Or someone close dying. “What about being the last person awake in the house?” I asked. And the reaction of the majority astonished me.
“That’s really scary,” they said.
It’s scary, I discovered, because it means you’re responsible. There’s no adult to help if a burglar comes in, or a monster; if there’s an emergency. It resonates with a bigger fear, the fear that adults won’t always be around to protect you. That your parents will die. That you, someday, will die.
I have no hard evidence that Gloria suffered so badly, and for so long, because of our failure to be more open with her about my cancer. But she remembers being very frightened when I went to hospital, not knowing if I’d come back. And she kept the terror to herself.
There are nights at the theatre you never forget, and one of them was a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts at the National with a then unknown (to me) actor called Simon Russell Beale. He played Oswald, whose father has died of syphilis after a life of alcoholism and debauchery. In the play, his mother sends Oswald away so he won’t ever know the truth about his father, and, particularly, so that he won’t ever follow the same path.
And yet he does. Ghosts always reads to me as a play about the futility of attempting to suppress difficult truths – how it does the opposite of rendering them powerless. The unsaid festers and grows until it infects everyone with poison, or in the case of Oswald and his father, syphilis.
I asked a counsellor who works at Great Ormond Street hospital with young transplant patients how he handles talking to very ill children and traumatised families.
“There are parents who can’t even bear to tell a child he’ll be operated on the next day,” he said. “And that’s really damaging. They think they’re protecting the child, but what they’re really doing is protecting themselves from their own appalling fear of loss.”
Parental fear underlies a great deal of the dishonesty perpetrated in the name of protecting children. I couldn’t survive if something happened to you so I must protect you at all costs, parents think. That’s not about the child, it’s about the parent.
I once wrote about teen suicide, and a lovely, articulate teenage girl emailed in response, saying she understood what it felt like to self harm and attempt suicide. She did both on a regular basis. “Have you talked to your parents?” I asked.
“I tried to tell my mother,” she said, “but she started to cry. She’s been under a lot of pressure with my depression and I don’t want to upset her more.”
Lies lead to more lies. The child who senses that the parent can’t cope with her vulnerability will hide the truth. Which leads to a situation in which communication shuts down altogether. Not that the pain of children can always be solved. It can’t. Any more than it can for adults. But the cases that chill me to the marrow are the “happy, well-adjusted” children who suddenly hang themselves, leaving desperate messages behind. What’s hidden will grow into a monster.
There is a theory that children’s literature should uphold the idyll of childhood, offering charming scenarios and happy endings to protect the innocent from life’s harsh realities. But children have extraordinary antennae for the things no one will explain. If a child has enough imagination to conjure dragons and monsters under the bed, he has enough imagination to figure out that something adults won’t talk about must be truly terrifying. Sex, for instance, divorce or death. And that’s where literature can help – by exploring the scary stuff with insight and, on a good day, wisdom.
Gloria’s wonderful primary school headteacher once told me that at about age seven to nine, kids start to change, emotionally. They start to separate from their parents, start thinking about death, worrying about being grown up. When I was about that age, I lay in bed, night after night, frozen with terror at the concept of eternal nothingness. I told no one, so no one told me that it’s possible to combat the fear of death with a life well-lived, that death can be a relief and a release, not just a terrifying conclusion.
If you don’t talk to kids about the difficult stuff, they worry alone.
I wish we’d talked to my daughter about my cancer. She was young, but she wasn’t stupid. It took a very long time for her to lose her fear of the dark, of being awake when all the grownups are asleep. Sixteen now, she’s wonderfully independent, funny, thoughtful and brave. Do you ever think about me having cancer? I ask her now. Does it ever worry you? “Not really,” she says. “But I worry about getting cancer myself.” That, given our family history, is perfectly reasonable.
And what about Evie and her mother? My friend came out with the truth soon after we spoke. Both couples have since divorced, both sets of children travel between the various families and everyone involved seems to have reconciled with reasonable equanimity to the change.
Give a child an unpalatable truth and she will figure out a way to process it. But “protect” her and the ghosts will whisper in her ear.