What to Tell Your Children about Your Past

To tell the truth or not?

  • Are you a hypocrite if you don’t fess up to your teens about your past behavior and if you force them to obey rules that you did not obey?

  • Or are you sanctioning behavior on their part if you do tell them about your past behavior?

hippie busChances are when your teens say: “You don’t understand what life is like today” – you do understand.  Many parents today have in fact “been there and done that” to some degree: 

  • alcohol,
  • drugs,
  • sex,
  • or other risky or wild behavior.


How can you use the knowledge and wisdom gained from your past indiscretions to help your children?

As you are deciding how you want to handle this question of how much to reveal, it is important to remember that one of the developmental jobs of teens is to formulate their own value systems. 

One of the ways they do this is by looking at the adults around them, especially their parents, to see what the adults say they value, how they act, and how closely these adults behave in accordance with the values they espouse.  Most often, “do as I say, not as I do (or did)” simply does not work; more likely, it backfires.


Myths about “total” honesty – is it always the best policy?

Revealing all is often not in the best interests of teens. Reasons that some parents give for being fully honest with their children just don’t hold up.

“I demand honesty from my children. It is only fair that I be honest with them.”

It is possible for people to have an honest relationship without full disclosure.  As your child matures, she won’t share all the intimate details of her life; you should be entitled to some intimate details about your life that you can keep private.  It is a way to model to teens the importance of personal boundaries.


“I should tell them the truth because I hate lying.”

Refusing to discuss every detail about your past is not lying.  You can give your children an edited version of any youthful acting out and risk-taking you may have engaged in.  

Remember that it is best to hold off experimentation as long as is possible since the impact and likelihood of harm or addiction are reduced as children wait to try drugs, alcohol, tobacco and sex.

honestyThere is such a thing as giving out too much information too soon.  Later, when your children are older and able to handle things better and understand things more, when their value system is in place, when their impulse control and judgment are better, and when the fears and consequences of too early experimentation are past, you can tell them more of the truth, if you wish. 

Right now, when your children are teens, protecting them is the most important consideration.

Whether you answer yes or no to your teen about whether you did something or didn’t, the discussion will be focused on you.  Better to ask: “Why do you ask?  Do you know of kids who are smoking?” Her question is a cue that something is bothering her.  What you did in the past is less important to her than how she is going to deal with her life now.

Denying to answer queries may frustrate him, but it will improve your chances of discouraging behavior of which you disapprove.


“I think it is important that they see me as human and not perfect.”

Our children know all too well that we are human, and they are usually quick to point that out to us.  We make enough mistakes in our present day-to-day life to point up that fact.  Why would they need more evidence? 

If you need to confess your sins, do it with a friend, a therapist, a clergy person, not your child: it could shake their sense of security and safety.   They are still children and we need to shelter them.


“I will be honest with my child so she will learn from my mistakes.”

This thinking is a fallacy on three fronts:

  • Since teens believe they are invincible, they think that “it won’t happen to me.”  They think they are immune from the consequences of risky behavior.

  • Teens are not able to empathize and identify with us because they can’t imagine us as being young.

  • Not only is sharing some of our misbehaviors with them unlikely to convince them not to do the same; it could well encourage them to try, thinking “If he did that and got away with it, and survived, then I can too.”

Teens are not inclined to learn from our mistakes, and we don’t want to give them what they may interpret as sanction to make their own.


If your child already knows the truth (or thinks he does):

  • Find out what he knows.

  • Find out the source of the information (may be from someone you know who exaggerates).

  • Just the facts – don’t go into long explanations, just “I did try drugs when I was in college.  It was not a good experience.”

  • Don’t lecture – they won’t benefit from lectures about you being older and wiser.  You can use contemporary figures (rock stars who have overdosed).

  • Use outside sources – people you trust to say the right thing.

  • Focus on the differences between now and then– for example, we know more about the dangers of smoking, drugs, alcohol; there wasn’t AIDS when you were young.


Keep in mind your ultimate goals:

  • keeping your children safe

  • remaining a rock of security during this tumultuous time in their lives

  • helping them to formulate healthy values, good judgment and the wisdom to take good care of themselves.


As you decide what to tell your teen about your past, remember that lies of omission and focusing on their current issues rather than on your past can help you to accomplish this most important job.



For more information about raising a teen, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.

Yes, Your Teen is Crazy by Bradley Uncommon Sense for Parents of Teenagers by Riera The Roller Coaster Years by Giannetti and Sagarese The Second Family by Taffel Raising a Teenager by Elium How to Hug a Porcupine - Negotiating the Prickly Points of the Tween Years by Ross You and Your Adolescent by Steinberg

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