Talking to Your Child about Your Past

Will you have the words when your child puts you in the “hot seat”?

Kids have always said the darnedest things. But, today they are asking even more frank and personal questions about their parents’ past lives than in previous generations, thanks to curiosity prompted by the Internet and social media. Our children are the Facebook Generation. Each and every sordid detail of their personal lives are routinely posted for all peers to see. Also easily accessible to them are scandalous details of popular celebrities and politicians, whose poor life decisions can powerfully influence vulnerable minds.

There is not one fool-proof way to respond to a child’s curiosity. Factors depend on the parent’s personality (and past!), the child’s developmental age and stage, and current social circumstances.

There is also a common concern that if you come clean and share the sordid details of your past, you run the risk of showing your child that it’s fine to experiment because you did and you survived.

You are free to tell the whole truth and you are free to NOT answer your child’s questions directly without being deceptive. The key is to be prepared:


Sex and drug education is one thing, but past deeds and indiscretions can be trickier. It’s not the gory details that help children, it’s the open conversation about the topic at hand. Say to your child, “I will always tell you the truth about any and every topic you and I discuss….and if i don’t know the answer, I will research it and get back to you.”

It appears that children’s decisions have very little to do with what parents say. Instead, it has to do with how involved parents are to perceive the struggles their children are having below the surface!

David Sheff, author of “Beautiful Boy,” thought he did everything right when raising his son, Nic, who was dangerously addicted to drugs for years, by being straightforward and honest. He focused on convincing his son that he knew what he was talking about by sharing his own personal experiences with drug use. What did he miss? His son, Nic, was struggling with depression and insecurity; he hid these vulnerable stresses from the adults in his life. Plus, this then-divorcing father was struggling over custody issues and chose to see what he wanted to see in his son, Nic. The author says, “I was in parent denial.”

School administrators and teachers universally agree that when they bring to a parent’s attention concern over troubles a child may be facing, most parents don’t want to hear it. Most parents get defensive and even blame other children or teachers for the behavior…instead of what’s needed: “Thank you for sharing your concern…now, together, what can we do?”


We do not want shame to contaminate our responses to our children. Take some time to reflect on your own feelings about your past and remember that whatever you choose to share with your child, listen carefully to determine what your child really wants to know. Details are rarely helpful. It’s not about YOU. It’s about THEM.

When your younger child asks you about when you lost your virginity, you can say, “Wow. I’m impressed that you’re obviously starting to think about some of these important, major life decisions. I need some time to determine if and when my past experiences might be helpful to you…but in the meantime, can we talk about all the factors, curiosity and consequences involved with such a major decision?”

Depending on your sexual past, you may also be in a position to honestly say, “I waited until marriage to have sex and I am so glad that I did because now I can attend my high school reunions and look every boy I dated in high school in the eye without any shame or regret. My wish for you and your happiness is that you will also decide to hold sex as sacred. Regardless of your questions and decisions, I am here for you.”

Or, stall for time by saying, “Now is not the best time for us to talk about this; can we schedule a personal discussion this weekend when we can have some uninterrupted time together?”

It’s also fine to admit to regret and lessons learned. If a less-than-flattering detail comes up about your past, and extended family members are notorious for spilling the beans, convey your regret. Say “Yes, when I was 12, I stole something. It was a huge mistake and I would never do it again because the guilt it caused ate me up inside. I wouldn’t want you to ever experience that kind of pain.”


The truth about a topic doesn’t have to mean YOUR personal truth. It is fine, even necessary, to have and model appropriate boundaries.

I was SO inquisitive as a child…curious about relationships, decision-making, and life choices; I’m sure it’s why I chose to become a psychologist. Throughout my childhood, my mother had always been open to any and all conversations. One day, however, I took it too far and I asked her about something far too personal about my parents’ marriage. And she calmly, kindly said, “Elizabeth, now THAT is none of your business.” She was certainly right! At the same time, I knew I could ask her anything about the topic of sex in general and she would be truthful.

Teach your child what comes along naturally with the generational gap is the generational boundary. Feel free to take on the role of parenting expert and kindly say, “The reality is parents are not entirely open books to their offspring….even when they have nothing to hide. It’s part of the generational boundary. Let’s focus on all the facts you need for god decision-making.”


We teach children about privacy when we teach them to cover their bodies, say no to inappropriate touching or closing the door when they use the restroom. When we make major life decisions, however, they often don’t stay private because the end result is public! Teenage pregnancy: A public, obvious outcome to a private, personal decision. DUI: A public consequence to another personal decision. Reputation: Decisions we make at a party, to participate or not participate in certain behaviors, attach themselves to our character and can last forever even after a new and better decision has been made.


Remind your child that their life and your daily decisions are in THEIR hands. THEY write the script to their own life by the little and big decisions they make every day. You can say to your children, “I absolutely want the best for you…and yet I will not always be with you at every turn….but you will! And you get to choose the course of your life. Some of your decisions will be life altering; one way or the other. What do YOU want for you?”

Continually remind your child that decisions are in their control…no matter the social circumstances of whether or not “everybody else is doing it!” They are powerful beings with their own minds and directives.

BOTTOMLINE: Whatever you choose to tell your child, explain your current family rules, goals and values. The best antidote for drugs, drinking and premarital sexual activity is NOT what you tell your child about your past but what you do to be a present, “hands-on” parent. To build and maintain a healthy and respectful relationship with your children, monitor what they do and consume, set certain rules based on your values, and keep the communication flowing.