Dear Carolyn: I was emotionally and sexually abused by my stepfather from the age of 15 to 18, when I became pregnant by him. I kept my daughter and moved away from that side of my family, who wanted to sweep it all under a rug. I live with my father and stepmother now. My father had moved away and I didn’t really see him much until this happened, but he took me in. I’m still working through all of this with a therapist.
My daughter is 4 now and asking questions about her father. I planned to tell her that someone did provide the other half of her DNA along with mine, but that the person who provides it is not always meant to be your family. I will say he was not nice enough to be her dad and some people just aren’t nice.
My therapist is suggesting I don’t tell her that right now, but I disagree. She’s a good therapist but I feel she’s wrong on this one.
Or maybe she’s not, but I’m very big on honesty so I can’t see myself lying to my daughter and saying her dad can’t be a part of her life “right now,” when he can’t be a part of her life ever.
I will make sure my daughter knows that one part of her DNA does not define her, she is not “bad” because she is half “made” of a bad person. She will choose what type of person to be and that’s the important thing. Is my plan a good one?
Anonymous: What a horrific experience. I am so sorry you’ve had to go through this.
As healing as honesty might seem, a 4-year-old is not ready for that. Please trust your therapist. You are an expert in your daughter, but a mental health professional is more of an expert in what 4-year-olds can handle cognitively and emotionally.
You know what you’re trying to say, and why — to protect her. To your ear it’s fine. However, to a child’s ear, much of your explanation will sound like a foreign language, and so the bits she does understand — “bad,” for example — will come to her without context. Your plan involves too many things that require too much background knowledge and emotional sophistication for her to process at her age.
Kids fill in the blanks of what they don’t understand with their own stories, not yours. That’s how you can harm her without meaning to or even knowing you’ve done it.
And this is why therapists versed in child development are such a valuable resource when it comes to deciding whether, when, how, and how much to share a difficult truth with kids. Experts can help you find words — and ways to say them — that are not only true, but also developmentally appropriate for a child to hear.
Note too that your plan reflects what is important not to your daughter, but to you: “I’m very big on honesty.” Given the betrayal by your stepfather — who I wish they’d swept right into the criminal justice system — this is understandable, as you fight for your emotional life and take earned pride in living by your principles.
But you can still do that while also making your daughter’s emotional well-being your top priority.
Again, do trust and heed your therapist, at least enough to discuss thoroughly with her what a child of 4 needs to know and even can know — and then use that as your lens for seeing the best course of action for you both.