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I'm afraid someone else will tell our three young children that they have a half-sister

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When should a secret be revealed? (Picture posed.)

When should a secret be revealed? (Picture posed.)

When should a secret be revealed? (Picture posed.)

MY HUSBAND and I have three children aged 10, nine and five.

My husband also has a daughter from a previous relationship. He was not involved in her upbringing. He has tried to make contact in the later years and, unfortunately, she does not want to speak to him.

Our children don't know about her. My husband is not keen to tell them about her, but I think they should be told.

A lot of people know this and my fear is that they would hear it from someone else.

What do you think we should do?

David Colman replies: I CAN understand your husband's lack of enthusiasm for telling your children about their half-sister.

He has made some efforts to contact his daughter, to get to know her, and so far she has been unwilling to reciprocate. He may be very upset about this.

From his point of view, then, he may have already decided that he will never know his other daughter and so she will never be part of his life, or part of your family.

In those circumstances, it is easy to see why he may be reluctant to upset the status quo in your own family. Why create an issue that may never be an issue? What your children don't know can't hurt them.

However, I do think you have a valid concern. It is very possible that someone else in your extended family will let the cat out of the bag about this half-sister.

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I can then understand your worry about your children hearing some news, that would be probably very shocking for them, from someone other than you and your husband.

Depending on who they hear it from, or where they are when they hear it, they may or may not feel confident about approaching you or your husband to talk about what they have heard. They may feel this is a secret that they too have to carry.

They may be confused or upset that you never told them and may even feel betrayed by you and their dad, that you didn't trust them with the information.

I think it may be harder to deal with their emotional responses if they hear the news from someone else first.

On balance, then, I err on the side of you and your husband, together, telling them. There are many benefits to you both being the ones to tell them. In the first instance, you will be able to control the time and place that they are told. This means you can choose a time that is relatively settled in your family, when there is little else taking up emotional space and energy. This then allows you to take the time with the children to help them process and make sense of what they are hearing.

You can also talk to them in an environment in which they feel relaxed and comfortable. So, whether it is a family room in the house, or their bedroom, they stand a better chance of feeling secure and safe, even with hearing what might be some destabilising news.

You can also choose to tell all three together or to talk to each separately, or to just talk to the older two, for now, and then to tell your younger child when he or she is a bit older.

The most significant benefit of you telling them directly is that you will be able to judge their reaction, in the moment. So, whether they are shocked, upset, excited or confused, you can be ready to empathise and reassure.

We can speculate about the kinds of issues that might be important for them, such that you can be prepared for some of the questions they may ask or the issues that may be relevant for them.

For example, they may be worried about their personal family circumstances changing. Will they have to give up a bedroom? Will they be displaced in your, or your husband's, love in favour of this older sister?

They may be cross that they never knew before now, or that, as they might perceive it, you and their dad kept this girl a secret from them.

Discovering that they have an older sister may also be exciting for them, and they may be disappointed that they won't, actually, get to know her right now, since she is unwilling to reciprocate the contact that her dad is making (which, in fairness, is entirely her choice). Once your own children know, though, it also frees up the opportunities for their dad to be more public and up front in his desire to know all of his children.

My preteen cried when I spoke of the girl he likes

MY SON is 10-years-old and I know he likes a girl in his class. He told me before.

Recently, when it was her birthday, she invited him to her party.

I discreetly said to him that it was nice that she had invited him.

I also mentioned that he had told me before that he liked her.

He got extremely upset and cried and walked out of the room. How do I deal with this?

David Colman replies: Your first step is to try to work out why you think he might have become upset. I could imagine several reasons.

Perhaps he had mentioned to you, in confidence, that he liked this girl, but expected that you would keep the matter private and to yourself unless he brought it up again. So now, because you raised it, he may feel like he doesn't have control of this information any more.

Or, perhaps he perceived from your tone of voice that you were teasing or mocking him for liking this girl? Many parents think it is quite sweet when their preteens have crushes. The fact that we think it might be cute, or charming, can often come across to them as belittling the feelings that our children have.

Maybe he picked up a tone of disapproval, or some sense that you were cross or upset with him for liking the girl.

Perhaps he was simply embarrassed if he felt that you were hinting that he had sexual feelings for the girl in his class and he just didn't want to acknowledge that, with you, at that moment.

While 10-year-olds are, very definitely, sexual beings, they typically don't express much of their sexuality. Indeed, we often call this preteen age the "latency period", since children often hide away, or subsume any sexual feelings.

To be honest, it is quite okay that children do this. They definitely don't have the maturity and complexity of emotional skill required to deal with sexual relationships, in tandem with their friendships.

A further possibility for why your son became so distressed, is that he told another friend he liked her and has been teased about it since, leaving him uncomfortable and a bit emotionally exposed.

Hopefully, you can identify whether he felt embarrassed, felt teased (by you or someone else), felt disapproved of or felt caught off guard by you mentioning about his liking this girl.

Then you can empathise with those feelings, showing him that you can understand. You can also reassure him that you aren't minimising or belittling his feelings, nor do you disapprove of him and what he feels.

Beyond that, there is little else you need to do to help repair this small glitch with your son.

As parents we can often feel this dilemma about whether to wait until our children ask about sex and relationships, or whether to proactively try to talk to them about sex and relationships.

Generally, when they are young, before the age of 10 or 11, it is best to just respond as honestly as possible, to their inquisitiveness about bodies, sex or terminology that they may have heard with their peers.

But, your son is a good example of that preteen age where it probably makes good sense to equip children with some information about friendships, relationships, attraction and sexual terminology.

Beyond discussions about friendships and relationships, we need to remember that our society is becoming more sexualised through ads, music videos and more explicit sexual imagery in movies and on the Internet.

I think it helps children to have some context within which they can make sense of what they are exposed to.

In your situation, the ideal time to initiate such a chat was when he brought up his liking for the girl the first time. That was an opportunity to explore with him, what "liking" means to him.

It then provides that perfect avenue to discuss issues of attraction and friendships with the opposite sex.

Depending on what "liking" means to him, you could also have used it as an opportunity to talk about sex, in the context of relationships.

The key thing is to just remain sensitive to them and their needs. When the chat happens on their terms, in response to their enquiries, it is often easier.

If we initiate the chat then we have to recognise that sometimes they just don't want to engage in that kind of conversation just now.


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