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The heavy burden of family secrets

I got inspired to write about the theme of secrets and secrecy, when my dear colleague Marilyn Attard and I had a peer consultation supervision session, after we noticed that this theme was prominent in many families and individuals whom we were supporting and working with.

Before we dive further into this article, I encourage you first to reflect on how keeping a secret from the people you love and respect has affected you. Here are some pointers to help you reflect. Did you grow up in a family where secrets were kept from other family members? Were secrets kept away from you? Were you ever asked to keep a secret from everyone else in the family? How has this affected you physically and psychologically?

During my therapeutic work with families, couples, adolescents and children alike, it has emerged that family secrets were an important theme in relation to many problems and symptoms that were presented to me as their therapist. These individuals and families did not consciously realise the impact and effects these secrets have had on their emotional and physical wellbeing until we started working on these issues therapeutically.

First, let’s have a clear understanding of what secrets are exactly. In literature (Bok 1983; Karpel 1980) it is said that secrets are usually defined by their power to conceal and hide information. Therefore, a secret implies intentional concealment of some important information, to the one from whom it is being withheld. A secret differs from the notion of privacy or of confidentiality, which may be defined as protection against undue trespassing by others into what is not directly relevant to them. Family secrets encompass a wide variety of topics referring to family life: artificial procreation, adoption, alcoholism, extramarital affairs, suicides, homicides, incest, mental or physical illnesses, and so on. As Imber-Black (1998) mentioned:

I’ve found it useful to consider whether withholding information impacts another’s life choices, decision-making capacity, and well-being. When it does, then it is secrecy rather than privacy that holds sway… What is truly private doesn’t impact our physical or emotional health

Usually, there are three types of secrets:

  • Individual secrets – only one member of the family knows. For instance, only the mother knows about her extramarital affairs.
  • Internal family secrets – shared by two or more family members, who keep at least one other person in the dark. For example, only the parents know that their daughter was conceived out of wedlock. An especially complex situation arises when a son or daughter is the only one to share a secret with one of his or her parents, as this entails a serious conflict of loyalties.
  • Shared family secrets – secrets shared by the whole nuclear family. These are secrets the family will keep within the family walls and never disclose to an outsider; for instance, no one apart from the nuclear family knows that the father was in prison or that there is abuse at home.

Some might wonder what the motivations behind secrecy in families might be. Shame came out as a powerful motive for keeping secrets. Unfortunately, little do people realise that secrets lead to lies and more secrets, often leading to serious consequences for the psychological well being of individuals. Some of these problems are:

Problems with intimacy

Family secrets have consequences beyond what the secret keepers ever imagined. I have met individuals that were afraid that their partners would get to know their secret (a traumatic episode for example). Thus, they unconsciously avoided forming intimate relationships out of fear that if their partners were to discover this secret, they would reject them.

Distrust and Anger

Keeping family secrets will provide an opportunity for some family members to form a bond between one another, at the expense though that others in the family are excluded. This situation can create distrust and anger in the family system. It becomes even more complicated when one parent asks the child to keep a secret from the other parent.

Children and learning problems

Learning and education are very important for everyone. However, literature shows that maintaining family secrets deeply affects children’s ability to learn. There are instances where adults think that by keeping a secret from the child, they are protecting them, but children are intuitive and are quick to sense changes in tone of voice, facial expressions, and other non-verbal communication indicating that there is a secret. If they have reason to fear asking for information because of parental anger, anxiety and loss of control of emotions, this situation can have a dampening effect on their education.

Somatic Symptoms, when the body speaks

Somatic symptoms are physical symptoms that mask emotional distress. The very nature of the physical presentation of the symptoms hides the distress from its root. I have met clients whose sadness was so overwhelming that they couldn’t walk or speak properly. Another important but little-known theme that I believe needs to be brought to light, is that the secret-keeping culture can be carried on from one generation to another. During my line of work, I became aware of many cases where children were raised in an atmosphere of secrecy. These children in return grew up with a sense that something is wrong, and were afraid to discuss their intuitions with their parents.

Unfortunately, in these families, once secrecy becomes the norm, there is no end to the ways in which information is blocked from flowing. In these situations, children learn to keep secrets from parents, and parents keep secrets from children and from one another. This learning process can be carried over into generations as the children marry and keep secrets from their spouses.

In conclusion, although secrets can be held with the best intentions, often there is a price to pay. Family secrets can seriously affect family relationships. They often create barriers and coalitions and affect family communication. Family members may experience tension, anxiety, loneliness, and stress-related symptoms like sleeplessness and headaches (Imber-Black, 1998). Furthermore, secrets can lead to a developmental deep freeze, which means that when secrets are made between a parent and a child at key points in time during a family’s development, they hinder the child’s natural growth of individuation and independence.


  • Bok, S. (1983). Secrets: On the ethics of concealment and revelation. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Imber-Black, E. (Ed.) (1993). Secrets in families and family therapy. New York: Norton.
  • Imber– Black, E. (1998). The secret life of families. New York: Bantam Books.
  • Karpel, M. (1980). Family secrets. Family Process, 19, 295-306.
Maria Mifsud

About Maria Mifsud

Maria graduated with a Bachelor of Psychology (Hons) in 2008, then went on to read for a Masters in Probation Services at the University of Malta. After years of being part of the Government workforce, she realised that to better understand her clients and be more equipped, she had to further her studies by enrolling in a Masters in Systemic and Family Psychotherapy with IFT-Malta. Some years later, she continued to pursue her studies in Clinical Supervision with IFT-Malta. Maria is also a qualified Victim Offender Mediator.

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